“I wish we were more transparent about our finances.” For almost every problem congregations face, transparency is one proposed solution. Treasurers and business managers—who work hard to produce honest, accurate reports—often are surprised by the implication that they’re hiding something. Transparency is good, but flooding people with more data rarely solves the problem. True transparency requires a plan to give financial information to each of four distinct audiences.
Last March as we began to realize the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, congregations entered a creative frenzy. We found ways to offer worship, pastoral care, group fellowship, and education online. Long-range plans went out the window as we rose to short-term challenges.
Governing boards—even those that generally spend time planning and discerning—have understandably become preoccupied with short-term matters. Board members are busy finding groceries, caring for children out of school, and helping out with this or that around the congregation. But “this or that” is not the work of governance. Eventually boards and clergy leaders must return to their core work and formulate a fact-based and compelling vision of the congregation’s future.
Everybody knows that congregations require money, and most leaders know that to receive gifts, you usually have to ask for them. But sometimes donors offer gifts without being asked. This is a good thing—usually! But unasked-for gifts often have strings attached. Accepting them blindly risks letting donors choose the congregation’s course. Paradoxically, one of the most effective ways to encourage gifts is to adopt clear policies about when you will say no to them.
Service is notoriously hard to measure. This is true for every type of service: checkout clerks at Walmart, geeks at Best Buy, and nurse-midwives. And it’s doubly true when the desired result is fuzzy, controversial, or unstated, as it often is for clergy, educators, organizers, or musicians working in a church or synagogue.
When the job is helping other people, measurement is difficult. That’s why you’re so often asked to fill out an evaluation after you get service online or by phone. Employers—who tried for years to measure service work with the same stopwatch-and-clipboard methods factory managers used a hundred years ago—have realized it doesn’t matter how much time it takes to serve a customer if the result is that the customer posts negative reviews all over Yelp.
I don’t know why it took so long, but finally the U.S. wealth gap has become a topic of political discussion. The conversation is not easy, in part because most of us rarely talk with people outside our economic group. Churches and synagogues—though most draw only from a small slice of the total spectrum—are still potentially places where richer and poorer people meet as equals. By handling these meetings well, we can help create support for public policies and private actions that promote equality.
Years ago a bright Yale student asked me how I would describe the difference between a church and any other charitable group. I gave the sort of answer I imagine many of us might give. I emphasized the church’s unique life-transforming mission and its special responsibility to transmit precious traditions across generations.
It was a good answer, but today I am afraid I’d have to add that of all nonprofits, congregations—and especially mainstream, relatively liberal ones—are among the most cautious and least willing to accept risk in order to fulfill their mission. We’re not alone. Many sleepy charities, government agencies, and old-line businesses also avoid risk. But where risk is concerned, many congregations fall into the slow group.
Talking openly about occupational subcultures helps make board conversation richer and more fruitful.