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Maggie Durran: A church, not a business?

25 January 2012

In response to a recent column, a church is not a business: we do not trust in commerce, but in God’s goodness, and the stewardship of his people. We are not about to write a business plan.

BY ALL means, don’t. There are many churches where the financial situation is well-balanced and sustain­able, but there are many others where move­ments in popu­lation over gen­erations, and changes in local culture — such as becoming a commuter or holiday-home village — have taken away old loyalties and commitment to the church.

For these latter churches, at least, the idea of being a social business provides tools that help us to take a fresh look at our finances, and also to manage our churches and church life. A social business — a phrase coined in the charity sector — describes an organisation that does not exist for profit, but still has to balance its income and expenditure.

When that financial imbalance — or crisis — looms, there are many questions that can help us to explore how we continue to pursue our purpose. These questions can be tackled realistically when set out in a systematic way.

For example, we cannot discuss how to spend our money in 2012 un­til we have a fair assessment of how much income we will receive. (Many churches do not budget this way; they spend against what is in the bank, and, as a result, they spend an in­­­or­­d­in­­ate amount of time wor­rying.) Co-ordinate plans for income and expenditure, and discuss how they will keep up with each other.

A good business plan will tackle both regular and exceptional income and expenditure, and it is possible with reasonable accuracy to build a framework for the practical issues of church life which will ease fears and enable committed members to en­gage more fully, because they can see what they are giving to.

A good contents list, as suggest­­ed in previous columns, extended into a draft plan by a small group, can be dis­­cussed by the PCC. It will suggest ways to address the risks that are the church faces — from falling num­­bers to stewardship develop­ment, and holding fairs and fêtes — and then suggest ways to con­­trol spending in line with income.

Often, churches have already had some discussion on most of these elements, but they do not link them together, or even write down the general strategy. The more everyone sees how things are moving forward, and fit together strategically, the less they will be afraid of change and development.

Take time to explore values and cultural aspects of the issues that you address. For example, your oldest members may, as children, have attended unheated churches in the dead of winter. Now they wonder what all the fuss is about in considering a new heating system; their solution is simply to put on another woolly layer.

Talk around the issues until everyone is satisfied with the reason why they are engaging with the plan for a warmer church, and everyone will then be more generous in their contributions, either to the capital cost of a new installation or the revenue cost of meeting the quarterly bill.

Potential outside funders of the church also like to see that a charity has a sensible and sustainable way forward. No outside agency likes to con­tribute to, say, a new heating system, and then find that the church has not planned how it will pay for the fuel, and cannot run the new system.

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