The Church Stewardship Prime Directive: Don’t Spend More Than You Bring In

Money & the Small ChurchToday’s post isn’t long, because today’s point is very simple.

When it comes to the issue of Money & the Small Church, (or money & big churches, money & family finances, money & business, etc.) there is one principle that stands high above all the others.

It’s so basic, I almost feel silly having to write it.

I call it the Church Stewardship Prime Directive, because I believe there is no financial principle more important for a church to observe than this.

Don’t spend more money than you bring in.

That’s it.

Today’s post is part of an ongoing series on Money & the Small Church. Click here to read other posts in the series.

Do the Basics First

Maybe it’s because this principle is so basic and commonsense, that it’s often taken for granted, and therefore ignored. And it’s always a problem when we do.

I’ve heard far too many pastors and other church leaders try to gloss over their refusal to acknowledge this principle with high-sounding words that almost sound like faith.

“Where God guides, he provides.”
“Empty yourself and the Lord will fill you back up.”
“A generous heart will never be left wanting.”
“I’ve never seen the righteous forsaken or his seed begging bread.”
“Hey, that church has a cool, new sound system – I want one, too!”

You’ve heard them, too haven’t you? Maybe you’ve said them yourself. Because they’re true. Well, maybe not that last one…

There’s just one problem with using sayings like that when the problem is overspending. Those principles have to do with generosity (again, except for that last one).

Overspending is not the same as generosity.


Stewardship Matters

Yes, it’s true that where God guides, he provides. But if we’re not being good stewards of what he provides, the Parable of the Talents (and many other scriptures) tells us that he will stop providing.

God won’t entrust his treasure into a leaky bucket. And neither should our church members. 

But that’s exactly what many of our churches are. Not intentionally. And not deceitfully.

But having the right heart won’t fix the leaky bucket.

If you want to solve your church’s financial issues, start with a smart, prayerful, honest look at your church’s budget.

There is simply no financial principle more important than this. More churches have been damaged and more good ministry has been lost because of churches spending more than they receive than all other reasons combined.

Spending money you don’t have isn’t faith. It’s not even seed-faith. It’s bad stewardship.


A Word to the Faithful, But Still Struggling

If your church is struggling financially, I do not assume it’s because you’re managing your money poorly.

Not every financial problem in every church is caused by spending more than we take in. Many of you are faithful financial stewards, but you still face significant monetary challenges.

Fixing the leaks doesn’t end every financial problem. Even a healthy bucket needs a steady income stream. But I start with this principle because, if you are spending more than you’re taking in, nothing else I can say will help you or your church until that problem is resolved.

If your bucket is leaking, you won’t solve your money problems by getting more money. The leaks must be fixed first.

If your bucket isn’t leaking, if you’re not spending more than you take in, but you’re still facing severe financial problems, I know the feeling. A lot of us have been there. And many of us are with you there right now. In future posts we’ll offer help for those issues, too.

But for now, please heed this simple, but essential word of advice.

Don’t spend what you don’t have.

Faithfulness starts with discipline.


So what do you think? What ideas do you have for helping our fellow pastors manage our income and outgo better?

We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
Enter your comment right below this post and get in on the conversation.

(Dreams Cancelled photo from Chris Devers • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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3 thoughts on “The Church Stewardship Prime Directive: Don’t Spend More Than You Bring In”

  1. As simple as this sounds I have been in churches that think the problem is something else. Thanks for the simple and straightforward reminder. We are going through our budget process now and fortunately our income stream is at a point where we can cover all ministry plans for the next year. Thankful for your writings Karl as you are one of a handful of blogs I read every chance I get. Though I just started being a small church pastor this past year you have been a tremendous encouragement, reality check person, and challenger. Thank you!

  2. The three most common causes of overspending that I’ve seen are 1) Not having a real budget or ignoring the budget that was developed and 2) Not having sufficient financial controls…things like allowing almost everyone to spend and then submit reimbursements. 3) Developing next years budget based on ‘faith’ and then spending based on the budget rather than real income.

    1. So true. God created both faith and math. Perhaps wisdom is found not ignoring one over the other in our budgeting and spending. Discipline, financial discipline, and faith should not be mutually exclusive, but must inform the other in our practice before God.

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