May 25 - 31, 2009


You Can't Afford Not To

By Tuck Aaker

Recently a pastor whom I have talked with many times asked a real interesting question:  “How much of the congregation’s income is too much to pay for staff salaries?” What he was asking in essence was, “are we too heavy in the staff area for the size of the congregation?” He then told me that their staff salaries consumed 69 percent of their budgeted income.  “But”, he added, “we have relatively no debt!”

It’s an interesting question and one for which there aren’t any easy answers, but it brings us back to that “gold standard” for leadership, “what’s our mission?” In the case of this congregation they are an extremely proactive, growing family of over 500 in attendance every Sunday. They have accomplished a multitude of achievements over the past few years and are the most visible outreach group in their community. In short, they are accomplishing much of their mission because of their investment in leadership.

Many of us have been a part of conversations regarding growth and expansion and the role of additional staff to accelerate those goals. And, in many of the conversations I have been privy to, the conversation has ended on the note that says, “we can’t afford to add more salaries; our budget won’t allow it!” I wonder what God is thinking when he hears that we can’t afford to reach our mission because it doesn’t fit into a preconceived set of figures? This is the thinking of the people from the 50s who, when change is mentioned or expansion rears its ugly head, pull down the “green shade” over their collective brows and declare the infallibility of their accounting systems over the mandate we have been given to grow!

In the past 10 years the percentage of income that goes to salaries has risen in most every church due to “cost of living” increases and benefit packages growing faster than the increase in giving. As a result, many congregations have been cutting back on those areas of spending that are considered “discretionary.” The first place many congregations make that cut is outreach and social ministry through a freeze in additional staff. In many, if not most, of these congregations, the result has been a decrease in attendance and membership, thus accelerating their challenges because of reduced income as well!

In the private sector, it amounts to trying to correct slumping sales figures by cutting back on the sales force, and it just doesn’t work! You can cut back the expenses, but in doing so also reduce your opportunities in the area of what you’re company is all about -- achieving your mission!

To answer my pastor friend’s question, there is only one direction for God’s churches to plan and prepare for and that direction is to stay on the path of growth! The average congregation invests in the area of 50 percent to 60 percent of their income in staff salaries. However, the average congregation has a debt load as well, that is generally the next largest expense item in their budget. When you have reduced your debt load, as this pastor has, you are free to invest more in the most productive of the remaining expenses; staff salaries and outreach gifts and ministries.

If this is the scenario that you are faced with, or if it looks like it may be in the near future, take steps now to make the changes that will preserve your path to continued growth. If you have passed that point and are looking for the change that will inspire new growth take a look at your investment in staff.

Are you at a point that you can handle growth, or do you need to back away and take a look at the big picture?

Remember, a well trained staff is irreplaceable in your plans to grow. That’s a fact of life and it’s just good stewardship!

Tuck Aaker is a retired businessman who now consults and specializes on stewardship issues for the Florida-Bahamas Synod of the ELCA. He shares his expertise in Stewardship Now, a column he writes for ELCA Stewardship Resources.

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