Handling Your Church’s Finances with Transparency and Integrity
How we spend money reveals what we value. Jesus tells us:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matt. 6:19–21)
How churches spend the money entrusted to them should matter greatly to believers. And yet, we find ourselves living in a world where it’s hard to talk about money. We get squeamish when the topic of money comes up. Should it be the same way in the church?
Jesus didn’t shy away from talking about money. In fact, we see in the Gospels that of his thirty-nine parables, eleven of them talk about money.
How should this shape the way we think and talk about how the church spends the Lord’s money?
Several years ago, I found myself handling finances and administration for a rapidly growing church with multiple campuses. During that time, I saw the pastors take on a private posture when handling the church’s finances. There was no transparency, which meant there was no accountability. Even between staff and lay elders, there was a tremendous lack of transparency regarding how church finances were being handled and how money was being spent. Unfortunately, this led to ballooning operating expenses that regularly outpaced the church’s giving. We were consistently operating in the red. To make matters worse, there were obvious areas where we could and should have pulled back spending.
Again, how we spend money reveals what we value.
Pastors often caution their church members about the dangers of money. But pastors themselves aren’t immune. When Jesus warns us about our hearts and our treasures, he’s not condemning money in and of itself, but rather the greediness that so easily grabs our hearts and convinces us money is all we need.
Church members tithe their hard-earned money; they give sacrificially, trusting those in charge that their gifts will be stewarded to serve God’s kingdom. When we give, we’re not just investing our money; we’re investing our allegiance. And we’re trusting that the elders in charge of stewarding the church’s finances are doing so with the utmost integrity.
Jesus is the perfect example of a man of integrity. He is faultless, sincere, righteous, and without blemish. We are called to be imitators of Christ in all we do (Eph. 5:1). That includes modeling his integrity in our handling of money.
To that end, here are three basic principles that I’m convinced lead to a healthy financial culture, especially in a local church.
1. Lean into transparency.
Churches should lean into transparency about how money is allocated and spent. A church should be transparent not only about its intentions but its actions. In other words, yes, the budget should be visible to church members. But also should a regularly updated report that offers a snapshot of recent spending and giving. These practices create accountability. Sometimes, there may be a thoughtful reason for not sharing a specific detail; but generally speaking, make as much information available as possible. Transparency is a core building block of trust; it communicates that leaders are committed to faithfully stewarding the church’s resources—not merely saying that intend to.
This kind of transparency invites everyone to observe how God is advancing his kingdom through faithful giving of your fellow church members. It reminds us that giving is meant to lead to worship. Just as we teach our members how to pray by praying together on Sunday mornings, we also teach our members how to view their money by faithfully spending the resources entrusted to the church.
When money is handled properly, those handling the finances should count it a joy and privilege to share the details of what the church is doing with spending their money. It’s an incredible opportunity to paint a picture for the entire congregation of how God is using their sacrificial giving in both big and small ways.
A Litmus Test of Transparency
For pastors who are committed to building a healthy financial culture, administer a quick litmus test by asking how much your current staff feels they can share about how the church’s money is spent. Do they feel like there are things they need to hide in order to protect the image of one or more of the pastors? If so, that is dangerously problematic.
Trust starts with transparency. Transparency enables accountability.
2. Invite accountability.
Church leaders should share details about the church’s budget, and then create opportunities for members to ask questions. This goes a long way in building a healthy financial culture.
Why? First of all, because it forces church leaders to remain humble. A church member might ask a question that reveals areas in the budget that could use prayerful reconsideration. When church leaders are open to adjusting something as important as how the church spends money, it provides a powerful example of the body of Christ working together.
When spending is not treated with integrity, church leaders will be tempted to get defensive when members start to ask questions. I saw this happen firsthand. When members’ questions started to reveal too much about the wayward spending of the church, they were accused of lacking trust and faith in their leaders.
What a shame. Elders should gladly welcome questions about the budget as an additional layer of accountability that protects their own hearts from the pitfalls of greed.
Lastly, inviting accountability sets the stage to develop internal controls for checks and balances. Putting appropriate safeguards in place gives peace of mind that those handling the church’s finances are guided by integrity.
3. Commit to moderation.
In the summer of 2012, the church where I handled finances and administration had undertaken a $2 million dollar construction and renovation project. We were highly leveraged, and week over week, more and more money was going out to pay for both expected and unexpected expenses associated with the project.
At one point, the senior pastor told me not to worry about our burgeoning expenses, that I should rest like a Calvinist, knowing God is in control.
Quite right, God is in control. And yet, we are not passive bystanders to the work God is doing in and around us. It’s not mere coincidence that Jesus spent so much time talking about money. He knew that money makes an alluring ruler that tries to convince us it’s more valuable than the greatest gift we’ve been given: eternal life through Jesus Christ.
In the years since that exchange, I’ve reflected a lot on why it was so unsettling. In the end, I’ve come to see that even the best intentions can be clouded when we allow our love of money, power, and image to overshadow our love for God. When money takes hold of our hearts, we are tempted to dismiss the stronghold it has over us, and we convince ourselves that our worldly desires are somehow righteous. After all, the excessive spending habits I saw firsthand were touted as if they were for the advancement of the kingdom.
How much more powerful it would have been if the senior pastor had committed to pulling back spending, working together with my team and the board of elders to cut costs, rather than defaulting to another sermon series on money and giving. Maybe we didn’t actually need to spend a quarter of a million dollars on a state-of–the-art speaker system. Perhaps the $75,000 system would have worked just fine. Maybe we didn’t need to spend $50,000 a year on coffee and coffee equipment to prove we were a “hospitable” church. Perhaps we just needed to define hospitality biblically.
Of course, this example is not meant to suggest that we should question every decision made by elders who have proven themselves to be trustworthy. Those of us working in a diaconal capacity need to prayerfully balance asking questions with our call to submit to faithful elder leadership. The point here is that elders and deacons can commit to moderation, and both have a role to play in committing the church’s resources.
As a general principle, I’d encourage churches to commit to moderation when it comes to how we spend money. We simply cannot properly value the kingdom of God and at the same time be driven by self-centered, thing-oriented spending.
How we spend money reveals what we value. And I pray your church’s spending reveals that your greatest treasure is Christ himself and his gift of forgiving, transforming grace.