The Do’s and Don’ts of Narrative Budgets

May 25, 2021 by Erin Dunigan

The Book of Proverbs states that ‘without a vision, the people perish.’ In the third webinar of a three-part series on stewardship, the Presbyterian Foundation’s Ministry Relations Officers Rev. Dr. Rob Hagan and Maggie Harmon suggested that without a vision, not only do the people perish, but they also do not give.

Maggie Harmon and Rev. Dr. Rob Hagan

“Take out your checkbook and look at all the things your checks are written for,” said Hagan, MRO for the Pacific Northwest. “This will reveal what is important in your life.”

The same is true for congregations. Budget can reveal values and priorities.

But communicating budget and values via numbers is not the right solution, according to Harmon, MRO for the Southwest. Numbers do not light up the brain. “You have more impact when you tell a story rather than give a list of information,” Harmon said. Thus, your church needs a narrative budget.

Communicate mission and vision

A narrative budget is just what it suggests: a way of communicating the budget not through line items but through stories, or narratives, of impact. The narrative budget does not replace the line item budget; the finance team and session rely on the line item budget for their work. But in terms of communicating the ministry of the church to the congregation, a narrative budget helps members of your congregation hear the call to generosity.

“People do not give to a line item,” Hagan said. “They give to a vision.”

The accounting tool, the line item, is important to know where the money is going and for the inner workings of the leadership of the church. But the narrative budget is what inspires.

“People give to the vision and they give to people, they give to the impact they see the church having in the community and the world,” Hagan said.

Harmon also pointed out the difference among generations when it comes to giving. “Older generations tend to respond to obligation and duty, whereas younger generations tend to relate more to impact,” Harmon said. It is not a choice of one or the other but using both and speaking to different generations in the language they can hear.

One tricky spot in communicating budgets is that often the bulk of the budget of a church goes to salaries. “This can be uncomfortable for the pastor to communicate, and pastors can often be reluctant to do so,” Harmon said. The narrative budget helps to unpack this category of simply ‘salary’ and describe it more as a function of ministry. How much of the pastor’s time is taken up with worship, pastoral care, and outreach to the local community? Instead of simply one line item for salary, the salary is divided into these various categories and communicated as ministry instead of simply money.

Both Hagan and Harmon were quick to point out that it is not either/or, but both/and.

“You have to have the numbers,” Harmon said. But once the line item budget is in place it can be used to create the narrative budget. “The narrative budget allows you to share how the dollar amounts align to the vision and core values of the church,” Harmon said.

Foundation has tools

There are tools available to help congregations who might feel overwhelmed by the task of coming up with graphs and visual ways of telling their churches giving story. Stewardship Navigator is one such tool that can help as is Church Financial Leadership Academy.

Additionally, Stewardship Kaleidoscope is an annual conference that takes place this year in September. Both virtual and in-person options are available. You can find out more here, and possibly receive a grant to help pay for the costs of attending here.

Some churches will tell Harmon or Hagan that they did a narrative budget one year and nothing happened. “Don’t give up!” Harmon said. “Rarely do you do something once, and it works.” Her advice is to commit to at least three years of narrative budget to see results.

Also in the list of things to avoid is a focus on administration or facilities. Both of these support the ministry but are not an end in and of themselves. Finally, though production quality is important and having a well-presented narrative budget is the ideal, don’t let perfect get in the way of good enough. “This doesn’t have to be a beautiful full-color annual report,” Harmon said.

In the end, the narrative budget really comes down to knowing your congregation’s story and being able to communicate it in a way that inspires those in the congregation to give to the ministry.

“We are fellow travelers with you in what is a unique way of sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ through this narrative budget,” Hagan said.

Erin Dunigan is an ordained evangelist and teaching elder in the PC(USA). She is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary. She serves as a photographer, writer and communications consultant and lives near the border in Baja California, Mexico.