January 16, 2018


Ted Hull

Budgets are Bad??!!

[Note: if you are not a church, there’s still a lesson in this blog.]

“A budget is the most overworked, overused, misunderstood, and inaccurate piece of fiction that a church board will ever see. It’s like a bad steak which is chewed on, gnawed on, and eventually choked down—unless it’s choked on first. Swallowing it consumes far more energy than the nutritional value it provides. I have never met a board member in my life who understood a traditional organizational budget. Boards virtually never understand what they are approving, and what they approve is never, ever complied with.”1

Time has altered some of my thinking on budgets. I used to think they were just a waste of time; now I believe a typical church budget effectively contributes to a myopic view of the future and stifles any long term proactive ministry strategy. The traditional budget is carefully put in place, allowing only for modest and manageable annual increases. It’s monitored judiciously by the board to make sure donations are on track and expenditures are not exceeded.  As the fiscal year end approaches, so do the passionate pleas for special, sacrificial, over-and-above gifts so the church can end the year in the black. Then hopefully, making it just under the wire, this process is started all over again.

What if your church leadership had a clear, compelling and challenging view of the future? What if your board was grieved by a conservative budget which measured success only by ending the fiscal year in the black? What if the church members believed that it was reprehensible to merely ensure the church maintained its attendance? What if people saw a flat line in spiritual growth as a sin?

Just to note, Jesus condemned stewards who simply took care of things, citing them as fools.

I am not saying that every church with a one year budget fits into this class. I am suggesting, however, that such a budget could unwittingly nudge a church toward becoming a well-protected and cautiously cared-for investment which realizes little or no return.

Let’s imagine a church with a rolling three year ministry plan. This is not a static three year plan; but rather a plan which would constantly anticipate where the church could be twelve quarters down the road. Envision a leadership that couldn’t stand the idea that your church would be in about the same place three years from now that it is currently.

As each quarter ends, that quarter is dropped off and another added onto the end. This would challenge the board and the pastor to always be thinking three years into the future. The plan, instead of being set in stone, will be altered and adjusted based on ongoing opportunities, changes and realties.

Suppose, for example, the plan of your church includes a vision to grow its worship service attendance. A rolling ministry plan would lay out twelve quarterly projections with an attendance target for each quarter. As each quarter ends, a quarter is added on to the end and the remaining quarters can be amended.

A rolling financial forecast would reflect the rolling ministry plan. A plan for increased attendance will have implications. What are the costs for seeing the plan achieved and what are the effects when it is achieved? Like the rolling ministry plan, these would be laid out in quarters and as each quarter ends, that quarter is dropped off and an additional one added on to the end.

The concept of a rolling three year ministry plan and its concomitant financial plan has at least three advantages.

  1. It fuels long term planning for the pastor

Pastors are all too often encouraged to think myopically. They are reminded of the successes of the past – the good old days; they are swamped with the problems of the present and challenged to ensure that next week’s sermon is better than last week’s. A healthy church board needs to empower and encourage its pastor to take the resources of the local church and invest them with boldness, courage and creativity so that the impact is reflective of the purpose of the church.

  1. It motivates big picture thinking for the board

Custodians have a plan for today and possibly for the upcoming weekend. When should the floors be cleaned and where should the Sunday school tables be set up? Ministry staff is anticipating the direction of the upcoming ministry semester, including programs and volunteers. The pastor looks ahead to the next ministry year of sermon preparation, assuming that counselling and banal board reports leave any time for that. But what do most boards spend most of their time discussing? The past. John Carver, who developed the Policy Governance® model said that there’s not one ounce of leadership in merely approving the past. Of all people within a church, the board should be looking the furthest ahead.

  1. It clarifies vision for the congregation

A vision is not an incremental change to the same picture. It’s not a refocussing of the same image. It’s not a fresh coat of paint on the same walls. It’s something other than the status quo. And it’s usually not next year’s annual budget. A vision is a clear picture of the future that is significantly different and greater than the current situation. It’s exciting and compelling. The congregation can see over the next hill and what they see should fuel an excitement to become involved in getting there. And having topped that hill, church members can see over the next hill and the next, with the landscape marked by significant eternal impact.

The future of a local church must be different than it is today. Jesus condemns the servant who said, “Master, here’s your money (here’s your church), safe and sound…I (we) knew you have high standards and hate sloppiness and don’t suffer fools gladly.”2

The Master’s challenge was to  “Risk your life (church), and get more than you ever dreamed of”.3


1Hull, Ted, (2015). Focusing Your Church Board: Using the Carver Policy Governance Model. Winnipeg, MB: Word Alive, 2015.
2Luke 19:20-22 (The Message)
3Luke 19:24 (The Message)



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