the shape of leadership

An Impossible Choice

The ethics of fulfilling financial obligations in a crisis

The first several months of 2020 have been a crisis moment for the world.

COVID-19 became a global pandemic that reached into every corner of society, affecting the way we live, work, interact and worship.

The novel coronavirus is having unprecedented impact medically, socially and economically, and churches are no exception. Without the ability to meet in person, churches quickly adjusted to online services, while pastors’ attention turned to issues of care and compassion.

Most church leaders also anticipated another impact of the pandemic: a decrease in charitable giving, which is a crisis of its own. Like all crises, this created clarity concerning how we steward the church’s money.

The central question is, if you have more financial commitments than you have income, whom do you pay first? And while that is a very practical question, it is also an ethical one.

Psalm 37:21 says, “The wicked borrow and do not repay, but the righteous give generously.” And Romans 13:7 says, “Give to everyone what you owe them.”

We have a responsibility to keep our commitments to businesses, employees and families. We also know that sometimes the economic realities we face force us to make hard decisions about where our money goes. That’s as true in our personal budgets as it is in our church budgets.

Most church budgets contain these four basic categories: facilities expenses, ministry expenses, payroll and savings.

Facilities include your mortgage or rent, utilities and maintenance. Ministry includes church department budgets, missionary support, outreach and benevolence. Payroll includes employee pay, taxes and benefits. Savings include money set aside for future projects, as well as emergency reserves.

But in times of economic crisis, what if you can’t afford to completely fund your budget and pay everyone you owe? Do you pay your mortgage or your staff? Do you buy groceries to feed hungry people in your community or keep your monthly financial commitment to your missionaries?

These are not easy questions, and there are no easy answers. In fact, every situation is unique, so there isn’t one right solution for every church.

There are, however, some principles to keep in mind when facing these difficult decisions.

Stay calm. Don’t panic. You rarely make good decisions when you’re afraid. These are big decisions that impact real people and families, so make a commitment to decide, not react.

Seek counsel. You rarely make the best decision when you’re alone. Proverbs 15:22 says, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” Call an advisor whose business acumen you trust, and also make sure you talk to people who have intimacy with Jesus. These situations call for the blending of fact and faith.

COVID-19 isn’t the first crisis creating an economic storm for the world, and it won’t be the last.

Cut the unnecessary. Anything you don’t need can be cut. Is your church paying for lawn service, cable TV, janitorial services or any other luxuries? Many of those can be discontinued to conserve cash.

Stop extra payments. Are you regularly paying extra principle on your mortgage or other debts? During this season, you can pay only what’s required and pick back up paying extra at a later date.

Stay missional. Crises force us to focus on what’s most important to our church. Investing in tangible help for people in need locally and missionary boots on the ground globally are essential to who we are and should be atop our list of priorities. God will bless us as we prioritize His mission.

Use reserves. Many churches have reserves set aside in a rainy-day fund and may be wondering whether now is the right time to use that money. The rainy day has arrived. Use those funds now to support essential operations, pay debts and make payroll. That’s what they’re for.

Get creative. Paying expenses isn’t always all or nothing. Whether it’s paying a vendor or a staff member, can you pay half or two-thirds rather than not paying anything? As difficult as it is to be unable to afford paying 100% of that bill, paying something is better than nothing.

Communicate. In a time of financial crisis, overcommunication is important. Never decide not to pay a person or a business without first having a personal conversation. Call them, or go see them in person if you can. Let them know the struggle you’re having, and reassure them you will pay, but you need their help to find a workable solution. During a crisis, people are often flexible and really do want to help one another succeed.

This is a no-win situation. A nearly impossible choice. An ethical conundrum. And while I always try to provide answers in this column, there aren’t many good answers here.

The two things this crisis highlights, maybe more than anything else, is to take every opportunity to live within your means and create margin in times of plenty. After all, margin is an ethical issue too.

The Old Testament account of Joseph points us to the wisdom of using times of plenty to create margin that can sustain us in times of need. We have an ethical responsibility to maintain margin.

So, while this advice may not help you now, do yourself a favor and work toward these two financial goals in the future:

1 Budget to spend 90% of last year’s income, creating a 10% buffer. If your income grows, so does your margin and your ability to invest extra in ministry. But if it’s not a growth year, and even if you experience a little setback, you can still cover your obligations.

2. Create a reserve fund to use in times of crisis, make regular contributions to it, and protect it.

COVID-19 isn’t the first crisis creating an economic storm for the world, and it won’t be the last. While we never wish for a crisis, crises do come.

One way to grow through this crisis is to learn important financial lessons now and practice good stewardship going forward. That way, when the next crisis hits, your church will be prepared to meet the challenge.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2020 edition of Influence magazine.
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