Many church boards, including vestries of Episcopal churches, are approving budgets this month. And they're often doing so in the face of reduced giving because of the Great Recession.
Attend a church board meeting, and you're likely to hear a lot of anxiety being expressed.
Looking at deficits, many boards panic and start reducing or eliminating ministries--those programs that make God's love known to others. Boards start focusing on maintaining the institution at the expense of the church's mission, the only reason the church exists.
And when maintenance becomes the church's reason for being, that church begins to wither and die, like that fig tree in the gospels that does not bear fruit. Who wants to be part of a church that is retrenching--dying?
And God weeps.
Facing deficits, other church boards trust God to provide. These boards are grounded in the story of God's saving love--how God provided for the Jews in the wilderness during those 40 days; how God provided for those early Christians, giving them resources, including courage, to spread the Good News of God's savior Jesus to the whole world; and how God met the needs of that particular congregation throughout its history.
And those church boards act, approving budgets with deficits, sometimes without being sure how they'll fund all their ministries and pursue their vision of mission.
And God smiles.
This past week, my church's vestry met to approve the church's ministry budget for 2010. After much discussion, and a lot of anxiety, the vestry decided to approve a deficit budget.
This was the second time in as many years that we did so. And a few people expressed the fear that we were adopting a dangerous precedent. "When will it stop?" one person asked.
Last year, the vestry also approved a deficit budget, trusting that God would provide. And he did. We conserved money by being careful about our spending, while not neglecting our ministries or reducing staff; we saw a big increase in our non-pledge giving. And we anticipate ending 2009 with a budget surplus.
As I told the vestry this week, I believe that God will do for us in 2010 what he did for us this year: he will provide for us, abundantly. I trust God and his word.
In the gospels, Jesus promises that when we focus not on our fears, but on our faith in God and do the work of mission, expanding the Kingdom of God, God meets our needs.
When we take God at his word and act, as Jesus did, we demonstrate our trust in him and discover that he provides. We needn't worry about anything, because we're his beloved. Worry is for unbelievers, not for us.
Yes, church boards need to be concerned about budgets and deficits; we must be good stewards of God's gifts, making every dollar work fully in mission.
But the most important deficit about which church boards need to be concerned is a deficit in faith. That's the deficit that matters the most, because that's the only deficit that destroys the church.
And then God really weeps.
But with faith in God, who does the impossible, even raise Jesus from the dead, we can do the impossible. We can be the church: a faithful, not fearful, body of follower's doing the Lord's work.