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Cultivated Ministry at The Board of Pensions

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Frank Spencer

Jesus never said check your intellect at the door and forget what you have learned outside the Church. Jesus praises the good manager in parables and chides those who waste or steal. We are obligated to make good use of our time, talent and treasure. Thus, we are called to excellence in all we do while extending the hand of hospitality and living in the grace of compassion.

Here at the Board of Pensions, we often say that the numbers can never define our values, but analytics must always inform our stewardship.

Jesus also talked a lot about vineyards and the hard work that goes into growing good fruit. He used that analogy to talk about fruitfulness in our lives. NEXT Church has furthered that analogy to explore new ways of assessing ministry effectiveness. A cultivated ministry exhibits the following four principles: theological reflection, constant learning, mutual accountability, and storytelling.

Asking the theological “why?” has transformed the Board and its programs. We began the change three years ago by developing a Theology of Benefits. That work allowed us to understand our mission as a vital part of enlivening the body of Christ in the PC(USA). It led us to understand benefits as wholeness, rather than a financial proposition. This theological understanding is embedded in everything we do, seeking well-being for those who serve Christ’s Church in the four critical arenas of health, spirituality, finance, and vocation. Those who have experienced the CREDO program know these focus areas well.

We believe in constant learning, evaluating and re-evaluating everything we do. To learn from past errors and identify future possibilities, we have had to be brutally honest about the current state of things. Some things like care for our members and investment of our assets we did really well and we affirmed that excellence. Other things, like information technology, flexibility, and cost control were not as good. By facing these challenges, we have dramatically improved how we serve and expanded whom we serve. But we are only just beginning because there will always be more to learn. Knowing that we can and will improve keeps us energized and hopeful for the future.

We practice mutual accountability with many levels of constituencies. We are of course accountable to our Board and have developed a culture of openness and honesty that has allowed us to work through problems together and take bold steps for improvement. We are accountable to members whom we serve in a consultative framework. We are accountable to the larger Church through the General Assembly and to each congregation. We have adopted a posture of complete transparency and have spent the past three years unmasking hidden subsidies and telling the Church honestly what benefits cost. We have scrapped hundreds of administrative rules trusting each congregation to make decisions that best fit its unique context.

And oh do we love the stories! We know our members personally because they call us and write us and meet with us. Some of these stories are wonderful triumphs of healing and wholeness. Others speak to the deep grief and disappointment that is a part of all of our lives. We always try to say “yes” but sometimes we have to say “no” and those stories are always the most painful. There is rarely a month that goes by without my being moved to tears of joy or sadness.

Cultivated Ministry implies a never ending cycle of assessment, reflection, input from constituents, and sharing of personal stories. Just as the vineyard is always in need of tending, so it is with every ministry. Staying centered in the face of constant change is a challenge. For us, prayer is an important part of staying centered. Every Executive Team meeting and every Board committee begins with prayer. We pray in thanksgiving for the honor of serving Christ’s Church. To remind ourselves of the community we serve, every prayer ends by lifting up another agency or organization of the PC(USA).

What a wonderful thing it is that sisters and brothers care for each other in the name of Jesus Christ. If you count all the active members and their families, retired members and their spouses, surviving spouses and children, and vested former employees, PC(USA) is caring for 61,000 individuals through the Board of Pensions. This ministry is well-planned, theologically grounded, ever reforming, and abundantly fruitful.

It is indeed a well cultivated ministry.


Frank Clark Spencer is the president of the Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and served on the initial strategy team for NEXT Church. Before turning to full-time ministry, Frank had an outstanding business career which included leading his company to its initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange and being recognized by Ernst and Young as 2009 Entrepreneur of the Year in the Southeast. Frank is the past Chairman of Montreat Conference Center and former President of Habitat for Humanity of Charlotte. He was a Morehead Scholar at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, a Baker Scholar at Harvard Business School, and earned his M.Div. at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte. You may listen to Frank’s sermons and find out about his latest book at www.fspencer.com.

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.