Dan Hotchkiss of the Alban Institute

The financial crunch has come from the state of our investments. There's been a reduction, all told, of about a quarter of a million dollars. in revenue.

In times like these, endowed congregations, which like to think they have a cushion against economic harm, find that in fact they are affected more abruptly and severely than are member-supported congregations. Members, as a group, can almost always choose to give a little more; a portfolio of stocks cannot.

Unfortunately, in many congregations the process of decision-making about money is ill-suited to the task of allocating scarce resources wisely. The implicit mental model is that the congregation's first duty is to sustain its institutional core-to maintain the building, service the debt, meet the payroll, and keep the lights on.

If there is money left, we can then speak of mission, outreach, service, innovation-as if those were optional extras.

This mental map-institutional maintenance as the foundation, mission as the ground floor, innovation as a decorative filigree-does little harm so long as the supply of money grows from year to year. But in lean years, when spending needs to be trimmed back, this way of thinking can accelerate a downward spiral. Who would support a congregation that does nothing but support itself?

Which brings us to an awkward point: over time, congregations, like all nonprofits, tend to fall away from serving their mission into serving their constituents. One powerful set of constituents comprises long-time members who want to preserve the congregation's familiar look and feel-appearances and practices that comfort them. Another powerful group is the paid staff.

I once consulted with a church in a magnificent Romanesque building studded with distinguished opalescent stained glass. It had a full-time minister and music director, a sixteen-member paid choir-and thirty-five people in the congregation on an average Sunday. This mode of operation had been financed by liberal spending from a once-large endowment and even larger withdrawals from the invisible bank account of deferred building maintenance.

But one day their treasurer reframed their situation for them. "Every day we open up our doors, we piss away fifteen hundred of God's good dollars," he said.

After a stunned silence, the discussion shifted. Instead of "How can we continue to provide ourselves with a church for the longest possible time" the group began to ask, "How can we make the most faithful use of the resources in our trust, to fulfill the true purpose of the church"

Luckily (or providentially), the church stood next door to a museum, which purchased the building for its collection of religious art. The congregation scattered, leaving a substantial legacy to other congregations, charities, and religious institutions. Not a perfect outcome, perhaps-what is-but better, ethically, than simply waiting until the money was all gone.

In times of strained finances, even more than in fat years, it is important that the budget process begin not with the budget from last year but with the congregation's mission.

The congregation needs leaders capable of standing apart from the daily management of ministry. They need to reflect and pray about the congregation's mission and articulate a vision for its ministry that reflects its special calling in a time of trouble. And they need to make hard choices-sometimes choosing what is right instead of what will keep the peace.

Nothing can make budget cutting easy, but there can be some joy in it if, in the process of accepting what we can't afford to do, we reach a deeper understanding of what we must afford to do, one way or another.

Dan Hotchkiss is a senior consultant at the Alban Institute. Copyright (c) 2009 by The Alban Institute, Inc., Herndon, VA. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.