By Rickey Letson, CBF Congregational Stewardship Officer
When I was a pastor, I always dreaded seeing the January church financial report. The first month of the year was almost always our worst month from a giving perspective. In our church, only July rivaled January for the top spot in the list of low giving months.
Each year, we would invariably ponder how January could be so bad when December, the previous month, had been so good from a revenue perspective. Sometimes the pondering even led to anxious questions. Had something negative happened in December that was now showing up in the January offering plate? Did some of our key givers make January resolutions to give more to other charitable groups and less to the church? Had key leaders seen a drop in personal income that was now being reflected as a new calendar year began?
While these and similar questions came up every year, they were all off base. The truth was that January in our church was simply a historically bad giving month. Yet, we were doing nothing to account for this historic reality in the monthly giving goals we established. So much of our anxiety was self-induced and unnecessary. When I think back, I wish I had known about the practice that many churches and other nonprofits employ in which they allow historic giving trends to help them set monthly revenue goals. If we had simply used this strategy in our church, it would have helped a great deal. Here’s how the practice works.
First, in this model, monthly revenue goals are not divided into 12 equal parts. In most churches, anticipated giving for the month is simply one twelfth of the overall budget. In other words, if a church has a budget of $1.2 million then the monthly revenue goal is set at $100,000. Again, however, this does not consider the historic way money actually comes into the church and so unnecessary anxiety can be created when actual giving doesn’t meet unrealistic expectations. This model seeks to directly address and alter this common practice.
Second, with this model, monthly revenue goals seek to mirror historic giving trends. In other words, historically low giving months have lower giving goals while historically higher months have larger giving goals. Take the example of my church and its January woes. Instead of having a goal that is simply one twelfth of the overall budget, what if our January goal had been a much smaller percentage considering our financial history? At the same time, what if February, which was historically a higher month had a revenue goal that was slightly higher than one twelfth? Further, what if fourth quarter months which were historically our highest giving months of the year had even larger giving expectations tied to them?
Third, this model seeks to encourage budget planning that is highly local and contextual. What I appreciate about this model is that every situation and church is different. Some churches have a large percentage of members who work for a major local employer who pays out bonuses every March. In such a situation, church leaders know that March is always going to be one of their best giving months and can plan accordingly. Other churches are composed of many educators, and their giving follows the rhythm of the academic calendar. Still other congregations have a high percentage of retired members who give out of stocks or IRAs and so a large portion of their revenue comes at the very end of the year. This way of setting revenue goals takes all of these realities into account, encourages churches to know their own pattern and to weight monthly goals in light of what they know to be true.
Fourth, in this model where there are monthly giving goals that are tied to historical trends, an atmosphere that focuses more on celebration than anxiety can be created. Looking back at the example from my own pastorate, I am quite aware that most of our annual January worry was self-created. I am also aware that if our January giving goal had been more realistic and right-sized, we may very well have done a lot more celebrating and a lot less hand-wringing. I think this is true of many congregations. Most churches know their historic giving patterns, but, they don’t mirror these clear patterns with their monthly goals. Instead of celebrating faithfulness, churches create unneeded financial worry.
Clearly, this model doesn’t solve all of a church’s budget challenges, but, it certainly can help. In the end, it is a simple, practical adjustment that can ease some of the concern that managing church finances often creates.
(This article is based on one of the suggestions offered in the new resource Twelve Best Practices for Church Budgets that is available for download at www.cbf.net/church-finance-resources.)