Breaking The Mold—Innovative Ways to Enhance Your Parish Finance Council

The true treasury of your parish is your parishioners.

Trevor Hanlin

A parish that isn’t financially struggling is doing something wrong.

And here’s why.

When we look at the first Letter of Paul to the Corinthians (16:1-4), we see the Church in Jerusalem struggling financially from its inception to carry out the work of the Great Commission and support itself. In the Church’s formative years, the apostles and early Christians believed in expanding its reach. They understood that it would take organization, planning, and capital to travel and fund their ministry. They modeled how we should relentlessly extend ourselves and push ourselves further.

However, in the modern sense (and in my experience of serving on various parish Finance Councils), when a parish is in financial trouble, it’s usually from a lack of parishioner involvement and financial forethought in two areas—building maintenance and funding.

This is where the Finance Council can play an important role in assisting the pastor, parish administrator, and Pastoral Council in casting a vision for your parish’s financial future, and, as a result, contribute to overall parish stewardship and a vibrant parish life.

At the basic level, a Council typically oversees the treasure element of stewardship, or in other words, parish finances, but what they do and are responsible for is very amorphous.

In most parishes, they act as a “rubber stamp” in the parish’s accounting arm where they double-check the “dollar in, dollar out” aspect of parish operations. But I believe a Finance Council should be able to look at the whole picture of stewardship, not just financial stewardship.

Finance Council members should be empowered to oversee and understand their parish’s liabilities, obligations, and assets, as well as be good stewards of what was handed to them from previous parish leaders, with an eye on what they’ll be handing off to future generations.

For that reason, a Finance Council should take a more assertive role and help the parish create a culture of better stewards toward the treasure they are entrusted with.

The true treasury of every parish is its parishioners.

Our end goal is always to bring more people to participate in the Mass and liturgy.

But how do we invite and help them in their journey towards the sacraments? How can the various supporting units that make up a parish contribute in their own treasure and talent toward that end?

The key to success is to engage people in the Mass, sacraments, and inviting them to a relationship with Christ. Because if you do that, even if there isn’t a building around you, you won’t have any regrets. But ultimately if you build it, they will come. The foundation of your parish is the people, the reception of sacraments, and the actions of building community that, in totality, supports the physical building.

So, if you are actively engaging your parishioners through vibrant liturgies, well-managed ministries, consistent curated content, or personalized communication, chances are that they will likely become more involved in your parish, feel more connected to your community, and want to give more to support their parish family. It will not only help you with that bottom line of increasing revenue and capital, but more importantly, your parishioners will want to give their time and talent, which I think is the bigger gamechanger.

If the true treasury of your parish is your parishioners—the people who make up your parish family—then it would be counterintuitive for a Finance Council to be completely focused on the treasure aspect because of the awesome dynamic of parish stewardship. When you have a combined data view of each parishioner’s time, talent, and treasure through your Parish management software, you can better understand what assets your parishioners bring to your community and what they can provide to help the parish family thrive.

How To Protect The Treasury (and How Sherwin-Williams Could Help)

What does Sherwin-Williams have to do with parish stewardship? Plenty.

One asset worth protecting is your church building. Painting your church building is one of the most financially prudent things that a parish can do because when everything goes to rot or awry, it often could have been prevented with just a little bit of paint throughout time. That’s both an actuality and a metaphor wrapped up all in one.

Basic building maintenance should be a priority for any parish because it ensures that your building won’t fall in on itself. Because once you’re stuck in that continuous rut of needing to spend $10,000 on a new roof or $5,000 on paint restoration, it can be extremely difficult to climb out of that hole. Those are big ticket items that you should create a plan to fix, but also start focusing on a more forward-thinking approach of defining the preventative small ticket items that you can do now for much less in order to avoid it becoming a major structural issue later on.

Another asset is your parishioners’ talents.

While the Finance Council is typically tasked with the treasure aspect, our duty should also involve the other aspects of stewardship—time and talent.

At a previous parish of mine, we found a firm that would handle the safe disposal of several oil tanks and the dirt around them that were used to heat the church decades ago, but had been left underneath the parish campus.

Being underground posed an environmental risk because they had not been used for so many years. There could be soil contamination and clean up that would be costly for the parish. The low estimate was $50,000 but we knew that the task could potentially cost much more. However, we discovered a parishioner whose job was to clean up a Superfund site. He had all the equipment, knowledge, certification, and, more importantly, a safe disposal location. He completed the job at cost to the parish for significantly less. By leveraging this parishioner’s time and talent, we reduced the cost because he was able to use his talents and company to benefit the parish.

There’s a gray area where Finance Councils are responsible for not only looking into how money is spent, but also look at the assets that parishioners bring in terms of time and talent so that it can find a better solution in protecting the parish that doesn’t involve money.

