So whose money is it?

It was a meeting unlike any other in my years in the Foundation. The topic was money, a long-held fund at the church that had always been used for X but the committee was discussing using it for Y. But it wasn’t really about the money; it was about control of the money. It was the legacy of the church vs. the future of the church. It was about change vs. comfort.

It was ugly.

At one point a layperson pointed accusingly at another church leader and shouted, “All you want to do is spend OUR money.”

And there it sat. In a church where there is discord, who is really in charge of the important things, like money?

In a church where everyone is pulling on the same oar, it’s easy. The folks put the money in the plate (and hopefully the electronic giving system), the Finance Committee makes it available to the ministries of the church and this committee gets some and that committee does too and if the budget is aligned with the mission money becomes what it should be in the church, a tool for ministry.

The mess at this meeting didn’t come out of nowhere. It represented, I’m sure, some long-simmering dynamics in all areas of the church. If I could go back 20 years in the life of that church there are some clear changes I’d make to keep us from ending up where we were on that Thursday night.

The first is leadership. The senior pastor chairs just one committee in The United Methodist Church, lay leadership (also known as nominating). For any pastor to be successful there must be leaders who share the vision for the church. A pastor padding committees only with those who think he walks on water is poorly served (see The Emperor’s New Clothes) but there is a difference between opposing viewpoints and opposition. Church leaders must share the vision. In theory, this is great. But it can get sticky when a volunteer has served that position for many years and yields tremendous power as a result.

The second is that vision I just mentioned. It can’t be the pastor’s vision or the Ad Board vision, the vision must be owned by the congregation. That doesn’t mean it has to be unanimous but leaders must have taken the time to cast a vision, share it with the congregation, listen and amend it as necessary and appropriate.

The third is a good policy for a fund. An effective policy will do a couple of things.

  • First it clearly delineates the purpose of the money. Too often I hear that “well everyone knows what that money is for.” But more often I hear, “Bob always was in charge of that but now that he’s gone, we don’t really know.” In theory the policy should be developed BEFORE any money is in the fund, so donors or those considering transferring money know the proposed use before they make a decision.
  • The second is it makes it clear who is in charge of the money. Is an endowed fund to benefit the music program the responsibility of the trustees, the worship committee or the choir director? I believe the fund administration should be done by the Endowment Committee (or in its absence the Trustees) but that committee should turn the proceeds over to the Worship Committee in this example to allow them to make the music decisions. It does no one any good for the Endowment Committee to tell the choir what piece they will sing because they control the money that buys the music.
  • A policy should also indicate how it can be changed. Some of that will be based on how the money was raised, with donor intent always in the forefront. But what if you have a fund to maintain the parsonage but that home was sold? Or a scholarship fund for youth from the church but there are no longer teenagers? Good ministry should be dynamic, and your policies need to change along with it. I generally like the Ad Board to be involved in any changes to the policy, recognizing that this should be done if full view of the congregation and not just a few folks acting alone.
  • And finally we should have reporting expectations. All assets of the church should be transparent and reported on the monthly balance sheet report. Deposits and expenditures should be run through the central checking account and be part of the annual audit. At the very least a secret fund will garner no new donations. At the worst it is open to fraud and theft.

Finally, any church must be built on a culture of respect. The pastor must be respected and so must the laity. One of the tensions of our itinerant system is that clergy can be seen as “temporary employees” while long-time committee chairs see themselves as the sustainable foundation in leadership.

This is not to say that the church in question didn’t do some of things, but we need to recognize the potential for friction in the church around both mission and money and be prepared to proactively diffuse it.

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