Mailbag #25: Thinking through Church Budgets; My Congregation Demands an “Altar Call”; Tricky Membership Situation

Mailbag
12.22.2015

Thinking through Church Budgets »
My Congregation Demands an “Altar Call” »
Tricky Membership Situation »

Hey 9Marks,

My church is going through the budgeting process, and we have a finance committee that plays a large role in the process. It has many business-savvy people who seem to think mostly about how to leverage the church’s money in a way that accords with standard business practices. As pastors, we are trying to figure out a way to lead them to know God’s goals for his church so that they can more effectively look at the budget through his eyes and not their own.

Also, we are in the middle of transitioning to become an elder-led church, so we run the risk of suspicion when we speak into “what’s best” for the budget and the allocation of finances. How do you lead a church through thinking through the budget in a way that obeys God? Further, how do you do this in a way that is “above-reproach” when leading the overall church through polity change?

Thank you,

—Timothy, New England

Timothy,

In answer to your first question about business people on the finance committee, it occurs to me that you should listen to their common grace wisdom about handling money well. And the business people should listen to your pastoral wisdom about handling and spending money by faith. You both need each other!

I asked Jamie Dunlop, the associate pastor at my church responsible for its administrative affairs, for his two cents on your question. He gave me two very helpful lists for how you might err in one direction or the other. Here’s Dunlop:

Top five ways pastors “over-spiritualize” church finances and wrongly ignore the advice of those who are business-savvy:

1) Assume that a church should never hold money in savings. Savings (or a line of credit) is necessary to manage cash flow through the year—unless you expect to receive the exact same income every week of the year.

2) Use church staff positions as benevolence—hiring people because of their needs rather than the skills they have to offer.

3) Push for unrealistic income expectations in their budgets, arguing that we should have faith. God has nowhere promised to give your church more money next year than he did this year. Deciding to push for an aggressive budget increase should be a pastoral decision of how much your people need to be stretched; sometimes budgeting “in faith” means being content with no budget increase, trusting that God can do all he wants through our church without more money.

4) Insist that the church not stick to a budget so that they can be open to the Spirit’s leading through the year. In fact, the Holy Spirit is fully capable of guiding us through our wisdom and planning at the beginning of the year.

5) Underspend on “unspiritual things” like facilities and staff salaries in order to give more to missions. Over the course of decades, your church will likely do far more for missions if your core ministry is healthy—meaning your facility is maintained adequately and your staff are comfortably compensated. Pay your staff well enough that they can be generous—and hire staff you trust to be generous if you pay them more than they need.

Top five ways the business-savvy wrongly prioritize good business over biblical wisdom in managing church finances:

1) Seek to measure ministry. For example, they want to pay the pastor based on how fast he grows the church; or fund missionaries only if they meet a baptism goal for the year. When we seek to manage what only the Holy Spirit can do, we tempt people to build “ministry” that is not dependent on God.

2) Push for extravagant investment in programs and facilities, assuming that these “investments” will attract more people and pay for themselves. People who join your church merely because it has better childcare facilities are not the “gospel growth” God wants in your church.

3) Underpay staff—especially support staff. “The worker is worthy of his wages” should be our guide in setting compensation. It serves no one to deliberately underpay someone simply because they are “doing ministry.”

4) Hoard money for a rainy day. A church must recognize that if people stop giving, it probably means that they should scale back what they spend or shut down the church. God does not need that particular local church for his plans to prevail. Often, bloated savings accounts merely allow bad ministry to continue for years after it should have starved itself.

5) Cultivate high-value givers through special favors and attention. Giving is a special relationship between the giver and God, for “God loves a cheerful giver.” We should not destroy that relationship with carnal motivations for giving.

Again, all that’s Dunlop. Very wise, I think. As for your question about transition, I have a hard time answering apart from knowing the specifics. But in general, you need to teach and teach and teach your church how to think about money well, both in their personal budgets and in the church budget. Money is an awkward topic, but never mind that. Fearlessly teach what Scripture teaches. And, yes, the elders should establish the church’s budget priorities. Get counsel, but you should be the ones recommending a budget to the congregation. Accountability comes from two places: the church, assuming it gives final approval to the budget; and a finance committee or something of the sort, who can make staff salary recommendations.

There is a lot more to say here, but the answer is already too long!

Dear 9Marks,

Since coming on as pastor in my present church, I have been preaching expositionally. I don’t do a traditional invitation, and this has gotten me into some trouble. Every week I get hate mail and multiple complaints about not doing an invitation and not “opening up the altar” for people to pray. I have very intentionally stayed after the service along with a staff member and a deacon to talk and pray with anybody who needs such a thing. But because I have not had the music leader sing “Just As I Am” for 15 minutes at the end of each service, I get a lot of pushback. From the very beginning I told them where I stood on this issue and why. I showed them from Scripture why I landed where I do, and that was sufficient for many. But another group still wants their altar call.

