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Are My Church’s Finances My Business?

Recently, we received an e-mail from a young woman who has joined her first “post-college” church. The congregation runs about 100 people and this young woman, in addition to being a member, has been hired to do some general administrative work at the church.

As she puts it, “Between my job and my involvement I’ve come to get a feel for how our church spends money.” But she is concerned about times that she is not given a budget when purchasing (just told to spend whatever it takes) and second-hand knowledge that the church purchasing card has been declined on occasion.

She asks:

I’ve just seen a few too many signs of spending that could be a little more responsible…

My question is as a church member how much am I allowed to know about the finances of the church? Is it ok for me to ask about and how would I ask it in a respectful way? I’m not interested in every entry in the church checkbook, and I think that would be a little too much. But is it ok to want to get a general account of how the money is spent?

Here’s my reply.

Thank you so much for writing to us! You bring up a great issue, and I think it’s important to address.

Let’s start by hitting the big principle. Namely, churches should have financial transparency to their members.

In “Financial Integrity and Accountability in Churches and Ministries,” author Randy Alcorn points us to 2 Corinthians 8, where Paul heaps praise on the Macedonian church for their giving, encourages the Corinthians to “excel in this grace of giving” and then gives some particulars about how the offering will be handled — that Paul has welcomed Titus and a third Christian brother to carry the offering because

We want to avoid any criticism of the way we administer this liberal gift. For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of men.

Alcorn writes:

First, we need to take pains to do what is right. A system of financial accountability may seem awkward, time-consuming, or a nuisance. At times it may seem unnecessary. But it is right, and therefore we must take pains to establish proper checks and balances.

Second, it’s not enough for a leader to say, “My conscience is clear before the Lord.” Our actions must be above reproach, “not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of men.” Whatever system of collecting and distributing funds we choose, it must involve awareness and accountability, with a plurality of character-approved men or women (preferably not chosen by each other but by a church or constituency).

Dave Ramsey, a respected financial radio host, author and speaker, agrees.

So, how much are you “allowed” to know as a church member? My answer would be: everything. How much do you need to know? In my experience, not everything, but an overall knowledge is good and, I think, necessary. For example, I have a general idea of what my church spends on personnel. It’s part of the annual budget presentation. I don’t concern myself with the breakdown of which pastor gets what. I just don’t really care and we have a “personnel committee” that deals with those numbers intimately. But, if there was a concern in that area, I’d certainly consider it my husband and mine’s right to know.

What to do now? You’ve got a little more complicated situation because you are a member and an employee. As an employee, you’d like some fiscal direction. As a member, you want to ensure good stewardship.

I think I’d recommend starting by putting that “member” hat on. Do some preliminary research and see if there is someone other than the pastor you should talk to (financial secretary, committee chairman, treasurer, accountant, etc.). Since you are from a small church, it’s possible that the pastor may be the one to start with, while those from larger churches may take another route.

You might ask to speak with him (in your non-working hours, by appointment preferably) about the church’s finances. (I’ve always found that giving anyone a heads up about a meeting’s subject beforehand decreases the tension that a “bomb” is going to be dropped and also lets them prepare.)

During the meeting, you can let him know that you want to take your membership in the church seriously and part of that is participating in the church’s stewardship (both by giving and showing an interest in the church’s financial health). You can ask some basic questions: Do we have an annual budget? Do we prepare financial statements on a regular basis (annually, quarterly, whatever)? Can I have copies please?

Just those two questions will get you started, and may alleviate your concerns. Your church is on the smaller end, but even the smallest church should have, at minimum, a budget and an annual review of that budget.

I have to say, though, that the declined card is a yellow flag to me. Since you never experienced this firsthand, I don’t necessarily think it’s up to you to bring it up. But if you find, in your meeting and after, that the church either doesn’t have a budget or is not sticking to it, you may need to take some harder steps. That may include taking your concerns to the authorities or lay respresentatives of your church (deacons or elders).

Dave Ramsey writes:

Demons hide in the dark. When you shine a light, the demons run and the angels smile. Church leaders should always welcome accountability for how they manage the church’s resources (i.e. God’s resources).

I’m hopeful that your church leadership, when approached with a humble spirit, will respond positively to your financial interest. God bless!

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About the Author

Heather Koerner

Heather Koerner is a stay-at-home mom and freelance writer from Owasso, Okla.

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