I should probably start by making it clear that a baseline for me is for churches to experience a minimum of 10% surplus in revenue every year with 50% of the income arriving through digital channels. When a church is moving towards 20% surplus and 80% being received digitally, it gets real fun! However, I regularly hear from pastors that their church is already a generous church and the mark is hit by simply receiving more money than they spend every year.
Well, I want to pull back the covers a little and discuss why churches often receive a surplus of resources that may not be all that great. They may actually be signs of plateau, decline, or lack of impact. So here we go, hoping to not throw too big a wrinkle in the smooth sailing.
Reason #1: The congregation has grown older which causes the giving to increase naturally, but the expenses tend to stay flat. I am all for flat expenses. I think it is really easy for a church to spend all they receive and more without much thought. I actually like to challenge a staff to seek a greater kingdom impact while spending less. However, a generous church is not equivalent to the fact of taking in more revenue than you spend. A lot of churches take in more revenue than they spend.
Reason #2: A few families are tilting the scale of generosity. I have looked at thousands of church spreadsheets over my years of generosity ministry. It is not uncommon for most churches to be close to the 80/20 mark where 20% of the people, give 80% of the dollars. Before we rest in the faux confidence of church-wide generosity you may want to look at your numbers. What if 30% or 40% of your people are giving 80% of the resources? Would you still consider the church generous? Know your ratios and strive for the generous life by all.
Reason #3: Attendance decline. When churches decline, the first people to leave are the least connected. The least connected tend to give the least as well. So your attendance can decline, which means your expenses go down as you care for less people. Meanwhile your most committed can actually see what is happening and begin to give more to make sure the church stays in a strong financial position. The decreased expenses mixed with the increased giving of the committed can result in a cash surplus. Most churches would probably exchange the surplus for a positive attendance turnaround in a heartbeat.
Reason #4: Lack of a big vision. The older a church becomes it can move into stability, then possibly plateau. Often times, the plateau leads to a slow decline. Along the way, morale drops. It becomes increasingly hard to impact the local community, attendance is leaking over the years, but income is solid–even increasing (see #3). Because of the perceived failure, the church vision begins to shift, often times a large increase in global missions giving occurs. However, mission trip frequencies may not accompany the giving increase. A church that once had a vision for its community and was making a dynamic impact has changed slowly over time. The church now deems itself generous because of the resources it gives away, not necessarily by the level of generosity transformation in the lives of people.
I want to be clear, I am for a giving surplus. However, a giving surplus in and of itself can be achieved by a miserly, fearful spending plan. Let’s measure generosity by discipleship, not by money alone. I have also seen churches go through several years of overspending and it was 100% the right call. They had saved resources for years, their local economy was in a tailspin, and they needed to step into the gap of aggressive ministry. Their lack of surplus was actually the most generous act of all.