Another example of a financial pain point might be a struggling faith formation program. A parish might be spending a ton of money on books and materials, but discover that a parishioner is a curriculum writer for Scholastic or Seton Homeschool. The writer has a particular talent that might allow them to advise or create their own resources to improve the program. The parish not only lowers costs, but also gets that writer more involved. A parishioner that is involved will always contribute because they love the Church, Jesus, and their parish. As a steward serving on a Finance Council, or as a pastor or Pastoral Council, your duty is to present parishioners with those avenues and engage with them.

Protecting the money aspect of stewardship, for the most part, stems from best practices from my background in banking.

Throughout my career, I was constantly involved in working with churches and served in an advisory role to various parishes. In that role of just being the banker guy who is trying to do right by his clients, I eventually moved into a more formal role within the parish’s Finance Council—or if a parish didn’t have one, I became the finance guy who advised the general Parish Council (and simply make those comments about the importance of painting your church building).

Within a parish environment, there’s a lot of trust with the people around them. In my experience in banking, I trusted every single one of my tellers, not just with my money and other people’s money, but more than just that. They were my trusted go-to group of people.

That being said, I never sent anyone into the vault, where all the money is stored, alone.

Dual control is one of the basic practices of handling money, and one that a parish should implement to protect its assets. That basic aspect is often lost because we tend to trust the priest or someone who has worked for a parish for thirty years. We think that a person is beyond reproach and can always be trusted with the parish’s money.

But when things go wrong with someone entrusted with money, there’s a three-way metric that organizations who fall victim to theft or fraud can use to help make sense of their actions:

  • Reason
  • Opportunity
  • Access

Financial hardship is one reason that a trusted member of your parish would be tempted to steal. The Finance Council’s role is to eliminate the opportunity for someone in that tough situation to embezzle from the parish. The Council should be entrusted and empowered to eliminate or reduce access for embattled individuals to money, and serve as a final source of auditing while maintaining a shared role with staff in ensuring that funds are not being misappropriated.

Tips For Pastors On Managing A Finance Council

Throughout my career, I’ve lived in different parts of the country. I’ve learned that there isn’t just one model or way of running a Finance Council, because a parish in downtown Seattle is very different from a parish in Steubenville, Ohio. But along the way, I’ve picked up ideas that might help you in running your own Finance Council:

1. Limited Open Concept

From a council standpoint, I believe that groups should be kept to less than eight people, because you want to be able to make actionable decisions. However, I tend to lean towards a model that’s open, where the pastor is empowered to take in suggestions from other people in the parish about creating an environment where there will be proponents and dissenters to every decision.

2. Term Limits

As a new pastor, you might enjoy the conveniences of having finance members who have served for 25 years on the council. Their knowledge, connections, and experiences are valuable. But if you have three or four members who have served for decades, it might not be the best solution. Having term limits and getting some new voices with fresh ideas on your council could make your parish even better.

3. Youth Voice

Bringing in a representative from the youth ministry to serve on the Council for a year will be valuable for not only the future of your parish, but the Church as well. You can decide what responsibilities they can take on, and whether or not they should have voting privileges. Ultimately, it’s their voice in decisions that will matter, and gives them an opportunity to lead with more insight into what goes into sustaining a parish financially.

4. Open Sessions

City governments have closed meetings among members, and also schedule separate meetings for the public to listen and provide feedback. In the same way, Finance Councils could also offer open sessions and invite parishioners to listen and respond to the state of parish assets. Transparency and accountability are very important, and decisions should be made in a manner where the council would be able to defend their decisions to everyone. Having a diverse group involved in any major decision adds to a healthy foundation for any finance council.

Treasury Metrics For Your Councils

After re-entering the Church in about 2006, I was almost consistently involved in some ministry within my parish. At that point in my professional career, I was a contractor in the aviation industry, while also coaching the parish schools and the deanery’s cross country teams.

That was really rewarding.

With marriage and a gaggle of children, I decided that I need to make the move into a financially stable career in banking.

I moved from banking to Pushpay last August. Though finance-adjacent, I love it here. It helps me bring my expertise into a more ministerial role. Being able to serve the Church in my professional life is something I’m really enjoying—while banking is many things, ministerial it is not.

Every day I work with a talented team to create software specifically designed for Catholic Churches that can help you make informed decisions that impact your budget, improve a parishioner’s experience with your parish, and empowers them to give more easily to support your mission. We are developing software so that valuable metrics about your parish’s treasury can easily and safely be shared with important decision makers—pastors, priests, business managers, pastoral councils, finance councils, and anyone you choose to involve.

Like all parish leaders, I know that it’s slower and harder than ever to effect pervasive change in the Church.

But it’s not impossible.

Our team recently collaborated with Tom Martin, chief information officer for the Archdiocese of Seattle, to create a free ebook for parish leaders—Leading Through Digital Change. He walks you through their formula for change management and describes the incredible teamwork involved in bringing the plan to life.

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