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3 Suggestions for Trimming Budgets in Tough Times

The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to a deflated global economy. Individuals and businesses are undergoing financial stress and as a result, so are the churches who rely on the generosity of God’s people. In light of this, my fellow pastors and I are preparing for difficulty, yet hoping for the best and learning to be content no matter what happens (Phil 4:11).

To prepare, I spent a couple of days working on our church budget; we cut or suspended nearly 20% of our budget at this point. Since it’s on my mind, I thought I would share a few suggestions for trimming church budgets in light of lean and uncertain financial prospects.

To be clear, these are suggestions based on what I think is biblically informed prudence. My desire is that these recommendations will be generally helpful for churches – and even individuals and families – to apply the wisdom of the hard-working ant by preparing for what may be a frosty winter ahead of us (Prov 6:6-8).

Suspend unnecessary projects

Our church planned to set aside a large sum of money this year to save for some needed upgrades and renovations to our building. In particular, we need a major bathroom overhaul.

But last time I checked, our toilets still flush, we have sinks, running water, and soap – and yes, even that most precious and rare commodity: toilet paper (for now!). A new bathroom would definitely add some flair and comfort to our building. We’ve also planned for some other improvements and upgrades that we still hope to do.

We do think that these renovations and upgrades are one way to serve and love one another. It is wrong to say that physical buildings and maintenance are unspiritual aspects of ministry and should always be the first area to cut. But in our estimation, these specific projects that we were saving up for lie at the level of “creature comforts”, not absolute necessity at this point. So, this is fat that we trimmed. 

Of course, there are exceptions to this (leaking roof, mold, etc.). I’m thinking more along the lines of postponing upgrading sound systems, projectors, new furniture or office equipment, and the likes of these.

Churches and individuals will need to re-consider what is essential versus non-essential in order for us to plow forward in obedience to our main task: making disciples of all nations.

John Piper famously calls disciples of Christ to live with a “wartime lifestyle”. His point is that Christians should make style of life decisions not with mere “simplicity” as the gauge, but with wartime effectiveness in mind.[1]

Maybe these tough times will purge consumeristic tendencies out of us and recalibrate us back to our main objective of actively pushing back the enemy lines by reading, preaching, praying, singing, and seeing the Word as we gather together in Christ’s name.[2]

Be creative

In addition to increasing the amount designated for benevolence, we have created other avenues for our benevolence ministry. Previously we contracted our cleaning and landscaping needs to an outside service.

When everything was firing on all 8 cylinders, we believed that this was prudent. But now that we anticipate more of our members to be unemployed in the coming days, we have cancelled these services and plan to use this money to hire members to do these jobs. 

If a member is unemployed, we may be able to help supplement some temporary income while at the same time making sure that our facilities are cared for. While we can’t replace jobs for every member out of work, we think this is an additional mechanism to help some of our brothers and sisters temporarily fill in the gap while they look for more work.

Ask yourself: are there jobs that you are currently hiring to outside companies that you can give to your unemployed members? Think of creative and practical ways to meet the needs of the saints that dovetail with your needs as a church. 

Protect your staff

I admit that this suggestion is not without a conflict of interest. I am a full-time paid staff pastor at our church. That being said, last week I proposed to the elder board some specific suspensions to staff benefits and some small and hopefully temporary cuts to our salaries.

I truly believed that these amendments were the wisest course of action for the time being. While some of my proposals were approved by the board, not all of them were. 

At our church, the non-staff pastors set the salary and the contours of additional benefits for staff. The unpaid pastors were clear that they did not want to cut staff salaries at this time.

In fact, they made it clear that this is one of the last actions they plan to take. Together we decided to suspend the staff benefit of our “outreach and development” expense which provides each staff member a certain amount of dollars per year that they can spend on conferences, pastor’s networks, books, missionary travel, and/or continuing education. But we kept the salaries where they are at for the time being.

I’m thankful that these non-staff shepherds were quick to protect the staff. One of the pastors stated it clearly: we do not want to “muzzle the ox” (1 Tim 5:18). By protecting our basic salary for the time being, these men showed submission to the wisdom of the Word which advises paying some pastors full-time so that they can keep “threshing” full-on rather than being muzzled by the constraints of needing to find other work.

We may have to adjust staff salaries at a later date, and we are personally preparing for that possibility. But I’m thankful that our elders, and our church collectively, want to protect the staff from being muzzled in the field, especially as the storm clouds seem to be brewing on the horizon. I am compelled to work even harder and with excellence in part because of this generosity.

These are a few suggestions for trimming the financial fat as we prepare for what looks like a break in our comfort and stability that we have known up to this point.

May God give us all wisdom from above. Keep your hand to the plow, friends!