Missional Finances

ne of the classic debates in congregations and church organizations is the debate between the mission of the church and the money this particular expression of the church has. In a recent meeting, I was unexpectedly asked to talk about this relationship, which I did rather ineloquently. This TheoThru will therefore look at that debate and try to find a theological ground for the conversation--a conversation I have a feeling more than a few expressions of the church are having.

The Debate

Do our available finances determine what we do, or do our actions determine our financial needs?  Hopefully you can't answer this questions easily, because it's the wrong question. The assumptions at work in this debate between the mission of the church and any money available prepare us for a lose-lose situation by pitting the two extreme ends against each other. More officially, this question raises our Cartesian anxiety.

In short, Cartesian anxiety picks a point on a flat surface and insists that nly this point can be the right point, every other point is wrong. Either-or questions are the common example: Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, soup or salad. Other questions, however, can be an expression of Cartesian anxiety in disguise. For example, the question, "You think worship is the most important thing the church does, don't you?" could be an expression of several different Cartesian anxieties with worship as the right point: worship v. mission, worship v. fundraising, worship v. education, etc.

n general, Cartesian anxiety is expressed when the focus is on being right or doing the correct thing. The underlying assumption is that we humans have it within us to clearly make the correct choice, and that one of the choices is "win" and any other is "lose." Very few decisions in life are this clear, however, and to make the point, I want to do a thought experiment around feeding the hungry, something I hope you think is a good idea.

f Money Wins

f money wins, the hungry are not fed. Yes, there will be those who will try and reach out, but as costs of maintaining and supporting existing structures and institutions rises, revenue streams will dry up and part of the mission of the church--to feed the hungry--will become an individual task for those interested in such volunteer work.

I would like to say this is the hard one to explain, but its not. Let's take a "random" congregation that in the 1940's paid their pastor a salary of $847, use of the parsonage and its garden, cow, and chickens, and also gave over 40% of the collected offerings away to missions of various types. This same "random" congregation in the 2000's paid their pastor a total defined compensation package around $40,000 and use of the parsonage, sadly without the cow and chickens, and gave 6% of the collected offerings mostly to the next level of church organization. 

Yes, there was some feeding of the hungry going on, but that depended on volunteers and not financial support. Also, I cannot say that there were no hungry in the ministry area of this "random" church.

If Mission Wins

Ironically, f mission wins, the hungry are not fed. I see this playing out two ways.

With a limited resource approach, if an organization puts all of its financial assets into feeding the hungry, then the organization will cease to exist when the volunteers stop volunteering. This will include, of course, the people volunteering, but also the space where the food is packaged for distribution, the packing material used to ready the food for distribution, space to store the food so that it can be distributed, etc. When this happens, just as above, feeding the hungry becomes an individual task for those interested.

With an unlimited resource approach (meaning there's enough money, which is arguably calculable and probably could be met by the richest of the world's rich), the organization will probably work for awhile, but will inevitably fail due to corruption either from within he organization or from without. The challenge here is twofold: the old person in each of us, and the reality that we're not in control.

Given the network of people necessary for the growing, harvesting, storing, packaging, processing, repackaging, and distribution of food, anywhere along the line one misstep could cause enough of a problem that the hungry are not fed. Greed and power will stymie distribution to may places in the world, and the general level of accidents would take out some supplies as they were being delivered. An accident in processing and repackaging, through malicious intent or not, could result in a contaminated food supply. The food itself could spoil in storing and packing before it gets processed. So many things could go wrong in the growing and harvesting that I'll just suggest you talk to a farmer or rancher.


he mission-money debate assumes that we can find a right answer. The problem is that the money, skills, and time for the meeting of needs is not the mission of the church, just as the money, skills, and time do not belong to the people who are the church. The mission-money debate cannot be solved because it is a false dichotomy that raises Cartesian anxiety and ignores the proper source of both the money and the mission--namely God. God's mission invites the church into relationships that place us in contact with those who are in need of resources--be they money, skills, or time, or more usually some combination of all three.

When various expressions of the church find they don't have the resources to engage in a particular aspect of God's mission, the mission-money debate might rage as Satan and our fears distract us from the call of the Holy Spirit and possibly divide the church. When we fear God more than we fear not having the financial resources to exist as an organization or not being able to help those in need, we can see that through the mission-money issue (and it is an issue) God invites the church at various levels into relationships with others--other expressions of the church, other religions, other countries, other neighbors.

hen the mission-money debate starts to heat up, God has just provided the space for us as church to start asking the questions of relationship. What relationships has God already given us that can support mission? How is God inviting us to discover new relationships that support mission? What relationships is God pushing us to discover through mission that may help with institutional finances? How is God showing us what our daily bread is so that we can give thanks for it and use it in God's mission? Through these kinds of question, the mission-money debate can be recast as discernment of vocation for various expressions of the church. What could be church dividing becomes an invitation to more fully attend to how the Holy Spirit is calling us into God's mission.