Art of Being Cheap: Church Credit Cards

The phrase “cheap accountant” seems redundant. With me, nearly everything is a cost-benefit analysis. If we’re deciding on a getting a cat: Cost = price of adoption, litter & food, vet bills, yowling and vomiting in the middle of the night (the cat…not me); Benefit = occasionally pet, something to kick. That’s just how my mind works. The hardest part has been shifting from immediate costs and benefits to also including the long-term costs and benefits.

When it comes to Church Credit Cards, I do the same thing:

  • COSTS: Rare late fee or financing charge; Employees more likely to overspend; Needing reimbursement for the occasional personal purchase; Stress of collecting receipts from problem employees
  • BENEFIT: Makes work easier for responsible employees; Possibly receive cash back rewards; Cut fewer checks by paying one credit card bill vs multiple reimbursements

The costs and benefits appear fairly even. Costs are rare and, if an employee has issues turning in receipts, just take away their church credit card, right? This is where I have often screwed up in the church world and offer my form of “grace.” My form of grace is more like a Get Out of Jail Free card…at least when it comes to misbehaving employees. This is not grace. This is shifting the pain from the one misbehaving to everyone else…especially the accountant. My advice, get rid of church credit cards. It’ll be cheaper in the long run. If you absolutely need a card, get a church debit card which only your most responsible employee (singular) uses. Everyone else can either go through the responsible employee or get reimbursed. And if they use their own credit card, then they get all the cash back rewards!

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Finance: Game changing ideas for Church Budgeting

I’m pretty skeptical of most of the practical advice I see in the Book of Discipline. I have a hard time imagining that any good and timely advice could come from a group of 900 people meeting every four years where many of them seem to have a political agenda. Whether the advice was an accident or on purpose, the Discipline has some golden advice for budgeting.

So here’s the advice in short:

  • Only budget what you are willing to fundraise: It’s easy and common to set a budget an unrealistic amount…and call it faith. Faith and works go hand in hand. Before you approve a budget, ask yourself, “Am I willing to put in the work to fund this budget?”
  • People support what they create: Do all you can to involve others. When committees and staff create the budget, they will be more likely to own it. You either put in the time in helping them create it or you put in the time nagging them to follow it.
  • A budget is a plan, not a prediction: I’m used to creating a budget and then making notes on why certain lines are way over or under. Why not periodically amend the budget as allowed by the Discipline? If you take a fresh look at the budget every three months, you’ll be three months smarter and end up with a much better plan going into the end of the year. This works really well when you are breaking down your budget by month or quarter.

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Finance: Funding the Budget

Most Finance Committee’s focus nearly all their attention on controlling or shrinking expenses. If they do give any attention to income, it is usually just lamenting that there isn’t more of it. Finance Committees can and should play a big role in growing generous givers. That’s actually one of their duties. This is how the budget gets funded.

If you want to grow generous giving, you have to understand why people do and don’t give. We’ve asked dozens of church finance people, “Why do people give?” Almost every time, the top answers are 1)People give out of guilt; and 2)People give for tax purposes. That explains a lot. People do give out of guilt…but rarely generously. Pretty much no one gives for tax purposes because why would anyone spend $100 on charity so they can save $20 in taxes.

People give generously if:

  1. They believe in the mission of the church and trust that the leaders are capable to fulfill the mission.
  2. They understand that their giving benefits themselves most of all.
  3. They have money to give. It’s pretty difficult to give generously when you’re broke.
  4. We make it easy for them to give generously.

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Assessing your Church’s Financial Health

About eight months ago, I called into the Dave Ramsey Show and got through. After I quit gushing over Dave, I asked him, “What would be the Baby Steps for a church?” This was not just a passing fancy of mine. I’ve been thinking and reading and visiting with people about this subject for many years. In this quarter’s webinar, Sheri Meister and I discuss the seven areas that church’s need to give attention if they want financial freedom to follow Jesus Christ.

Here’s the short version of the areas. I encourage you to watch/listen to this webinar to get the long version. Plus, there is a link to the assessment below that you can take for your church:

  1. Invested Leaders: Church leaders should be raised up from the top 20% of givers. Leaders that don’t give worry about what others might think. Leaders that give worry about the mission.
  2. A Focused Team: Now that you have Invested Leaders, the next step is to help them take responsibility for Overseeing Spending, Growing Giving, and Managing Reserve Funds.
  3. Stewardship Teaching: Money can be either a great obstacle to living for Jesus or a great tool. If you help people manage their money and teach on the benefits of giving, church income will go up.
  4. Budget Accuracy: With a growing income, now is the time to be honest about your budget. How will you plan to spend the income…not what you wish the income was.
  5. Debt Aversion: Debt is a weight on the ministry of a church. It will affect how you lead and make decisions. The sooner you can rid yourself of the debt, the better.
  6. Capital Reserve: With the Debt gone, a Growing Income, and an Accurate Budget, it’s time to build up reserves to care for the property. This helps you avoid always raising funds for the building so that people begin to think the building IS the ministry.
  7. Operating Reserve: At the same time, building up an Emergency/Opportunity Fund will help you take risks and weather storms.

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Finance: Adopting Financial Policies

The Bible says that the Law and the Ten Commandments were like a tutor or guardian. They helped keep us out of trouble and helped us live well. Financial Policies are similar. If you don’t set the rules for how the church manages money, everyone will setup their own rules. Everyone that touches money or keeps financial records will just do what they think is best. Often this is going to work out fine…until it doesn’t.

No matter the size of church you have, you need to decide, and put it in writing, the following:

  • How we care for donation? Do you count money right away after the service or do you lock it up? What about all those donations dropped off at the office or received through the mail? How should it counted?
  • How do we approve expenses? If the treasurer gets a bill, how does the treasurer know if it’s okay to pay or not? Also problems come up around payroll and church credit cards.

Those are the main things to think through although there are some other things most churches will need to consider as well. I have some templates below.

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Finance: The Audit

The church audit can feel like testing the ice to see if it’s thick enough to hold your weight. “You want me to test the church finances to see if they’re sound? Not me. Find someone else.” It’s just a scary thing to take on…especially when there seems like a lot of down side if things go wrong. Guess what, avoiding the audit is what should really make you scared.

You don’t have to be a CPA to do a church audit. You don’t have to have a balanced check book to do a church audit. The main thing is that you love your church, you’re willing to ask good questions, and you have the curiosity to be able to verify the answers. In the video I explain the process. Below in the links there is an Audit Checklist. I’ve used this a number of times with churches to make this a super easy process that really does benefit the church by building trust and pushing for improvement.

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Budgeting: Does your Budget tell the Story of your Church?

As an accountant, I love a line item budget. It speaks to me as clearly as a short story, but I’m in the minority. The vast majority of people need to hear the story in order to understand the budget. They don’t need more numbers. How do you transform your budget into a meaningful story about how your church is and is planning to impact this world? That’s what I walk you through in this video.

A narrative budget is a lot of work. Is it worth it? If a narrative budget helps you align your budget to your mission and helps your congregants see how their giving is making a difference, what is that worth? That’s like hiring a leadership consultant mixed with a capital campaign consultant which would normally costs thousands.

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