What do I do? Do I keep teaching and explaining from Scripture? Do I ignore all the emails and only address the people that speak to me in person? Do I try to find some sort of middle ground? 

—Nick, Texas

A few thoughts:

1) Altar calls exploit the emotions of the moment and produce false professions. Don’t do them. Instead, explain to the disgruntled members that people should make professions of faith in precisely the same manner they did for 1800 years before there were such a thing as altar calls—through baptism.

2) But . . . do invitations every week! That is, invite people to repent and believe throughout your sermons. And continue making yourself and others available after the service for anyone who wants to talk.

3) Share the gospel throughout the week, and encourage a culture of evangelism in your church. Along these lines, feature stories and testimonies of evangelism both in your sermons and in your prayer meeting (if you have one). If you have a reputation for being an evangelist and for helping others to evangelize, the complainers will have less of a leg to stand on.

4) Like the widow with the unjust judge, pray continuously that God would bring people to salvation!

5) Try to share meals with and build a relationship with the disgruntled set. If they learn to like you personally (even in spite of themselves), they’ll have a harder time opposing you publicly.

6) In some cases, sure, send them warm and encouraging and short email replies, but don’t let the conversation go beyond one or two exchanges. Tell them, “Sounds like a great conversation to have in person!” Or just pick up the phone and call them.

7) Never become defensive or argumentative, which requires you to not feel threatened, but to trust that the Lord has given you your ministry, and he will sustain it precisely as long as he means to sustain it. And work to love this crowd.

8) Don’t complain about this group to others, even close friends or your fellow leaders.

I pray this is useful, and that your church would grow in boldness in evangelism, and that many would get saved.

Dear 9Marks,

There is an older married couple living in a town next to us who wish to join our church. The trouble is, both are very ill (he is dying; she is going through chemotherapy) and cannot leave home. They were members of another church, but left over doctrinal issues. God providentially brought a member of our church, who is a nurse, to care for them. She has done wonderfully. Three of our elders have also visited them and cared for them, even having a one-time Bible study with them. Others in our church have served them in meals and cleaning. They have been loved, and have fallen in love with our people.

Now, they wish to join our church. They desire pastoral oversight, accountability, the opportunity to give, and a church family to care for this man’s wife when he passes.

What do you think?

—David, Michigan

David,

Before I encourage you to let them join your church, let me explain why you are right to have pause. The act of gathering together is a constituent part of a church becoming a church and a member becoming a member (see Matt. 18:20; 1 Cor. 5:4; 11:18a). No gathering, no church. And no attending, no member . . . ordinarily. Without physical presence, we cannot fulfill everything else it means to be a church: preaching and listening, exhorting and encouraging, serving and keeping one another accountable through the ordinances.

I want to be explicit about this principle, because many of our evangelical friends forget it, and then they do crazy things like start multi-site churches, declare themselves members through the internet, keep members on the roles who have not attended in years, or run away with the circus.

Having enunciated the general principle, let me now admit that I’m willing to entertain exceptions. You can give this couple an irregular form of membership, provided that members of the church are willing to continue doing what you said they were doing: making regular visits, opening the Scriptures, offering accountability, and so forth. Plus, I would encourage the couple to listen to the sermons on your website, if they are able.

In other words, church membership depends upon making covenantal commitments to one another through the ordinances in the context of a gathering (see Matt. 28:19; Acts 2:41; 1 Cor. 10:16-17; 11:33), just like the commitment of marriage depends upon making a covenantal commitment, in part, through the one flesh union (see Gen. 1:24). And in both cases, these are God-ordained processes for making those commitments. Now, I know of married couples who have verbally committed to one another but have been unable to consummate the marriage due to medical issues—and I’m still willing to say they are married. Nonetheless, this is exceptional, and not what you would ordinarily wish for a marriage. So with the church: making such a covenantal commitment apart from gathering for the ordinances is hardly ideal, and not normally what you want. It produces an intrinsically weaker bond because it doesn’t depend upon physical presence. But for the sake of a couple stuck at home due to sickness, I’m willing to accept that weaker bond.

I would strongly caution you, however, against letting the exceptional become the ordinary (as in many churches today). When a church becomes characterized by these weaker bonds (due to allowing for “commitments” apart from the physical presence), either because the church has gone multi-site or because they allow non-attenders to remain on the roles, that church undermines its own integrity as a church.

Incidentally, the principles at stake in your question also arise in the question of whether or not to serve the Lord’s Supper to members in nursing homes. As you can see here, Mark Dever and I disagree on this topic, and the answers there might have bearing here.

I pray this is helpful.

By:
Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan Leeman is the Editorial Director of 9Marks, and an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church in Cheverly, Maryland. You can find him on Twitter at @JonathanLeeman.