When it comes to funding your ministry and reporting on the finances of your church, few questions matter more. Making clarity your passion as you communicate your church’s finances equips the people of your church to better understand their role as givers, encourages them to respond through their gifts, and allows them to be blessed by that participation.
Clarity breeds trust, and trust breeds generosity
Clear financial reporting is hard work. It takes time to do the homework necessary to adequately and accurately report financial information. More often than not, the people who read our reports—the members of our congregations, as well as elders and staff—don’t have a degree in accounting and don’t “speak our language” when it comes to financial matters. If you throw too many numbers at them, they begin to have this glazed look.
But over and over again, I am freshly aware of the value of openly, honestly, and clearly communicating with the people we serve. And while they certainly aren’t giving to me, the “finance guy,” their trust in the leadership team, to effectively communicate the good and sometimes the not-so-good news on financial matters, directly reflects their confidence in our trustworthiness to handle wisely the tithes, gifts, and offerings they bring.
When you prepare and present financial reports, you have an opportunity to strengthen that confidence as you present the financial information and ministry plans—using the most compelling means available, and upholding an absolute standard of integrity. Professional practice, of course, requires disclosure and integrity, but we are held to an even higher standard by the One we serve. A passage in 1 Chronicles—one familiar to those of us who deal with finances in the church—speaks directly to this issue:
I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity. All these things have I given willingly and with honest intent. And now I have seen with joy how willingly your people who are here have given to you. (1 Chron. 29:17)
God honors our total and complete integrity as we are entrusted with the task of communicating—with clarity—the financial concerns of our churches.
Clarity means mission-focused
There should be a strong connection between our mission as a church and how we talk about and use our money. I am blessed to be part of a church with a mission statement that is so clear that there is little room for confusion. It reads simply, We exist to love God, grow together and reach the world. That mission statement drives our budget and is foundational to our communication about financial matters.
Those few, straightforward words shape our budgets, our approval of staff expenditures and even our annual auditor’s report. What that means, in practical terms, is that we often pay for cups of coffee at Starbucks so a staff member can spend time in conversation with someone in a tough time—or even covering snowboarding fees when a youth pastor spends an afternoon with a teen who could best be reached in that venue. And we take seriously our commitment to “reach the world” and give accordingly, directing 25-30 percent of our annual expenses to evangelism, local community impact, and global outreach.
Tying finances to mission also means that while you maintain solid financial policy and procedures, you allow for the possibility of new ministry opportunities. A few years ago, our staff believed we should start Alpha—a dinner/video/discussion resource for people exploring Christianity—as an outreach in our community. This was not in the budget; however, we had set up a new “ministry initiatives budget” which allowed us to start Alpha that fall instead of delaying it until the next budget year. As a result, many people experienced real life- and heart-change over the years; a number came to faith in Jesus Christ and a number made dramatic “course-correction” decisions as a result of what they studied in Alpha.
This past year, we began developing a set of plans to expand a strategic ministry in our community that provided after-school programming, case management, ESL, and summer activities for kids. But those plans took a back seat when local officials invited us to take over two resource centers that they were operating. The police department asked us if we’d be willing to take over both programs that had been partially funded by government grants. We talked with our local ministry partner and considered the additional financial and time commitments we’d need from our church family. We just couldn’t say no to the city. We discussed, prayed, and stayed true to our mission as we agreed to expand from one community site to three. God’s people are responding with the additional resources of both time and money to make this possible.
We used this same mission-focused approach in 2011 when we needed to make some cost reductions. While this was not a fun thing to do, it was the right thing to do. Pruning is healthy for any organization, especially a church that depends on the gifts and other support from people in the church family. We evaluated our ministries in light of our mission. While looking for cost reductions, we continually asked ourselves, “What does God want us to do next?” We realized that some new strategic opportunities were surfacing that probably should be done instead of some others we were currently doing. That decision meant that we needed to end certain programs or events, reducing our expenses.
Without a laser-clear focus on your mission, your church may fund a lot of good things, but could miss out on some of the best things. By just doing “what we did last year,” you could miss an exciting opportunity God has for your church. By not having flexibility in your budget, you can stifle the movement of the Holy Spirit.
When you are talking to your church about financial matters, tying expenditures as closely as possible to your mission can transform facts and figures into flesh and blood ministry stories. At the same time, your financial reporting offers a powerful tool to help ministry teams avoid vagueness in decision-making by validating the fact that ministry expenditures are aligned with the church’s overall mission.
In 2012, I pulled out a copy of the plans the church had approved in 2005 related to the construction of a new, multi-million dollar church campus. I revisited the vision God gave us for ministry at our new campus; at our annual business meeting, I reported to the church family the specific ways that vision had become reality in six different areas.
