Creating a Narrative Budget
Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Deborah Rexrode is curating a blog series called “A New Perspective on Stewardship.” We’ll hear from some stewardship experts across the country on a wide range of what stewardship means for them. What are ways stewardship can be a spiritual practice? How might we come to a new understanding of the role of stewardship in ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!
by Raymond Bonwell
Numbers have caused people’s eyes to glaze over. To some, financial statements appear to have been written in a foreign language, guided by GAAP and overseen by FASB (even references to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles and the Financial Accounting Standards Board might inspire some to skip the balance of this post).
I would suggest that numbers are NOT the best way to talk about or describe a budget. Numbers certainly have their place in financial statements, and there they are very useful. And I am focusing on “talking about a budget,” or “describing a budget.” For this focus, we use words (not numbers).
Words have meaning. Words speak to us. The world has God’s Word in Scripture. The world has the Word made flesh in Jesus. The Spirit inspires us to lead lives faithful to the Word. And words are powerful.
The following passages of Scripture are each less than a sentence, and look at all they capture:
“Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Let my people go.”‘” (Exodus 5:1a, NRSV)
“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” (Luke 2:8, NRSV)
“When a great crowd gathered and people from town after town came to him, [Jesus] said in a parable: ‘A sower went out to sow his seed.’” (Luke 8:4-5a, NRSV).
Not all budgets are created equal. Some use numbers, and others use narratives. Here I explore three types of church budgets, for which I am indebted to Kennon L. Callahan’s Effective Church Finances: Fund-Raising and Budgeting for Church Leaders (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992).
First, a cost budget is a maintenance budget typically built by a key person. It seldom changes categories year over year, and is typically dominated by the staff, the building, and a few programs, including the denomination. There is a very strong preservation/protection mentality – a need to “keep the lights on” since it “costs” XYZ thousand dollars a month to operate the church. This is not an inspiring reason to give – just enough to get by.
Second, an organizational budget, is a local budget typically built by key committees. Priorities and the budget are driven by these congregational committees. While the congregation may be financially healthy, this organizational budget is still scarcity focused – a few people on a few committees see a few resources. The organizational chart of church may not be actually printed in the budget, and it is certainly visible by the grouping of the budget lines. People are asked to give to support the organizational, institutional welfare of that local church.
Third (and finally), the mission budget is an externally-focused budget informed by the major priorities of the coming year. This focuses more on narratives than numbers, and it serves as a high-level overview. (Yes, full financial statements would be available for the chosen few whose joy is not complete unless they make sense of all the cents.) This mission budget invites people to give to generously to major priorities; stewardship is the purpose and mission is the result. It is very people-focused. People give money to people; who will be helped by the congregation’s major priorities.
Cost and organizational budgets are created with numbers and are very format-driven. Accounting software generates a report, or figures are updated in Excel.
Mission budgets, however, are created with narratives and are tailor-made to describe that specific community. This is what makes them so challenging to create, and makes the efforts so rewarding. Given the connectional nature of the church, the Presbyterian Foundation’s Ministry Tool Box includes three examples of narrative budgets and includes instructions on how to write narrative budgets in Word. (This, and other resources, is available online. No registration is required. These are resources from the church, for the church.)
Scripture is full of paradoxes: “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10, NRSV).
And here is a budgeting paradox to be effective – do not use numbers; use narratives.
Do not focus on Excel; focus on (The) Word.
Raymond Bonwell is the Corporate Secretary of the Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and is responsible for advising on best practices for corporate governance and ensuring directors have needed resources to guide the Board of Pensions. A classically trained economist, his first professional career was twelve years in institutional investing and personal financial planning. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, he served two churches and as a Director at Princeton for five years.