The B Word

October 4th, 2009

Fear and loathing need not taint your budgeting process, which—in the estimation of many youth pastors—ranks right up there with changing the youth van's oil.

Although we're supposed to minister with our sights set on things that are not seen, we nevertheless walk on an all-too-visible earth. That's why an economic slump worries us. It chokes the supply of money given to the church, generally resulting in an emaciated youth budget. On top of that, a dollar isn't worth as much today as it was yesterday—and tomorrow it'll be worth even less.

• How to Begin a Budget

• What I Include in My Budget

Some, of course, suggest that we ignore the gathering economic storm clouds, recounting how the church of Christ moves relentlessly forward, regardless of poverty or prosperity. The church's gaze, they assert, should be on the riches of Christ, not on the budget. “God always pays for what he orders,” they assure us. Excessive pondering about material provisions betrays a subtle faithlessness, we are warned.

While good in theory (and fodder for guilt), ignoring economic pressure is like attempting to float above problems in a leaky boat. Jesus acknowledged the significance of economic realities when he encouraged careful planning before embarking on any serious endeavor (Luke 14:25-35). Money may be only a tool, but it is still a tool.

Yet grim economic uncertainties—still at work in many parts of this country—have failed to smother youth work, contends 20-year youth ministry veteran Rob Porras, now the senior pastor of New Life Community Church in Miami. “Over the past two decades,” he says, “the general economic outlook has improved for youth ministry, especially in denominational circles.” Yet, he points out, “the situation varies from church to church.” Some churches generously fund their youth ministries, while cramped budgets of other assemblies force them to require their youth groups to raise their own funds.

Most youth workers prefer to invest the lion's share of their time directly in the lives of those they serve. Personal work is their arena. To them, budget preparation is a trivial administrative task dashed off the night before it's due. The numbers they submit are merely an attempt to get something on paper. Once approved, this kind of budget receives little attention. No one takes time to compare projected spending with the amounts actually spent. This apparently fruitless exercise reinforces the negative reputation of budgeting.

On the other hand, a carefully considered budget proposal reflects a youth minister's desire to excel. “Here at Wayside Chapel the youth ministry is a budgeted line item within the budget of the church,” explains Ted Owmby, administrator for this San Antonio church. “These funds have been carefully researched and properly justified by the youth pastor and elders.” This kind of thoughtful preparation ensures that the only money the kids must raise themselves is for ski trips or other special activities. Owmby notes that even then Wayside often assists teens with special needs.

Budgets can be powerful tools for planning and strategizing an effective youth ministry, for they provide an overview of the ministry. The analysis of a thoughtful budget can reveal both the priorities and weaknesses of a ministry. By scrutinizing the budget document, a youth leader can continue building on the strengths of the group, while buttressing any revealed deficiencies.

To properly prepare a budget document, you've got to consider your purposes and goals for the group—that is, its philosophy. The financial breakdown should clearly reflect a ministry's priorities. The stated purpose of my high school ministry at Eastminster, for example, is to “meet all individuals at their level of need.” Consequently, this organization's budget is broken down into three categories (outreach, Christian growth, ministry training) which represent three levels of needs (the lost, the growing Christian, the ministering Christian). Budgeting for my Eastminster youth group is a matter of allocating specific financial resources to accomplish our purpose.

Thoughtfully preparing a budget forces a youth worker to ask a number of questions. What are we trying to do?—that's often the first and most crucial issue. Organizations can somehow exist for decades without ever putting into words the reason for their existence. Boards simply renew the budget each year, adjusting only for inflation or a decrease in funds.

Ideally, a budget “reflects the financial avenues by which a ministry is attempting to accomplish its purpose,” says CPA Kevin Taylor, the business manager for Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Wichita. Bolstered by a clear purpose, a budget can gently prod a ministry beyond maintaining the status quo, yet at the same time guard it from joining every bandwagon marching down Main Street. A destination is the prerequisite for a journey's steady progress. Properly forming a budget sets a destination and provides landmarks by which the course can be discerned and affirmed.

