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Personal Finances and Church Finances

[Editor's Note: As of this post, the most recent Labor Statistics report covers 2018.]

God has quite a bit to say about personal finances. He also has a lot to say about church leadership. We can combine that information to get a strong overview of what we can consider a healthy family budget and a healthy church budget.

This is a very, very brief overview of a complex topic. It's designed to get you started.

Personal Finances

In America, the average household income (before taxes) is about $79,000. Here's roughly how that household spends that money:

  • Housing/Utilities -- 25%

  • Income Taxes -- 15%

  • Transportation/Maintenance -- 13%

  • Food -- 10% ($4,500 is eating out)

  • Life Insurance/Social Security -- 9%

  • Savings/Retirement -- 7.5%

  • Healthcare -- 6%

  • Entertainment -- 4%

  • Clothing -- 2.5%

  • Personal Care and Miscellaneous -- 2%

  • Contributions -- 2%

  • Education and Reading -- 2%

  • Alcohol and Tobacco -- 1%

[There's actually quite the argument as to whether these figures should be calculated before or after taxes. I show before-tax numbers because it helps us understand how much of our income goes to taxes, so keep that in mind.]

Is that good? Bad? What do we do with those numbers?

Let's invoke a famous Bible passage:

The point is this: The person who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the person who sows generously will also reap generously. Each person should do as he has decided in his heart—not reluctantly or out of compulsion, since God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make every grace overflow to you, so that in every way, always having everything you need, you may excel in every good work. As it is written: He distributed freely; he gave to the poor; his righteousness endures forever. Now the one who provides seed for the sower and bread for food will also provide and multiply your seed and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for all generosity, which produces thanksgiving to God through us. 2 Corinthians 9:6-11

Ask yourself this question: how generous is 2% (what the average American household contributes to charity)? Well, compare 2% with the 4% spent on entertainment, or the 4% spent on eating out. How generous is 2% in that context?

The short response is this: we can never be generous enough to adequately demonstrate our gratitude for our salvation. But how generous should we be?

When I was newly married, someone taught me the "10-10-80 Rule" -- give 10% to charity, put 10% in savings, and live on 80%. That's a very fine tool, but when you research the topic, you will find a lot of sources telling you give and to save more than that.

Here's the essence of what Paul tells us in the Bible:

  • Give generously and cheerfully

  • Give what you have decided in your heart -- don't be coerced

  • Remember that you are a steward of what God has given you

That last point is more directly drawn from Ephesians 3. God created everything; anything we have is because God allows us to have it. We shouldn't think of anything as "ours" but as God's, and we are a steward of it on God's behalf.

Great. Thank you. That didn't help me make any decisions!

Okay -- let's identify what's often called "discretionary spending". You might liken this to the difference between a need and a want. People need a safe place to live. People need healthy food and clean water. People need adequate transportation and access to health care. That part of our budget devoted to necessities is locked in. But quite a bit of money is spent on what would be categorized as "nonessential" -- that's discretionary spending. We need to be generous with our discretionary spending because it is basically demonstrating your base impulse: do spend money on yourself, or do you use it to bless others?

[And let's throw a curveball. Transportation is considered a need, right? But does that mean you can buy the most expensive car you think your can afford and consider that meeting a need? Of course not. Identify what you need to get from place to place safely and reliably -- anything above that must be considered a want.]

How far down your list do you think God wants you to rank your charitable giving?

Ouch. So, how do I determine my charitable giving?

The first step is to establish your budget. How do you spend your money currently? It is often said that the surest way to understand someone's priorities is to review their schedule and their checkbook. Create a detailed budget based on what you actually spend on a monthly basis. If you want, use the categories established in that Bureau of Labor Statistics report mentioned above. What percentage of your income do you want to give away? (That's the "give as you have decided in your heart" in the passage above.) Set that goal and then make the changes in your spending habits that you need in order to reach that goal. You decide how you spend your money. We also encourage you to set a similar goal for savings.

Okay. Am I supposed to determine this percentage before or after taxes?

I hate to say that you're missing the point. Is the reason you're asking the question in order to be able to give the least amount of money possible and still feel good about yourself? Otherwise, just set your goal by considering everything God has done for you and responding as you see fit. You will never be as generous as God. In fact, you might not even be as generous as you think! Let's consider these two categories:

  • Generous” means taking money you could spend on yourself and giving to someone else.

  • Sacrificial” would mean cutting into your own needs in order to help someone else.

