At Old South, Advent season is also budget season. Budget season coincides with preparation for our annual meeting that is held every year at the end of January. On many occasions over the course of my long tenure at Old South, the initial budget draft that begins budget season has offered a bleak prospect for the coming year—anticipated income not nearly covering expected costs. The governing board then moves into fraught discussions regarding the various ways through which we might force the income and expenses to line up. In good congregational fashion, there is, at the start, little agreement.
Prior to the 2020 budget season, I’ve reacted to the looming crisis outlined by the first draft of the budget by grasping at something I was once fairly good at when I was a child: math. I look at the figures and start playing with them, often focusing on the lines of the budget that concern myself as pastor (salary and benefits are a large chunk of the budget) and how a reduction in those lines that would force a reduction in my time at the church, and how that might be managed.
One of the most difficult of the budget seasons—about ten years ago—resulted in my time and salary being reduced from full-time to three-quarter time. During that particular budget season, I spent a lot of time in difficult conversation with the Board of Trustees. A couple of the Trustees, it turned out, were very willing to reduce my salary, but couldn’t understand why I insisted on a reduction in time as well. I remember one gentleman finally raising his brewing accusation at a meeting of the Trustees: “I know what you’re up to! You want to work less.” I took a deep breath. And, then tried to respond nicely and clearly: “Yes. If you are going to cut my pay, we’re going to cut my hours.” He still didn’t seem to get it.
Except for that one year when my salary and time were cut, I’ve discovered that every other looming crisis has turned into no crisis at all. Every time, the crisis has been averted—without even the slightest need to delve into my carefully crafted plan, with its elegant math. Something has happened—a mistake in the assumptions that the treasurer made when compiling the budget; an unanticipated gift or pledge; a decision to take on a fundraising project; a commitment from church leaders to take on things like leading worship when I’m on vacation so that the “supply” line can be significantly reduced; or, a reworking of several lines that result in lower expenses.
My elegantly crafted math-scapes all coming to nothing. I remember one of those years, that I put together a multi-page report in preparation for the December meeting of the governing board. We had averted several crises several years in a row, and I felt that our run of luck had come to an end.
Only it hadn’t. I don’t remember what exactly happened, but yet again, the crisis fizzled.
This year, the initial budget was emailed out to the governing body in November and it didn’t look good. But, instead of pulling out my calculator, I spent my time in better ways. Somehow I knew what was going to happen. Somehow, I knew that the crisis would be averted. Yet again.
And, it was.
How many lives does a church get?