Understanding what we are trying to do prompts a second question: How will we accomplish the purposes we've established for ourselves? Along with reflecting the philosophy and purposes of a ministry, a budget reflects the strategy that will accomplish those goals. For instance, 61 percent of Eastminster's senior high budget is allocated for outreach; the remaining 39 percent is earmarked for Christian growth, ministry training, and miscellaneous. The spending for outreach is one and a half times the amount allocated for the three other areas, largely because the group sponsors several outreach events and four on-campus peer-evangelism groups. This two-pronged approach requires a large investment of capital to prepare and complete evangelistic events attractive to the world.

The rest of Eastminster's ministry requires relatively minimal funding, because the majority of the Christian growth and ministry training within the group is done by professional and volunteer staff members through teaching, mentoring, and discipleship. This type of interaction is centered around human resources rather than monetary disbursement.

For us, it boils down to this: Disciple-making calls for sharing lives; on the other hand, compelling a skeptical audience to consider the truth of Christ calls for sharing funds. Disciples actively seek out mentors; the lost must be sought out and attracted. This difference in approach explains the diversity in spending.

Doing More with Less

Yet even a carefully proposed budget is only as helpful as the money available to set it in motion. In times when money isn't readily available, how can you do more with less?

  • Charge admission. First, sponsoring an event that attracts as many teenagers as possible is costly but feasible when an admission price covers all or part of the cost of the event. Say you've budgeted $1,000 for outreach events; you can absorb the cost of four $250 events. Yet if you pass on half the cost of each event to your students, you can sponsor eight events for the same $1,000. And students don't mind paying for a well-done event that appeals to them.
  • Plan low-cost events. Simple resourcefulness is another option to stretch your youth-budget dollar. Sporting activities, crowd games, group sharing, and many recreational events cost little or nothing. Like all of us in youth ministry, Porras at New Life has found that teenagers don't want to be entertained as much as they want to be loved. “The relationships formed in our group were the things that made us strong,” he remembers. “The kids never really saw the money aspect of the ministry. What they saw were adult sponsors interested in them.”
  • Set up a scholarship fund. Every group has students who can barely come up with more than five or 10 bucks for an activity. So in your desire to reach as many students as possible, you unwisely absorb the cost of financially needy students by letting them attend an event or retreat free of charge—and drain the resources of your ministry in the process. It only takes 10 teenagers attending a $40-per-student retreat free of charge to put you $400 into the red.

But there's an alternative to turning down students who can't pay. Maintain a scholarship fund for financially needy students by collecting a special offering or soliciting gifts from church members. Financially needy students can also earn the needed funds by assisting church members with yard work or chores around the house. A scholarship fund or work exchange frees you from the no pay/no play solution.

But we all know that there's more to youth ministry than money, however vital cash is to arrive at a budget. In fact, your most important ministry resource—people—is essentially unaffected by the financial climate of your ministry. Human resources are the greatest asset any youth ministry can possess.

Our culture has recognized its hunger for relationships. Baby boomers (like myself) have drunk deeply at the well of self-indulgence and have come away thirsty. Sitting in the hot tubs of heavily mortgaged homes, many boomers are now realizing that there is more to life than possessions. Teenage children of boomers, too, are bombarded with advertisements for every possible device to bring them happiness—and they also come up empty. Technology eventually leaves them cold. They desire the human touch.

Enter youth ministry.

Teens aren't looking for youth groups that lavish them with extravagant events, that cater to their every materialistic whim. The world has tried this approach, and it has left them adrift in a sea of glitter. Teenagers are looking for someone who will love them for who they are and not for what they can contribute to a healthy bottom line. That kind of resource isn't found in a balance sheet. The greatest resources are those men and women who faithfully allow Jesus Christ to reach out through their lives.

Many churches promote a yearly stewardship Sunday, during which the leadership appeals to the congregation to dig into their personal finances in order to fund the church budget. Church leadership typically sets the standard at 10 percent of a year's income-a tithe-for each member's contribution. What could happen if the leadership made an additional appeal for members to tithe 10 percent of their time to the ministry? Using only waking hours and allowing eight hours nightly for sleep, this works out to a time tithe of a little over 11 hours weekly, or around 580 hours annually. Using the 40-hour week as a standard, this is almost 15 weeks per year per member of volunteer service. If a congregation participated this much, finances wouldn't even matter.

Even a casual reading of the New Testament reveals Christ's consistent priority-relationships. People. He did not seek to impress the masses; he entered their lives offering hope. He knew that souls are seldom won by checks.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.