We are expected to be generous. Are you prepared to be sacrificial?

But before you go overboard, remember these basic rules:

  • God expects us to fulfill all of our financial obligations. If you owe taxes, if you owe a debt, whatever, God expects you to pay it. Using "sacrificial giving" as an excuse to get out of financial obligations is a non-starter with God (Mark 7:9-13).

  • No one else is supposed to know your charitable giving, so increasing your percentage due to perception is quite misdirected (Matthew 6:2-4).

  • You are supposed to take care of your family. In fact, providing for your family (children and aging parents) is a foundational principle for biblical ethics. It should be shameful for a church to care for a widow who has an able son (1 Timothy 5).

  • You are supposed to take care of yourself. A disciple who has neglected his own well-being has diminished his ability to serve the kingdom (Ephesian 5:29-30).

Does that help you gain perspective on what to give away?

Kind of. So, where am I supposed to give this money?

Let's establish that biblical charitable giving is not just to your local church! The context of the passage in 2 Corinthians above is an emergency need in Jerusalem. Think of it as a "disaster relief" offering to help the people starving in Jerusalem due to a terrible famine. That was not their "local church tithe" (as might pop into your head); it was a charitable gift to people in need. God (1) expects you to be a church member, and (2) expects you to support the work of your church through your giving. But God also wants you to give to meet needs beyond your local church. This can be directly to someone in need (like over a gofundme) or an organization (like how our church supports Manna Ministries). And if you're just not sure, you can give to our church's mission fund (see below).

Hang on -- so how much do I give to the church and how much do I give elsewhere?

There you go again, asking percentage questions. Give what you believe God wants you to give to whomever God wants you to give it! At First Baptist Church, we often use the phrase" tithes and offerings". When we hear "tithe", we generally think "10%" (which we should -- the word "tithe" literally means "a tenth"). But if you read the passage above again, you'll notice that there are no percentages mentioned. The amount of money you give is between you and God. If you want to, think of the phrase" tithes and offerings" like this:

  • your tithe is what you have set aside in your heart to support your local church; 10% is a good starting place for that amount;

  • your offering is what you give above your tithes; those offerings might go to your church, to ministries your church supports, or someone else entirely.

If we get too hung up on percentages and amounts, our charitable giving (which is supposed to be between us and God) can become a source of pride, a type of social comparison, or a work we think we need to do to earn God's love. Let's stay away from all of that.


Church Finances

Churches have budgets, too, and God has similar expectations for how churches spend the money people give to them.

It's hard to find meaningful reports on church financial activity (because many churches do not disclose that information to anyone), so I drift to the National Study of Congregations' Economic Practices from IUPUI. Here's a super-simplified overview of the "average" church budget breakdown:

  • 49% on personnel costs (salaries, insurance, taxes, etc.)

  • 23% on facility costs (maintenance, utilities, construction, etc.)

  • 11% on missions (ministries to people who are not church members)

  • 10% on programs (ministries for church members)

  • 6% on dues (a denominational thing that doesn't affect Southern Baptists)

[Aside: I know you're all wondering how FBC's budget lines up with those numbers. That's a little misleading to answer because we have worked very hard to encourage our church members to think in terms of tithes (to the church) and offerings (to outside needs). Only 7% of our budget goes to what we would classify as a mission, but fully 14% of all of the money donated through our church by our members goes to missions.]

I have the same question. Is that good?

And I have the same answer -- it depends on what the church believes God wants the church to do with the money given to it. Read the passage at the top again -- churches are to be generous. And we will never be generous enough.

But don't churches tend to spend money on selfish things like nice carpet and fancy buildings? How is that generous?

That's a common question, and it requires us to invoke the same line of thinking we used above for family finances. Is our impulse to spend money on things that spoil church members or bless others? Let me answer that by suggesting a broader understanding of the idea of how we bless others:

  • We bless parents by having a safe nursery/Sunday School for their children, and teachers who are equipped to build them up in the Lord.

  • We bless our eldest members by having comfortable chairs and well-conditioned spaces for them to study and fellowship together.

  • We bless our guests by having a place where they can clearly hear the Word of God explained to them without distraction.

  • We bless God by giving Him our best in terms of the use of our talents in worship and the facility to maximize those talents.

  • We bless our community by offering quality and attractive opportunities for them to hear about Jesus and respond to the gospel.

  • We bless our city by paying our bills dependably, maintaining our campus, and offering a safe place where residents are welcome.

