Steven Oelschlager thinks of the church as being in the bread business.
He cites John 6:35: “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’” And he asks, “What is it that people are really hungering and thirsting for?”
Oelschlager, who coordinates research for ELCA congregational assessment, believes Jesus is calling the church to “be in the business of feeding people—certainly feeding people spiritually, and in some cases, feeding people physically. So how is it that we make bread that really benefits us, sustains us, fulfills us?”
To feed a lot of people, he argued, requires organization and enterprise. It requires baking. It requires staff and buildings and infrastructure. “All these things need to work together if we want to reach as many people as possible. I like to think all those aspects are sacred and interconnected.”
So it is with the daily work of congregational health and vitality. “There are so many different moving parts in congregational life,” said Oelschlager, who also directs operational ministries for his congregation, Holy Cross Lutheran in Libertyville, Ill. “Many times, the urgent takes over, and you get in a mode of doing what absolutely has to be done. And sometimes certain practices are repeated over and over and over again without pausing and saying, ‘Well, maybe there’s another way to do this, or maybe there’s some new learning or ideas that we could introduce.’”
The ELCA established the Resourceful Servants initiative to improve the financial literacy, health and practices of congregations, rostered ministers and seminarians.
In 2015, the churchwide organization was awarded a grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. through its National Initiative to Address Economic Challenges Facing Pastoral Leaders. With that funding, Resourceful Servants was formed as a partnership between the churchwide organization, the ELCA Mission Investment Fund, the ELCA Federal Credit Union, Portico Benefit Services, and Lutheran Social Service Financial Counseling.
“When we go to the congregation with a financial need, our people know that their gifts will be handled properly.”
Taking good stewardship seriously
Through the Resourceful Servants Congregational Financial Assessment, congregations review their financial systems relative to best practices and healthy behaviors. The assessment identifies 21 healthy financial practices in five key areas (see below) and poses questions to evaluate whether a congregation’s proficiency in each practice is excellent, needs improvement or is nonexistent. Built into the process are resources for implementation and a tool to track progress.
“Our thinking was, [how can we] get congregational leaders just to pause and say, ‘How are we doing in these areas? Do we have anything that we could learn? Do we have anything that we could do better?’” Oelschlager said.
Emily Carson, director for evangelical mission for the Southeastern Minnesota Synod, has seen enthusiasm in her synod for the assessment. “Folks seemed eager to assess their current congregational financial practices and were also excited to learn more about best practices,” she said.
The assessment is “a practical and empowering tool,” she added. “It equips congregations to be the best financial stewards they can be.”
The assessments completed so far suggest that congregational leaders largely feel confident about tracking donations, accounting for income and expenses, and paying staff. “We are not nearly as confident about how to inspire our members to financially support God’s ministry through our congregation and denomination,” Oelschlager said. Specifically, respondents weren’t always optimistic about their congregation’s ability to create a year-round strategy or plan to engage people in supporting their ministries.
Dan Solomon, a pastor of Augustana Lutheran, Boone, Iowa, said completing the assessment “has helped build a climate of trust and openness” among the congregation. “When we go to the congregation with a financial need, our people know that their gifts will be handled properly.”
Oelschlager agreed. “When we put before them the call to be good stewards, it makes sense for us as congregations and leaders of those congregations to take good stewardship seriously as well,” he said.
Congregations can complete the Congregational Financial Assessment at resourcefulservants.org/congregations.
21 healthy financial practices
- An accounting system that can track income and expenses and produce reports.
- An annual audit process.
- Budgeting (accounting and narrative).
- Compliance with financial and accounting best practices.
- Fund accounting, including restricted-fund management.
- A process for counting, tracking and reporting donations.
- Cash management procedures and practices.
- Debt management, including capital campaigns.
- Dealing with financial shortfalls.
- Tax compliance on rental or business income.
- A property management plan.
- Management of computer assets, including hardware, software and networking.
- Benefits management (including housing allowance).
- Compliance with ELCA, state and national pay standards.
- A payroll processing system, including payment of withholding tax.
- A plan for data security and backups.
- Risk assessment and management, including adequate insurance.
- Maintaining property inventory.
- An annual stewardship plan (narrative budget, thank plan, campaigns).
- Understanding Mission Support.
- Providing expanded giving options.