One area spoke of missions since many people felt that building a new campus could decrease our commitment to the global cause of Christ. The vision read:
We will be bold in mission: “Our church is nationally known for its global ministries. As we expand our base, our vision is to double that commitment. We will also develop a missions candidating and development process for groups of new missionary candidates while we boldly call people, even groups of people, to serve, sometimes together, in strategic areas around the world.”
I was delighted to be able to report that in the previous year we sent sixteen new missionaries, including a team of eight to reach North African immigrants living in Europe. Our church helped these people raise their full support in nine months. In addition, two more couples will be departing soon, and others are in process of preparing to go to other strategic areas around the world. In the coming year, we plan to spend $2.5 million on global and local missions—$1 million more than we spent in 2005.
Keeping our expenditures aligned to our mission has been a valuable discipline for the leadership of our church.
Effectively telling your story
Clear reporting starts with knowing your audience. What do they care about? What questions will they be asking? What will they want to know? Begin with the key facts, and then think about how to make those needs and statistics connect.
Jesus, the Master Communicator, knew His audiences and adjusted His style and content accordingly, frequently telling stories—the parables we find in the Gospels—to make truth come alive. As you “build the case” in your next reporting opportunity, tell a story—or tell lots of stories about how God is at work in and through your church. Start with stories of life transformation, positioning and clarifying to your people that the numbers in your report are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.
In addition to stories, it is often helpful to offer perspective on the numbers you are reporting by comparing to past performance, or to peer churches or groupings of churches. For example, you might use language like, “the best quarter ever” or “only one in twenty churches does this” or use other analogies, comparisons or benchmarks that will give the information scale and distinctiveness.
Repeat, repeat, repeat
Quite simply, clarity comes over time, with repeated exposure to key facts. Communication of a significant giving opportunity—as well as regular education on what the Bible teaches about generosity and stewardship—can and should take place through a variety of channels. These can include verbal presentations from the pulpit, discussion at the annual meeting, printed information packets, as well as information on your website, emails and bulletin notes.
We would typically communicate key content many times and in many places in various levels of detail—all with the same theme. For example, leading up to our annual meeting, which includes the budget presentation, we would expect to utilize a variety of communication channels, including:
- Information Packet—summary of ministry and financial reports for review prior to the business meeting
- Ministry Financial Plan—the same basic financial information but with more detail, including a letter sharing how the budget is developed and how it is driven by our mission
- Bulletin Note/Insert—covering key points and referring people to the packets
- Letter—mailed with annual giving statements
- Weekly all-church email with links to the annual meeting information
- Verbal presentation—with PowerPoint
Covering the information in a variety of places—including some opportunities for interaction and question/answer sessions—helps to insure that your financial reports have been received, examined, understood and acted upon.
Action is always the desired outcome of your communication and reporting. You should keep that action step in mind as you shape your message and select your communication tools. Whether you simply want church members to ratify your annual report, give to a capital campaign or establish a habit of regular giving, build toward that action in your presentation or report. Don’t neglect to make it clear—particularly as you conclude—what you want your listeners/readers to do. Keep in mind that communication to the entire church will be different from messages directed to a leadership group. It’s also important to regularly communicate financial information to elders and staff in a form they can use in their role as ambassadors of the mission.
Few areas of church communication represent the degree of challenge involved in financial reporting. But, at the same time, what an amazing opportunity to walk alongside God’s people as they learn—some for the very first time—to trust God with their time, talent and treasure. It’s another part of the process of making disciples who make disciples.
Six keys to clarity in financial reporting
- Know your audience and anticipate their questions.
- Avoid financial jargon and define any financial terms you use.
- Uphold a standard of transparency, authenticity and integrity.
- Build your financial reports around your mission statement.
- Use stories, analogies and comparisons to bring your financials to life.
- Invite people to give to ministry and vision, not to buildings and “stuff.”
Benefits of clarity in financial reporting
- Informs people about the church and why it exists.
- Leads individuals to recognize that the ministries are worthy of their support.
- Relates a person’s giving to the mission of the church.
- Builds confidence in leaders and their management of the church’s resources.
- Educates people about giving to vision rather than meeting a budget need.
- Excites people about their personal stewardship.
- Gives ministry teams a tool to evaluate their work and ministry objectives.
- Communicates the vision to the congregation for financial support.
- Provides members and attendees a better understanding of how their gifts are used to accomplish your mission and how important their gifts are to the church, to the community, and to the world.
- Unifies the church as people see they can accomplish more together as a church than they can individually.