I’ve yet to meet a pastor who would prefer spreadsheets to sermons or calculators to counseling. But like it or not, having a workable, vision-oriented budget is an essential part of your growing ministry. Embrace a budget early on, and what begins as a simple plan on how to spend money quickly becomes a tool to help you plan a financially healthy future.
As an Associate Vice President at ECCU, I’ve spent my career helping churches, plants and other ministries chart their financial course. Here, I have compiled some of my favorite, time-tested tips that I hope will help you on your church plant journey.
Predicting your future income is essential to your success. So, how do you budget for six months from now when you might be twice the size you are today? How do you start to plan for what a year two budget looks like when you don’t know if you’ll have 50 people or 100 people showing up?
WHAT’S YOUR AVERAGE?
- The first step is to find an average annual gift amount per attender. I’ve seen thousands of financial statements for churches all across America, and on average a church’s annual income is pretty close to $1200 x their average attendance. So, a church of 400 people is generally bringing in about $480,000 per year.
- Your figure might be higher or lower, but finding your average can be a helpful baseline for planning. Maybe your average annual gift is $850. Wouldn't that be helpful to know if you think that you'll add 20 people to your church in the next year?
Early on, your fixed expenses are lower than typical. But if you anticipate any growth in the coming year, you need to plan for it and the impact that will have on things like staffing needs, facilities, and ministry. For reference, a church can typically sustain one full time employee per 100 people in attendance.
- Make sure you can always cover regular expenses, like payroll, rent and utilities.
- Save funds for unplanned events, like the loss of a key donor or a change to a facility arrangement.
- Expect opportunities, such as an invitation from the city to partner in an after-school program. Plan for them by saving.
- Always, always, always, expect the unexpected!
BUILDING IN FLEXIBILITY
The best way to keep your budget flexible, while planning for growth and anticipating times of uncertainty, is to create three different budgets. Now, I know what you’re thinking — building one budget is bad enough! But this system will give you peace of mind throughout the year, while giving you the freedom to change course when need be.
THREE BUDGETS, ONE GOAL
- A conservative budget that predicts slower than anticipated growth. (Think 80%)
- A budget based on current projections. (Think 100%)
- A hopeful budget that exceeds, within reason, your growth expectations. (Think 120%)
Consider how these three scenarios would affect each line item. Where would you direct a surplus? Where would you make necessary cuts? How would you accommodate more people? When can you support additional staff? This is your chance to dream about where God could lead you, while establishing guard rails if things begin to get off track.
KEEP IT UP
Once you’ve made your budget, you can just set it and forget it, right? Not so fast. There’s no point in having a budget if you’re not paying attention to it.
CHECK IN OFTEN
- Track income and expenses against the budget all year long.
- Sit down and examine your budget at least once per quarter. If the economy looks uneasy or you’ve noticed changes in giving habits, do it more often.
- Adjust as needed throughout the year and move to one of your other budgets before you get too far off course.
Church budgets are more than just numbers on a spreadsheet. They’re a reflection of your values, goals, and mission. Why did you plant in the first place? Let these guiding principles lead your budget. In the months to come we’ll delve deeper into vision-based budgeting and exactly what that means, but always remember, income comes and goes, but your God-given mission remains steadfast.
This may seem like a lot to digest, but If necessary, take small steps to get started. It’s more important to move toward financial accountability slowly than not at all.
Kurt Blake is an Associate Vice President at the Evangelical Christian Credit Union. Over the last 15 years he was worked with thousands of ministries to help align their finances to their mission. He has served as an Elder, Church Treasurer, Board Member and CFO of an apologetics ministry.