As we end summer (!) and move toward fall, one of things that will be in front of many of us is establishing our church budgets for 2016. One of the things I think we do very well is not allowing our Session meetings to bog down in budgetary questions, leaving all of the operational decisions to the various committees. Here are our understandings that guide our understanding of budgets:
1. The budget is a planning document, not a regulatory document.
We understand that budgets are for planning, but nothing in life is guaranteed. Just as we can't force people to give more if revenue is under budget, we understand that spending sometimes needs to happen. We would never tell the Building people that they can't repair a broken toilet because they are over the budget for repairs, nor would we want them to wait until a Session meeting to get permission to fix it. Fix it first, because we have to. Our first instruction is: GET THE JOB DONE. The purpose of a budget is to plan what it will cost to get the job done, but doing our jobs well is the first priority.
2. We never change the budget once it is approved.
Because it is a planning document, we don't change it. If we need to spend more, we spend more and go over the budget. Every committee is authorized to exceed its budget if it needs to. In practice, 4 out of 5 will stay well within their budgets in a given year. At the end of the year, we look at everything to see if our allocations made sense and the deviations were exceptions, or whether we need to change the allocations. If you change your budget to accommodate an aberration, you lose sight of the fact that it is just an aberration.
3. We never have a "use it or lose it" mentality.
If you spent less in a given category in a year, you won't find your budget being cut to compensate. That just encourages committees to "spend out" their budget. As I said, 80% of the time our committees stay under their budgets. They do so confident that this won't come back to bite them.
4. Committees are accountable for the total of their budget, not individual line items.
We look at budgets by department. We plan at a more micro level (to justify the budget). But if one year the Christian Education group spends more on youth and less on adult education, fine. Never, however, allocate the spending of the "youth" overage to the underspent adult education item. Let the youth line item be over and the adult education be under. We need the "actuals" to be a true reflection of where the money is going. Committees are free to move money within their budgets as needed.
5. Spending decisions by committees are never countermanded by the Session.
The only spending decisions that must seek Session approval are major capital items, generally in excess of $10,000. Otherwise, go for it. The Session makes policy decisions; committees make operational decisions.
6. Be thrifty but not cheap.
Try not to sacrifice quality for price, especially in ways that are noticeable to visitors. We try to use Fair Trade coffee, recycled and compostable paper goods, etc. even if they are more expensive. Don't put a price on principles. Make lasting repairs, not quick fixes. Buy to the expected life of the product. Don't buy something that is made cheaply and expect it to last ten years. When you do the math over a ten- or twenty-year timeline, you'll find that quality items are the less expensive path, because you're often paying 25% more for something that will last twice as long. If you don't make the right long-term decision, what does that say about your faith in the future of your church? We do look for sales on quality goods, though!
7. Every committee meeting is attended by a staff person.
Nothing is more discouraging than to have a committee get excited about an idea only to have the Session shoot it down, or discover that it conflicts with something someone else is doing. We have a program staff person at every committee meeting. We are the "brand" enforcers, the schedule coordinators, etc. It's easier for staff to work out potential collisions than the Session. With staff present and continually aware of the "big picture", we can steer committees away from conflicts with other areas before they get invested in their ideas. Staff will also have a better feel for the overall budget.