Just as you have to balance "needs" and "wants" as an individual, so much a church.

  • If we choose to have a building, that building will be our community’s impression of what we think about our responsibility to God. In addition to being safe and usable, it needs to be worthy. But at what point have we “overspent” on unnecessary comforts or frills?

  • If we choose to offer material support to people in other communities, remember that our first responsibility is to members of our church—financial relief and also the materials we need to productively encounter God with one another. But at what point are we simply spoiling ourselves?

  • If we choose to have a staff, we must treat them well and take care of them financially (the worker is worth his keep). But at what point are we simply paying someone else to do work that we should be doing ourselves?

Tough questions! Over time, churches tend to start spending more on themselves; it’s a natural progression. That's why every church should be diligent about our budget, making sure that we are keeping the needs of others in front of our own needs.

As Baptists, We Vote on Our Church Budget

If you don't like how our money is being spent, you can voice your opinion to a member of our Stewardship Committee which oversees not only the monthly expenses but also the annual budget. They do what they can to balance what we think we might receive in tithes for a year with what we think we will spend and where. And they have to do this with the knowledge that we have an aging facility that requires extra maintenance, as well as the community expectations of being the "first baptist church" of our city. It's a tough job, and they work very hard at it. Money that you give to First Baptist Thomson is not spent frivolously.


Maximizing Your Money

Missionary endeavors have changed quite a bit in the past century. International “diplomacy” has changed; it is very expensive to maintain the infrastructure necessary for mission work to happen safely and effectively (i.e. long-term impact). Plus the cost of living continues to increase around the world. Southern Baptists realized a long time ago that we would be better served by paying a staff of people to support missionaries so they could focus on sharing the gospel and planting churches rather than searching for healthcare, the local embassy, and wondering if they have a safe place to go in times of unrest. And so we created the Cooperative Program. In Georgia, we voluntarily give to the state offering, and they send a percentage on to the national offering (with The Southern Baptist Convention).

The Georgia Baptist Mission Board uses some of that money to support struggling churches, to take care of orphans (Children’s Home), and to take care of elderly saints (Retirement Centers)—exactly the things Paul was asking the church in Corinth to support.

What the Cooperative Program (CP) Supports

At the national level: 50% goes to the International Mission Board, 23% to the North American Mission Board, 22% to the 6 SBC seminaries, 2% to our Religious Liberty Commission, and 3% to operating expenses.

For the IMB, 83% of their budget goes toward missionaries. The average missionary costs $60,000/year to support.

For the NAMB, 52% of their budget goes toward sponsoring church plants, 9% toward evangelistic efforts, 23% toward mission support, and 15% toward administration.

The Georgia Baptist Mission Board has recently undertaken a massive restructuring and divesting process designed specifically to reduce overhead and put more money into ministry. It was difficult and controversial, but they stuck to it and have had tremendous results.]

The Go and Tell Mission Fund

At FBC Thomson, we have two mini “cooperative programs” for missions: the Ministry Donation Box and the Go and Tell Mission Fund. Church members voluntarily give to these, and we use it for a number of purposes.

[If you've stumbled across this page from another church, I strongly encourage starting something like this. It has worked well for us.]

For the fund, a set percentage of it goes to Manna, the Kilpatrick Association, the Baptist Children’s Home, World Hunger Relief, disaster relief, our Honduras partnership, and Smoky Mountain Resort Ministries. The rest of it is use to help church members do their own local mission work. Here’s a list of how the mission fund has been used in the past two years: · welcome baskets for the women’s shelter; · care packages for college outreach; · needs to coordinate Angel Tree ministry; · emergency aid for local burnout victims; · special thank-yous to local first responders; · “The Change” community rally; · emergency needs for missionaries on furlough; · emergency needs for children through DFCS; · special invitations to evangelistic events; · supplies for Children’s Home events; · Bibles to send to India; · school supplies for all local schools; · unexpected opportunities during West Virginia and Gatlinburg mission trips; · partnering with Partners for Success and Manna; · supplementing the Backpacks for Appalachia; · additional disaster relief for Irma victims; · support for the Community Thanksgiving outreach; · Wonderfully Stitched ministry for local girls.

As you learn more about how we spend our money at First Baptist Church, you'll realize that we're just as interested in our church members giving their time and energy as we are their money. In summary, please give to our mission funds, but also please come up with things you can do to serve needs in our community. The money to help you accomplish that goal is available.

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