‘It’s not rocket science’: Taking the mystery out of understanding church finances

September 21, 2021 by Sally Scherer

Rev. Dr. Brandi Casto-Waters learned a lot in seminary, but, she admits, not everything.

For example, she didn’t have a full understanding of the effects of asbestos until she served at a church that had some that had to be removed. She said she didn’t know how problematic termite infestation could be until the church’s sanctuary was being tented and treated for it.

And, she thought the bankers and accountants on her session would handle her church’s finances and money matters.

She described her first church finance meeting as “terribly boring.” During it, there was talk of “projected revenue” and the finance meeting conversation led her to believe it was her responsibility to see revenue increase.

“I was supposed to convince people to give more so that we could spend more,” she said, adding she remembered thinking her call was misunderstood.

Embracing a learning opportunity

Casto-Waters, minister at Faith Presbyterian Church in Cape Coral, Fla., spoke at the annual ecumenical Stewardship Kaleidoscope, a conference on stewardship and generosity held Sept. 13 to 15 in the Cincinnati area.

“I was here to do ministry,” she remembered thinking, she said. “God called me to proclaim the good news, visit the sick, and do justice and love mercy and walk humbly. I did not want to be an expert in church finances.”

She realized she didn’t have a choice so she “embraced the learning opportunity” before her. And, thanks to some elders with financial backgrounds, she learned how to understand the reports, spreadsheets and budgeting process.

And once she learned it, she taught others.

She equipped the saints by “teaching them the mysteries of church finance,” she said, adding, “Church finances should not be mysterious.”

Every officer training class should offer one segment on church finances and how to understand church financial reports.

“All money matters are ministry matters,” she said, adding that the reports are not “rocket science.”

Understanding the reports is important because transparency is essential when it comes to church finances.

Transparency and knowledge is key

She shared the story about a church secretary who had embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars over a number of years. She used credit cards, stole from the offering plate and forged checks.

Casto-Waters told the story to emphasize that fiscal transparency and responsibility are “essential to the life and health of the congregation,” she said.

She suggested churches use two books in officer training: J. Clif Christopher’s book “Not Your Parents Offering Plate,” and his subsequent book “Whose Offering Plate Is It?”

She suggested pastors talk about money and generous giving and to encourage their congregations to ask questions about church finances.

And she encouraged churches to hold their financial reports next to their mission statement to make sure the two are complementary.

For example, if a church’s mission statement says it values youth ministry, is there a line item on the budget for it? If the church values mission partnerships, why is less than 1 percent of the annual budget dedicated to it?

“The church’s annual budget should support the church’s mission and ministry,” Casto-Waters said. “That report tells the story of what we value and how we’re managing the resources that God has entrusted to our care.”

Joyful giving

Offering gratitude for what is entrusted to our care is good reform theology, she said. Our lives are to be lived as a grateful response to God. We are called to give with glad and generous hearts, she said.

Casto-Waters told the story of a young boy who, after sitting with other children at the front of the church for a children’s message in worship, was heading off to children’s church. He suddenly realized he’d forgotten to put his coins in the children’s offering jar. He ran back to the front of the church, emptied his pocket, and skipped out of worship.

The story of the boy was shared as a call to the offering at another church at another time. And, after the ushers had collected the offering and the doxology was played and the ushers were on their way to return the offering to the front of the church, the ushers skipped all the way down the center aisle.

One of the other things she didn’t learn in seminary?

“An invitation to be a joyful giver has to be central in worship,” she said.

Sally Scherer is a writer and communications consultant based in Lexington, Kentucky. She is a member of Second Presbyterian Church, where she is an elder, deacon and a member of the choir.

For full coverage of Stewardship Kaleidoscope 2021, click here.