Church finance is a spiritual discipline

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This weekend I attended the residential Synod meeting of the United Reformed Church’s national Synod of Scotland and very interesting it was too. This is last meeting of the Synod I will attend before I transfer to Thames North Synod so I looked at it as one does at a home one is about to leave. There were many things about which I would have liked to write.

In particular David Coleman from Greenock West facilitated quite brilliantly a conversation about marriage in which he showed some of the ways that return to our dissenting Reformed tradition would enable creative input into a debate in which Anglican and other theological traditions that fuse state and church have dominated too much.

However the contribution that struck me hardest and most fruitfully was that from Tom Murray, treasurer of Augustine in Edinburgh, to the painful debate about how the Synod should adapt to financial pressures that are increasingly dangerous. There had been a lot of talk about the importance of our vision taking priority over financial considerations and an unwillingness actually to talk about money. Tom pointed out that dealing properly with our money is an obligation we are put under by God, that talking properly about our money is faith talk, that (although this is my phrase not his) Church finance is a spiritual discipline.

The national Synod of Scotland has been a beneficiary of various ways in which the URC as a denomination shares resources. Tom suggested that something over half a million pounds a year is transferred to it be larger and richer Synods in England every year. This is altogether a good thing, of course, but it has become unsustainable by those English Synods and the situation is changing.

This represents a considerable challenge to the Scottish Synod since its central staff have been funded entirely from this transferred finance. The Scottish churches have not in recent times had to contribute financially to the staff of the national Synod and hence have been able to ignore their existence when not actually drawing on their assistance while valuing that assistance highly when it has been needed.

This has had many positive aspects and consequences but has also, in my view had some less positive ones. One tendency I have detected is for the life of the Synod as a corporate body to “hollow out”. There are many wonderful things about this life but the meetings of Synod have not in my time often had a really vibrant sense of the body of Christ listening for the guidance of the Spirit on God’s missional sending. I don’t imagine it’s unique in this among Church meetings and councils but the fact that the money being spent came from outside the body meeting can’t have helped.

The re-orientation and re-organisation of the Synod to a structure where it’s closer to being financially self-sustaining that is bound to come, in one way or other, from the current difficulties is a huge challenge but also a massive opportunity to re-examine the mission of the URC in Scotland and to put ourselves on a footing to carry that mission through. The conversation at the Synod meeting began seriously to address this but I felt an unwillingness to put the financial aspects at the centre.

I think this is a mistake. Our faith is only complete when it is lived out, when we act on it, and for many making financial contributions and sacrifices, offerings, is a major part of this living out. We shouldn’t decry or neglect that. Equally those of us who have chosen to depend on the Church for the material necessities of life have to acknowledge that our stewardship of the resources offered is a major part of our responsibility. The money we spend has been offered by others to God and we have been given oversight and use of it. That is an awesome responsibility when looked at squarely.

The distribution of this money through the body of Christ in the Church is one of the main ways we are bound together, although I hesitate to say it the Church’s money can be seen as the blood of Christ carrying life to all the body’s parts. In our discussions about it we should recognise that it has been sanctified (much of it will have had dedicatory prayers said over it as it is offered).

Let’s not be squeamish or embarrassed that we need to talk about money, our treasurers are carrying out an important ministry and we should hold them prayerfully up to God and give thanks for them. We should all see that what they  do brings them into intimate connection with Christ and support them fully by turning our minds to the difficulties of their work in ways that will make it easier.

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4 comments
  1. The comment I remember from the debate was “vision v budget – which comes first? That is to say which drives and which is driven?” My head and heart give different answers.
    I link this to the wise combination of words used by John Ellis referring to what is needed at the present time – ” reality, courage and hope”
    The church often engages in reality avoidance to put off making a decision. As a result the decision will be made for the church by the circumstances that have resulted from not making a decision earlier.

  2. I’m inclined to think that if our head and heart give different answers then our feelings, our thoughts, or probably both need to change until the two converge. The putting of vision and budget into opposition is fundamentally wrong. A vision that can’t be put into effect isn’t a real vision but a wish without faithfulness. The money we have is the money that God has given us. To say or to believe that it isn’t enough for the work we have been given fails to honour God.

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