Narrative Budgeting and Preparing for the Mission

Narrative Budgeting and Preparing for the Mission

I have been in and around churches for a long time, and one of the things that I have come to believe to be true is that the church budget is a better indicator of what that community really believes than their vision statements, by-laws, or statements of belief are.  If you want to know what a church really believes, watch where they spend their money and what the process is for allocating funds within the community.  Many churches claim a belief in Christ’s power and rule over the church, and a belief that we are all called to grow the Kingdom of God.  And yet many of those same churches control every aspect of spending from the top down so that what trickles down to the people who are actually engaged in the mission is so minimal and restricted that it is of little or no practical use.  And while professing a belief in the growth of the Kingdom, the lion’s share of those budgets goes directly into maintaining their buildings and insuring them, and paying a multi-tiered professional staff to do the work of the church. And at the bottom of all of it, is a belief that if the church overall comes out in the black at the end of the year, then the leaders of the church have been responsible in carrying out the mission of the church.  There is almost no clear linkage between the Kingdom of God, the Great Commission, the goals, authority, and accountability in how the resources of the church are allocated in any given fiscal year.

Over the past ten years, we have found a new way of looking at almost everything about what “church” means, and that new way of looking at what the church is has begun to be clearly reflected in its annual budget.  One of things that we have come to believe is that Christ has placed each of us into this community.  And we believe that this unique gathering of gifts was gathered to accomplish something.  And we believe that this gathering was placed in a specific geography at a specific point in history for a reason.  We believe that accomplishing what we were gathered and placed here to do is why we are here. And we believe that what we say about why we are here must be supported by Scripture.

“We are engaged in a personal and shared life journey driven by life-changing encounters with Jesus that lead us to accept people where they are and encourage them to find their gifts from God and go deeper into the vision of “Growing into Christ”. We have come to understand that our calling is to bring others with us into developing God’s mission here on Earth.” (I will explain in another article how we came to this purpose statement and why we believe it came from Christ)

We believe that this purpose statement reflects why this community is in this geographic location with this unique set of spiritual gifts and resources at this time in history.  This statement is reviewed every year because every year there are changes in the nature of its geography and related demographics.  And every year, with new participants entering the community and losses of others, our unique gift set changes.  Our resources change as the economy changes.  And history itself changes in the present with each passing year. Each year, each team develops measurable goals that reflect the reality of this statement of why we are here.  Those goals are then presented to the community to make sure that there is wide consensus that they reflect the purpose of the community.  And those goals are presented to the community so that the community can decide whether or not they want to invest precious resources in the accomplishment of those goals.  The accomplishing of those goals is what we actually do, and what those people we are trying to reach actually see us doing in Christ’s name.

In addition to the goals having to reflect the purpose, the investment of our community cannot represent more than one-third of the resources necessary to accomplish those goals.  We have a guiding missional principle that instructs teams to plan to draw two-thirds of their resources (time, talent, and treasure) from the mission field itself so that the mission field is participating in the efforts to reach into the harvest that mission field itself represents.  The one-third investment of the community cannot continue beyond three years, and merely represents seed money for planting new missions, and through those missions, new self-sustaining missional communities. In presenting its budget proposal to the community, the team must show how it plans to gather resources out of the harvest, and how it plans to wean itself off of the seed-money it is requesting within the three-year timetable that this guiding principle allows it.  Doing things this way, forces the team to constantly be thinking about multiplication of the mission.

While the goals of the team must clearly aim at living out why we are here, they must also clearly reflect who we say we are.  We believe that our vision statement reflects who we are right now.  Our vision statement is simply, “Growing into Christ”.  So, we are growing personally.  We are growing in the number of people who are participating in why we are here.  And we are multiplying this community into other geographies reaching other demographics.  Our goals, therefore, must show growth in those areas.

