Budget Shortfalls and Discernment


Two phrases that unleash anxiety in the heart of every congregational leader are “operating budget deficit” and “decreased pledging units”.

© 2011 Ken Teegardin, Flickr | CC-BY-SA | via Wylio

We begin our budgeting process in faith, hope and prayer. Then we grow anxious because a budget deficit is looming. We shift away from discernment and into decision making mode. We adopt a business mindset and wrestle our way through the difficult problem solving that goes along with too little revenue and too many expenses. We cut God out of our process. Decision making seems easier in the midst of a money crisis.

If we begin by discerning how our money ought to be deployed, but we end up deciding once things get rough, have we failed?

Money and a Deciding Mindset

A deciding mindset assumes that “our money problem” is solvable if approached carefully and logically. It assumes that we have the capacity to understand and solve our money woes.  The primary goal of a deciding mindset is to maximize the use of available resources. The outcome sought is a restoration of order and a balanced budget. Decision making favors past proven practices over the unknown.

We approach decision making by defining the size of the budget shortfall, looking for root causes, gathering data to better understand the budget gap, and considering options from a list of proven techniques.  We make a choice.  Then we live with the outcome by making systematic budget cuts as they are called for.

The work of decision making resides largely with the authorized leaders of the church.  The clergy leader, the trustees and the governing board carry the anxiety on behalf of the whole.

Money and a Discerning Mindset

A discerning mindset assumes that God is not neutral about our resource allocation choices, especially in the face of a deficit.  We allow the indwelling spirit to serve as guide, and assume that the divine will be self-disclosing.  Discernment requires unknowing, a recognition that we do not have the answers that are needed and that we are willing to remain open to previously unimagined possibilities.

There is a natural tendency for authority figures to drift away from discernment and into decision making when things get tense, because authority figures are often punished for unknowing behavior in crisis situations.

Discernment requires a different type of time and attention. We frame the focus of discernment, and we ground the issue in guiding principles. We take time to shed our ego and biases. We listen for promptings of the spirit and explore the will of the spirit through imagination. We weigh options, move toward closure and test our resolution with rest.

The process of discernment is longer and more cumbersome than decision making. It cannot be rushed. A congregation feeling nervous about its financial wellbeing wants to feel better, and rushes to conclusion. An anxious congregation will always drift away from discernment and toward decision making, unless there is intentional effort on the part of leaders to call them back.

The work of discernment belongs to the community, not just to its leaders. All who are invested in the well-being of the community share the anxiety, the responsibility, and the blessing that comes with the work of discernment. A community will often abandon a discerning mindset because it is much easier to deposit responsibility for its problems with its authority figures.


The truth of the matter, when it comes to issues of money, is that we need to engage both discernment and decision making. We can bring the best of intention to the discernment of our operating budget, but discernment takes the time that it takes.  Spirit may not lead in compliance with our deadlines.

At some point, if discernment hasn’t revealed a way, a decision must be made.   We are managing our ministry within institutional settings, and the institution needs to have an operating budget in a timely fashion.  So, at a predetermined time we make a decision and act. The challenge is to give discernment an honest chance, and not to default to decision making before it is time. The challenge is to resume discernment once a decision has been made.

There are several things we can do to give discernment the space and attention it needs.

First, we can design a more spacious calendar. For many of us, synchronizing the calendar year and fiscal year works against discernment. The pledge drive begins when people are most busy. People lose focus during the holidays, and the church experiences wild fluctuations in giving at the end of the calendar year.  Congregations must vote on a new budget in an exhausted state, right as we emerge from the holiday season. It is a prescription for chaos, and chaos is not conducive to discernment.

Might we consider alternative calendaring that would allow for more time spent in discernment?  Would it behoove us to detach the fiscal year from the calendar year? Could we start our pledge conversation earlier to allow more time for discernment? Could we move our approval process a few weeks later, to provide discernment space in the event of a budget shortfall?

Second, we can choose budget methodologies that support a discerning mindset.  A congregation that assembles its budget by applying arbitrary percentage increases to the prior year’s budget has already abandoned discernment.  Discernment is better fostered by a zero-based budgeting method, where we assemble each year’s budget from the ground up.  The annual budget is assembled to reflect the discerned priorities of the congregation for this season of time.

Third, we can support the process of discernment with more intentional and sustained focus on prayer. We may be steeped in prayer as we form our initial budget hopes, but in the face of looming deadlines and deficits we assume that God has abandoned our dreams, and so we abandon God. Discernment is an ongoing journey. It is not a once and done event.

Finally, we can better equip ourselves to work with group discernment tools. When the going gets tough, we over-rely on parliamentary procedure and majority rule.  Greater familiarity with consensus models of decision making and time-honored discernment techniques would help.

We need not abandon discernment when a budget deficit rears its ugly head. A discerning mindset will offer more creative options for resolving a shortfall. If we improve our capacity for discernment, our operating budget will be a more authentic expression of our vision and our values.