When my wife and I married back in 1989, one of the ways we demonstrated our new “oneness” was by combining our financial resources and working together to allocate our spending. The truth is, it was challenging; we didn’t make much money, didn’t know much about budgeting, and lived in Southern California. I remember going to bed one night knowing that we didn’t have food for breakfast and payday was still a few days away. That next morning I woke up and opened the apartment door to get the newspaper. To my complete surprise, two bags of groceries were waiting for us with a note that said God put it on my heart that you might need this. What an incredible testament to how God provides. I was so thankful to this anonymous person God used to care for us at a vulnerable time. But, we both knew this wasn’t a sustainable plan. It’s not like we should expect manna every morning like the Israelites during their exodus from Egypt.
Sustainability simply means having the ability to maintain a certain rate or level. In the example above, my wife and I needed to ensure our groceries lasted from one paycheck to the next. As churches grapple with the post-COVID reality of fewer attenders and decreased giving, sustainability becomes a factor – especially concerning compensating the church staff.
Each year during budget season, churches need to look at all of their expenditures and determine if the allocation of financial resources supports the mission. The best place to start the evaluation is compensation because, for most churches, compensation is the most considerable portion of the budget ranging from 45%-55% for healthy churches. There are two primary ways to evaluate staffing levels:
- Attendance to FTE (Full-Time Equivalent) Employee Method – Chemistry Staffing research shows that a healthy church should have about one FTE per every 76 attendees.
- Compensation to Total Budget Method: Calculate all compensation expenses, including annual wages, housing allowances, benefits (including the employer portion of medical, dental, vision, short-term disability, long-term disability, and life insurance), taxes, and retirement. Compare that amount to the total budget amount. A healthy church’s compensation ranges between 45%-55% of the total budget.
These methods will help determine if your staffing levels are sustainable with the church’s current income/giving levels.
I worked in for-profit, secular organizations for over 20 years before transitioning into ministry. The role of paid employees in these organizations ranged from doers to leaders, and in every instance, the organization paid someone to accomplish the company’s mission. But the church is different; churches have the X-factor of a volunteer workforce. The Ephesians 4 model shows that the role of the staff is to equip people to do the work of the ministry to build up the church. That means the church staff must focus on enlisting and equipping volunteer leaders. The staff’s role is to build teams and develop new leaders.
Churches wrestling with too little money for too many employees are fighting a sustainability issue. Instead of depleting the church’s financial resources and wondering what’s wrong, ask these questions. Is wage stagnation for the paid staff part of the budget plan? Is the church staff spending more time doing than recruiting and developing volunteers? Like being sick, diagnosing the illness is only part of the solution; applying the remedy is often the painful and necessary next step. Churches that employ leaders focused on the Ephesians 4 model need fewer people on staff because they are equipping their volunteers to do the ministry to build up the church. And, with fewer staff members to pay, it opens the church budget to paying those on staff more. It’s a sustainable model.