Protecting Yourself When Working With Money
By Rev. Brent Dearnell
"Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.“ - Luke 16:10
In my decade plus journey from volunteer youth leader to full-time Executive Pastor in the local church I learned one of the quickest ways to lose trust was mishandling church money. I am not talking about theft, of course that would break trust! I am talking about the nuances of how to handle church money that no one taught you in your undergraduate degree in youth or children's ministry. I have watched these nuances cost peers and coworkers trust, their seats in leadership, and even their jobs. When working with the church’s money there are precautions and proactive behaviors that can keep you safe, just like keeping your name and character safe in working with youth and children. Here are three steps to help keep you in the circle of trust:
HANDLE WITH CARE - As registrations for retreats, mission trips, and events roll in so do the checks, cash, and electronic payments. This is a good thing until you find yourself with a wad of cash that you're not totally sure how to handle or who it came from. Shoving it in your bag or pocket and worrying about it later like you do with your change from lunch is not a good idea! It gets even worse if you start telling parents you are waiting for their kid’s camp fee when it has already been turned in to you. When a parent thinks you can’t handle money why would they trust you with something even more valuable, their child. Leadership boards and lead pastors will struggle to work with you if the parents of the children or youth you work with do not trust you. Build a system or get a dedicated volunteer and stick to it even when it slows you down or seems like a pain. If the system you are using isn’t working then revamp it, but follow it until you have a new one built. If you want help thinking through building a system, here are two websites I would recommend:
STAY IN BOUNDS - I am standing in the checkout line of Best Buy having that ultimate debate in my head: is this a church expense of personal expense? I bet I am not the only person who has been there. Chances are, if we're asking this question, we may be standing on the line between appropriate and inappropriate spending. This doesn’t mean we are out of bounds. We are not trying to do anything wrong or deceive anyone, but there we stand on the line finance people call “misallocation of funds”. The problem with being on the line is that depending on someone else’s perspective we may have leaned a little too far one way or the other. Talk to leaders at your church in advance. Be proactive and find out if there is an official, or unofficial, agreed upon set of rules around spending the church’s money. Developing and sticking to clear budget lines will help, but this can become a little muddy and tricky if you have a reimbursable account. This is one of those areas assumptions could unintentionally cost you the trust from church leaders. Get ahead of the situation and find out the current culture before you get in line.
BE PREDICTABLE - When it comes to spending church budget dollars, one of the best piece of advice is - be predictable. Finance people notice, and are called to respond to, anomalies and surprises. Help them, help you, keep the trust! When you set clear budget lines and keep things in their lanes things go well! However, we all know ministry is not always predictable and things come up. When things go out of the ordinary let your financial leaders know in advance. If you do not let them know, they are left to their own perspective to guess what you are doing. I’ll never forget the day our church accountant called and asked to meet with me because he had some concerns. When we met he shared that he had some concerns about one of my team member’s credit card activity. I thanked him for coming to me right away and said let's take a look. He had the credit card statement highlighted. There was one line for Sweetwater and another line for Royal Spas. He then went on to explain he didn’t think spas and breweries were appropriate expenses. After a good laugh, I explained that we purchased a baptismal pool and sound equipment. Without this conversation it wouldn’t have taken long for word to get out that one of our staff members was out spending church money on their significant other.
This is not the most exciting topic, but things will get horribly exciting when your trust and character gets called into question over the silly nuances of how you handled church money. Keep the trust by continuing to handle money with care, keep an eye on the boundaries, and be as predictable as possible with your financial practices.
Rev. Brent Dearnell
Brent is married to Sara and is a father to four young children. He has served as a volunteer, interim, and full-time youth pastor, discipleship pastor, and executive pastor. Before going into ministry full-time he was a middle school teacher in an urban environment as well as a varsity soccer coach. He is passionate about helping young people live into their passion, faith, and call. This passion is why he is one of the cofounders of Colocate Ministry Consulting and serves as one of our coaches.