It was supposed to be an easy week. Thursday was the start to a short vacation, others were responsible for the worship service, and I didn’t have to preach. On paper, it looked pretty straightforward.
All that changed with the three-page document I found on my desk Monday morning. That document was the deacon’s proposed church budget for the next year. I sat down, which turned out to be a good decision, and began to look over the proposal. The first number that caught my eye was the $20,000 reduction from last year’s budget. “Impressive. How did they do this?” I wondered. What I found caused my anxiety to shoot through the roof. Our church secretary’s salary was cut in half. The custodian’s salary suffered the same hatchet. I saw the worship leader position we were looking to fill had been completely removed from the budget. The children and youth ministries were completely defunded, including our vacation Bible school, which is one of our biggest outreaches.
I wasn’t the only one who had an emotional reaction to the proposed budget. Before the end of the day I had talked with some of the church elders who said they would never approve this budget. In our church polity, the budget has to be approved by the consistory (our leadership council made up of elders and deacons). The consistory was scheduled to meet Tuesday night and our number one objective was to approve a budget for the next year. I started to dread this meeting.
As we gathered for the meeting, we were cordial with each other, but the tension was palpable. It was obvious this was going to be a difficult meeting. There were basically two ways this was going to go; there would be conflict and people would be hurt, or we would find some compromise.
Obviously, I was hoping and praying for the second option to become a reality. So in the 36 hours leading up to the meeting I prayed a lot, and established these goals: 1) I did not want to dictate the decision. I wanted to there to be honest discussion about this difficult topic. 2) It was important to me that those sitting around the table would leave the meeting remembering and treating one another as brothers in Christ. And, 3) the mission of Christ would be served through our discussion and budget.
Below are some principles I used to prepare myself for the meeting and in the meeting to guide the discussion.
I’m a young pastor in my first pastorate. By no means do I have this figured out. Part of my anxiety came from the fact that I had never done this before. Therefore it was essential for me to lean on those who had.
I called mentors and pastors and asked for their help. How did they run meetings like this? How have they dealt with conflict? How should I even be thinking about the budget? Asking these types of questions to those who have journeyed longer and farther than I have gave me access to experience and perspective I couldn’t have had otherwise.
No right and wrong
A conversation with the chairman of the deacons revealed the proposed budget was put together in an effort to avoid taking money out of our savings account. To be fair to the deacons, their goal was admirable. They desired to be good stewards, handling God’s resources responsibly. Giving over the last three years was trending downward. While we hadn’t dipped into savings yet, we had diminished the excess we had in our operational checking account. This is the reality the deacons understood, and therefore, were trying to respond by being responsible stewards, not spending more than we were taking in.
Those opposed to the proposed budget said we needed to have faith in God’s provision. They argued if we were following God’s leading He would provide the necessary resources. For them, our savings was seen not as something to be preserved, but as something to be used to accomplish our ministry goals. At this time, that meant not cutting back on ministry.
It was important to understand there is Biblical basis for both positions. Even more important was acknowledging those in both camps desired to serve God by living out these principles. The problem is, these two positions can be in conflict with each other. This was our case when we came to the table.
All too often when a situation like this occurs, the two sides label the other as wrong or less Biblical. This just isn’t true. Granted, there are times when some theological or doctrinal differences are unorthodox. But in situations where the two parties are holding to orthodox beliefs that happen to be at odds, it must be recognized that both have a valid truth claim. In our case it was important to acknowledge that responsible stewardship doesn’t please God anymore than operating out of faith in His provision, and vice versa. Both claims had a legitimate case and therefore those making them deserved respect. Recognizing the legitimacy of both ideas reduces the chance that people will become defensive. They don’t have to prove the validity of their viewpoint if you acknowledge it.
Whenever you come to a meeting where the emotions are going to run high, know that people are coming with some anxiety about the meeting. Pay attention to your anxiety, because more than likely, if you are feeling anxious others are too. Anxiety is energy. It will work itself out in some way whether in conflict, triangulation, or people withdrawing from the conversation. Therefore, it is important to allow that energy to be released in a healthy manner.
We needed to acknowledge the anxiety in the room. Before we even looked at the budget we took some time to share with each other our hopes and our fears for the meeting. We put them on a large paper and hung them around the room so everyone could see them.
This process can be very illuminating so pay attention to what is said. I noticed very quickly that the hopes and fears people shared revealed where they stood on how we should approach the budget. “I fear we won’t trust God” and “I hope we aren’t foolish with God’s money” were they types of things shared. I used this opportunity to keep us focused by sharing things like, “I fear we will forget that we are brothers in Christ,” and “I hope we find a solution that is fiscally responsible but at the same time facilitates Gospel proclamation.” This subtly (or not so subtly) reminded everyone what was central. Our responsibility as Christian leaders is not just to get us to peace on the other side of conflict, but is to keep us moving toward that which Christ has called us.
When emotions run high it can be difficult to remember the ultimate goal. For us, we could have gotten caught up in the minor goals of living by faith or being responsible stewards and forgotten what was most important as a church: proclaiming the gospel of Christ.
The last thing we did before the budget discussion was remind ourselves of the mission Christ gave the church. We made a list of the things we as a church do to live out that mission.
It is important to remember that the budget exists to facilitate that mission. The mission of the church is not the budget; rather the budget is a tool to be used to fulfill the calling of the church. Another way to say this, the church doesn’t serve the budget, the budget serves the church.
Look for the unexpected
Somewhere in the middle of the meeting something happened. I can’t really explain what happened, but I could sense it in the moment and it brought tears to my eyes. One member shared his fear (which, oddly, didn’t get shared when we were sharing hopes and fears) that if we cut so much out the budget we would basically be throwing in the towel. Another person shared their experience of losing their job and experiencing the provision of God. And somewhere in the midst of this vulnerability a creative energy began to flow. Ideas about how we could fundraise for different ministries, thoughts on opening the building for community use, attention to our assimilation program, emphasizing the connection between discipleship and stewardship, and approaching the budget as a living document to be visited and adjusted throughout the year over a static document drawn up for the whole year were just some of the conversations coming from that table.
I believe the conflict created the necessary tension needed for creativity to occur. Without that initial anxious energy we would not have felt the tension to do something different. At the same time, the creativity would not have transpired if we had not managed our anxieties or if we had tried to argue that responsible stewardship was better than living by faith. As leaders, it is not always our job to have the creative idea to solve the problem. Our job is to lead people to a place where ideas can be heard.