Our vision statement of “Growing into Christ” also reflects Christ, which is what all of this all about.  Our goals must reflect a deepening faith in Christ and God’s Kingdom personally.  They must reflect a growing number of people who are entering a disciple-relationship with Christ.  And they must reflect the multiplication of Christ-seeking and Christ-serving communities who are also doing these things.  And those goals must be measurable.  They obviously are not solely measurable by numbers, though numbers do matter.  Often the measurability is gained by standing several actual people up whose lives have been changed through the mission of the community and asking them to tell their story – to give their “narrative”.  The budget doesn’t report numbers.  It tells the story of God’s activity in the world through the vision and purpose of this unique community at this point in history.  It is a “narrative” budget.

Each year, each team will present their proposed budgets to the community.  They will demonstrate all of what we have just talked about.  And they will ask the participants in the community to invest their time, talent, and treasure in the accomplishment of those measurable goals.  Once agreed to, these goals are the “responsibility” of the team. The community then becomes “stakeholders”, invested in the accomplishment of the community’s goals.

In addition to time, talent, and treasure being asked for, the team asks for the “authority” to make specific decisions that they think will be necessary in order for them to carry out their agreed to responsibilities.  Remember, the mission field is constantly changing, so the team has to be able to make decisions on very short (if not immediate) notice in order to adapt to and take advantage of the changes happening around them.  The team will need the “authority” required to make those decisions efficiently.  That authority might include deciding how the funding gets allocated on a micro-level.  It might include hiring and firing of necessary staffing, both paid and unpaid.  It might include the use of facilities, vehicles, or other fixed assets.  Whatever is required to carry out the team’s responsibilities is agreed to and granted by the body.  This authority is granted based upon responsibility because at the end of the year (if not at mid-points) the team will be held “accountable” for the accomplishment of those agreed-to goals.  We are careful not to grant decision-making authority that is not clearly linked to agreed-to goals.  Authority without responsibility is raw power, and to the best of our ability, we want Christ and the Holy Spirit to be the only power here, and we want the mission itself to steer this ship.

If teams are not meeting goals, one of several things will happen.  The first and best option is for the team to get together with a collection of team leaders that we call the Vision Team to see if collectively they can’t find a way to become more effective.  Failing that, either the mission will no longer be funded, or new leadership for the team will be sought in as Christ-like a way as possible.  If a paid staff person isn’t meeting goals, the same things will happen, to include reductions in authority and/or compensation, or in removal from the position.  (We keep paid staff to an extreme minimum.) We love people, but we are accountable to Christ for living out the mission that Christ has laid before us.  Sometimes that means tough, painful consequences for ineffectiveness.  Humble people expect no less. Egotistical people do not last long here.

Those things being said, we also know that many things will fail, and there is no shame in that.  It teaches us humility. It’s just part of the learning process.  Everyone here has failed at something at least once.  The ones who are now the most effective leaders are the same people who probably have failed the most and have learned from their experiences.

None of this happened overnight.  And none of this is lived out to perfection yet.  Missional church is messy church.  But this is one part of a larger missional process that we strive to draw closer and closer to as we get better at living out why we are here, and “Growing into Christ”.

In summation, it is dangerous to give people power without linking that authority to clear responsibilities and effective accountability.  It is too easy for little dictatorships to develop, which is often what has happened in churches that spiraling downward.  It is also dangerous to hold people accountable when what we are holding them accountable to in not measurable or clear, and when we haven’t granted them the authority to accomplish what we have told them must do. If we do that, no one in their right mind will ever step up to do anything.   And if we aren’t clear in our agreement about what our responsibilities are, our community will be constantly bickering and fighting over little things that really don’t matter to the mission.  By marrying up responsibility, authority, and accountability in a healthy way, and linking that to who we are and why we are here so that each year we are able to tell the story of Christ’s redemptive activity and the presence of the Kingdom of God in our midst, then we are living out the Gospel in a way that it can be seen as a reality instead of just a nice idea.  Christ gave the Church clear responsibilities that are stated in Scripture – “Love one another as I have loved you”, and “Go, and make disciples of all tribes, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have taught you.”  What makes us think that the one who gave us that responsibility and the authority to carry it out will not also hold us accountable for those responsibilities when he comes again on the last day to judge both the living and the dead?

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