Another Way for Congregations To Strategize about Money

Bill Baar asked me how Sam Eliot defines a financially stable congregation. The answer turned out to be, in Bill’s opinion, worthy of a post all its own. So here it is, pretty much a cut-and-paste, not a rewrite.

Submitted on 2012/09/24 at 12:01 pm | In reply to Bill Baar.

Eliot did tend to look at balance sheets, so that if you were small but managing to balance your budget every year, he admired your initiative. This came out of the Harvard University dictum toward each of its several schools: “every tub on its own bottom” –and has been shown to militate badly against the Divinity and Education schools, whose alumniae do not earn enough money to give large gifts just as the final accounting comes due. In the congregational world, this also gives large donors undue influence.

But what is more important to me is the mindset it creates in congregational culture, which is anti-entrepreneurial. There’s a reason we don’t have the money to give our div schools, and it’s because we refuse to participate in the well-known business statement: you’ve got to spend money to make money. I would prefer to see 2 -5 year accounting cycles, which in my view would support more assertive “planning for growth.” But what we are actually doing when we grow is serving larger numbers of people in ways that satisfy more of them, so in my mind, it is immoral not to put our religious selves out there. We could even start risking some product diversification beyond our minimal current offers of RE/Social Justice/Worship/Building Maintenance.

However, to get back to Dr. Sam, his definition of affluence was more than just a balanced budget. He identified four ascending areas of society in which he wanted to see UU congregations established — and yes, we can say UU, because he was a major visionary for the merger and did good work to get it going. His four areas emphasized universities and suburbs — exactly the places where we find ourselves today.

I’ll get back to you on the other two, but not very soon. (I’m working on the self-publishing of my book.)


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