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Parish budgets as acts of visioning, stewardship and hope: Some concrete ideas

Canon Margo Peckham Clark

Budget season can be rough on parish vestries. In many cases, even in places where there are significant resources available, it can seem to be a kind of necessary zero-sum game that doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the year. We have this much money and here are the bills and other liabilities, can we make it? Even when there is a projected “surplus,” it can seem that the waiting list of important needs and aspirations will swallow it up immediately.

As much as this is the reality, we are invited as in all things to look at how God is leading us forward, to trust that we are part of a diocese and the Episcopal Church, that all ministry matters and we are doing our part to care for what we have been given by God. We are free by the grace of God to be stewards and ministers, that is always the larger reality.

Here are some concrete ways to think about parish budgets and to use them to open up places of prayer and discernment.

What are the goals of our parish? Do we have a ministry plan? Does our budget reflect that plan? One way to consider this is to look at what percentage of the budget is going directly to mission and ministry and how it is allocated. If the parish wants to work directly with children and families and 80% of the budget is going to keeping the buildings open and 30% of the remaining budget is allocated for music, it may not be reasonable to think progress will be made towards children’s ministry. Developing the practice of always looking at where the money goes can help lead to creative questions, and bold choices moving forward.

There are lots of simple financial practices that can lead to savings and better cash management if they are implemented fully and regularly. Here are some examples.

1. The Vestry should annually evaluate all regular contracts, what they cover, and are they necessary? Are they being fulfilled according to the terms, and are those still what is needed? They should periodically be re-bid to ensure that the best price has been achieved. This category might include garbage service, mowing and plowing, telephone and internet, copier rentals and building supplies. What if the dumpster were emptied less? Are the supplies locked up and accounted for so the that there isn’t waste or theft? Is the copier too big or too small to meet the actual needs of the parish? Some of these categories may require a specific analysis, such as how many copies do we actually make each month and how many are we paying for? The XYZ room is used less than once a month and we’re having it cleaned weekly, why? The point of this exploration isn’t to make draconian cutbacks, it is to be clear about the match between needs and expenditure of resources. (Incidentally, do not sign a copier a new copier contract without talking to the diocese’s preferred supplier – who has unbeatable prices.)

2. Another important exercise is to break down necessary costs related to ministry and to evaluate with regard to overall ministry goals and needs. Energy costs are a big element of this analysis in most parishes. What does it cost to have the heat on for the ABC Guild meeting – in older physical plants heating one area may require heating all or a large section of the building. Breaking those costs out by square footage and days can lead to questions such as – is it worth it to have the heat on for $400 on Wednesday nights for the ABC Guild or could they meet on Sundays? Could choir, the ABC Guild and Adult Formation be held on the same day, so the heat is only brought up once? Again, the point is to really understand the numbers and whet they represent so that ministry-based decisions can be prayerfully made in an informed way.

3. Energy Audits can lead to a much better understanding of costs and possible remedies. These can range from simple low-cost measures such as closing off the bottoms of doors to prevent drafts or sealing windows better, to more expensive measures such as converting a building to gas or swapping all the light bulbs on a campus. Free audits and 80% subsidies for new energy efficient fixtures and equipment are available through the New Jersey Clean Energy program. The diocese can also help with finding lower cost contracts for electricity and natural gas, which have the additional benefit of price stability.

4. Are there ways to do things another way that would save resources and free them for ministry priorities? Examples here might include using silk flowers at the altar, not purchasing new music, workdays for small repairs and big clean ups, volunteers in the office, reducing the size and complexity of the bulletin, bulk purchasing of supplies and many other possibilities!

5. Small recurring charges can add up over the course of a year. Look at items such as bank charges, late fees and interest. Can moving bill due dates improve this? Budget season is also an important time to look at meeting financial best practices in ways that fit the life of the congregation.

For support in thinking about meaningful ways to improve stewardship in this area of parish life we stand ready to assist you! Please feel free to call me or our CFO Sam Reckford to discuss ideas and plans that are tailored to your specific situation. Budgets and the work that support them provide road maps for ministry, not only plans for making ends meet. Finally, remember to thank the people in your parish that carry out this faithful work – Wardens, Treasurer, Bookkeeper, Stewardship Team, Finance Committee – all of them! Together we are building and caring for the future God has prepared for us.