Three Thoughts About Money and Church

Here’s three insights from around the web that I think are great for thinking about fundraising, church budgets, and other money-related stuff.

The first is Amanda Palmer’s TED talk on “The Art of Asking.” What I think is fascinating in her talk is that she puts her finger on what pastors have been saying in churches for ages: we have a need to give, that giving and receiving can be profoundly human and spiritual acts, and that asking should not be shameful. In fact, it is liberating to give.

I think the big disconnect is that people think of giving to individuals differently than they think of giving to organizations. It feels good to give to a person. It feels impersonal to give to an organization. But the reality is that those lines are blurry. Amanda Palmer is an institution, and churches are people who coordinate around a common mission. If church members feel like they are giving to an institution, it’s because somewhere, they lost the sense that they are a community sharing a mission.

The second is also a TED talk, and this was is from Dan Pallotta, called “The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong.”

I think his strongest points is that “low overhead” is not necessarily the best criteria for judging the effectiveness of a non-profit charity. I believe churches have fallen into this trap. There are plenty of critiques of the church spending too much money “on itself,” rather than helping the poor. It’s an easy visual to establish: Church members drive by hungry, homeless people to sit in air-conditioned sanctuaries in cushioned pews surrounded by stained glass. (“Stained glass” and “pews” have come to be shorthand for everything wrong with the church). I used to feel the same way, but I’ve served enough churches to know that the presence or absence of stained glass, air-conditioning, and pews are not indicators of the good a community is doing. Now that I’m on the “doing” side of my church-planting dream, I see the importance of investing money and time in doing something well in order to get more bang for your buck. While I don’t think our own community will be investing money in million-dollar lighting systems and holographic projection (although I’ve learned never to say “never”), I can’t simply claim that a church that does so is missing the mark because they could have spent that money on the poor.

There are also good responses to Dan’s talk here and here. The last one frames the debate among non-profit workers as the difference between “Growing the Pie” and “Giving the Pie Away.” I think it is good for churches to have the same conversation, and to recognize it as the same conversation, that happens in the non-religious non-profit sector.

The third article is “The Shocking Un-Truth About Church Budgets,” from Amy Butler, senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington. She makes the case that salaries and buildings are not “overhead” for doing real ministry. If the staff are effective, and our resources (including facilities) are effectively used, then just being the church is ministry. Calling these things “overhead,” as if they were somehow tangential to the real work of ministry, indicates that something is wrong either with our mission or the way we think about it.