To understand what really matters to your church, look past its vision statement, past its website, past its glossy brochures, past what your pastor says your church cares about—and look at your budget. Follow the money. As Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). Jesus spoke those words of individuals, but they are also true of churches. What a church treasures reveals its heart, values, and priorities.

That’s what makes the topic of church budgets so much more interesting than we often think. That’s what makes it so much more important than we often think. A church budget is written in the language of money, but it’s not ultimately about money. It’s about value: the value of investing our resources in the promises of our Savior.

To understand your church’s real philosophy of ministry, look to your budget. Sometimes that link is obvious. For example, if your budget has nothing listed for international missions, it’s likely not a priority for your congregation—no matter what your church’s leadership might say. Sometimes the link is less obvious. Consider these four questions about your church budget and what it reveals about what kind of ministry is important to your church:

Are you paying staff to do ministry or equipping the congregation to do ministry?

Let’s start with the staff section of your budget, which for most readers will constitute the largest portion of the budget. Ephesians 4:11-12 is a concise job description for ministers of the Word in a church: they are not to do ministry but to equip the congregation to do ministry. “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” Most of the ministry that matters in a congregation—discipling, encouraging, evangelizing, exhorting, “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15)—should be done by the congregation, and the pastoral staff of a church exist to equip them in that task. Administrative staff support that job.

So look through the staff section of your budget, line by line, and see how often your staff positions are designed this way, as equippers. Did you hire a youth pastor to pastor the youth (doing ministry)? Or did you hire him to engage and resource the congregation in mentoring your teenagers (equipping for ministry)? Did you hire a counseling pastor to “take care” of the neediest in your flock? Or did you hire him primarily to equip the congregation for that work? In Ephesians 4, it is unity (v. 13) forged through building up the body (v. 12) that yields maturity (v. 13) and unshakable commitment to the integrity of the gospel (v. 14). When a budget funds staff positions that unwittingly take over what the congregation should be doing, they infantilize and weaken the church. Click To Tweet

Most readers of this article will likely share the Ephesians 4 goal of church leaders as equippers. How well does your budget line up with that ambition?

Does your church treat Christians as consumers or providers?

No church wants its pews full of consumer-minded Christians. Intrigued non-Christians, yes. So-called Christians who merely show up to fill their spiritual shopping bag, who never get beyond “what’s in this for me”? No. After all, love is what marks us off as Christ’s disciples (John 13:35)—and love is the antithesis of consumerism.

How well does your budget reflect that desire? For example, we want our people to discover the joy of friendships where they share only Christ in common—like the Jew-Gentile friendships of Ephesians 2:14. But perhaps a quick glance through the budget shows money for a singles ministry, for a contemporary music service, for a senior adult breakfast, and so forth. Ministries that emphasize similarity. Similarity appeals to consumers because it’s comfortable. Similarity does not prove out the wisdom of God like the Jew-Gentile unity of the Ephesian church (Eph. 3:10). As Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them” (Luke 6:32).

Ministries based on similarity may sometimes have a place in your budget. But we often don’t fully understand how the budget might be competing with the direction we want a church to take. So look through the various ministries that are listed in your budget. How many of them have demographic labels (singles ministry, youth ministry, young adults ministry, etc.)? Those are prime opportunities for ministries to be built on consumerism, that never challenge Christians to act according to a new nature that values Christ more than comfort. How would you define success for each ministry in your budget? Where the answer is “draw as many people in as possible,” be careful. That’s another prime danger zone, where you risk teaching Christians that church is nothing more than a place to meet their spiritual needs.

If you attract people as consumers, you’ll need to keep treating them as consumers to retain them. That’s a formula for exhaustion, and for a church knit together through the power of niche marketing rather than through the power of the gospel.

Do you love the church budget more than you love its people?

Try this statement on for size: “I don’t care nearly as much about meeting this budget as I do that this congregation is faithful in its giving.” How genuine does that sound coming from your pastor’s mouth? Or have the staff and ministries in your church’s budget begun to loom so large in importance that keeping them afloat has become all-consuming?

God doesn’t need your money! Your budget exists not because God desperately hopes that you’ll cough up some cash and lend him a hand. No, your budget exists because he has graciously offered you the opportunity to be a means toward his great end to unite all things together in Christ (Eph. 1:10).

Getting enough money to fund the line items in your budget should never become more important than the good of those who give to your budget. I love how Paul put it to the Philippians: “Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account” (Phil. 4:17). The New Testament’s teaching on giving is mainly about how good it is for us to give. It actually says fairly little on the needs that might motivate those gifts.

How can your church budget foster the same attitude? When you talk about your budget, focus more on the privilege we have to invest in eternal treasure rather than the needs you think the church should meet. That is, more about opportunity, less about guilt. To make that sound credible, build a reserve fund (for this pastoral reason more than for financial reasons), include flex in the budget, save some one-time expenses until late in the budget year, be conservative in taking on debt—so that you rarely ever talk about giving simply because your church needs the money. The Biblical authors care far more about you than about your money. May it be so in our churches.

Does your church value unity based on compromise or love?

Your church budget is a good indicator of how your congregation sees the Bible’s admonitions toward unity. Is it a hodge-podge of priorities, assembled to appease competing factions in the church? That’s unity built on compromise: the church version of pork-barrel legislation in a dysfunctional democracy. Or have you learned to consider each other as more significant than yourselves (Phil 2:3), trusting each other and trusting your leadership to draft a budget that feels cohesive? That’s unity built on love: a church that points to heaven.

How can a budget foster a unity that’s grounded in love? That depends largely on how the budget process is led. As administratively complex as a budget is, it is far more complex at a spiritual level. For example, what’s the line between deferring to each other in love on the one hand, and compromise between competing factions on the other? Should you put more money into the church building or into missions? When is it wise for a budget to reflect disunity in the congregation (to not make it worse) and when is the budget an opportunity to address disunity? These questions require great spiritual discernment, and so to answer them your church should take advantage of the spiritual leaders God’s given you: your pastors/elders (using the two terms interchangeably as Paul does in Acts 20:17, 28).

Four implications of this:

  1. Your pastors/elders should have final responsibility for assembling the budget and presenting it to the congregation.
  2. Your pastors/elders may get assistance from administratively-minded individuals, but they should be involved at a sufficient depth in the budget process to lead through the spiritually-fraught questions that budgeting raises.
  3. Your pastors/elders should see the budgeting process as an excellent opportunity to teach the congregation about what Scripture says a church should value, and as an excellent guide to prayer.
  4. Your pastors/elders should lead in the budget process not primarily as a corporate-style board but as shepherds, seeking to use the budget as a tool to pastor.

Conclusion

In many ways, a church budget operates like a spiritually-oriented mutual fund. In a financial mutual fund, thousands of investors entrust their money to an investment manager who looks for the very best opportunities to invest that money in line with the funds’ goals, so that someday those people will see a return on that investment.

Do you see the similarity to your church budget? Each year, your congregation entrusts to your church a significant portion of their wealth. Your church “invests” that money in kingdom-oriented work. And one day, each of those saints will stand before the Lord to give account for how they’ve stewarded what he entrusted to them (2 Cor. 5:10). Your church’s ambition is that on that Last Day, your congregation will be grateful for every opportunity they had to invest in your church budget.

Every financial mutual fund tells a story, a story about what is believed to be true and lasting in the financial world. What kind of story does the spiritual mutual fund of your church budget tell?  What kind of ministry does it say is true and lasting?