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financial realities of the LCMS

So there are two fairly common counterfactual games a person can play when considering another tradition in the light of one’s own tradition or experiences. They are roughly these:

  1. Why are you not X?
  2. What would it take to make you X?

The former category seems to be more popular; the latter requires a bit more intellectual honestly and is sometimes tougher. It’s relatively easy to say why you’re not Emergent, or Roman Catholic, or whatever; it’s harder to picture what you’d do if you had to make do. Sometimes the two questions are duals; sometimes they’re not.

I sometimes wonder what I’d do if, say, I were in some tiny town in the Dakotas and had to pick between a shouting church and a Lutheran church. Hint: I’d probably settle for the Lutheran church, especially if it were LCMS. As much grief as I give them here from time to time, the LCMS offers several things I wish every church organization or denomination had. In particular, they have a catechism, and they at least pay lip service to financial accountability.

Regarding the latter please consider the following artifacts: a summary of budget shortfalls from the Board of Directors [link, PDF] and an appearance by President Matt Harrison on Issues Etc [mp3].

The former is chock-full of numbers of the sort I don’t ordinarily see from a denominational board:

Looking ahead, prospects for the 2011/2012 fiscal year look even more dire. According to Rhodes, “the best numbers available” show an anticipated decrease in undesignated support to the Synod (district pledges and other sources of income) from $23,025,000 in 2010/2011 to $19,529,000 in 2011/2112. Income from the Synod’s 35 districts constitutes the major portion of the undesignated income of the Synod. District pledges demonstrate that many districts are being adversely affected by economic hard times, which in turn affects the financial support they are able to remit to the Synod.

Executive Director Rhodes also called the board’s attention to the additional concern that the current year’s budget has almost no flexibility. The nearly $86 million budget includes only a budgeted $250,000 surplus, which provides less than one-half of 1 percent flexibility—a concern also to be taken into consideration as the board develops and ultimately adopts the coming year’s budget during its May 2011 meeting.

Never mind for the moment the question of whether the surplus is properly contextualized against the total budget or the undesignated income; these are better-quality (not to say more-encouraging) numbers than I’m accustomed to seeing from a ministry with a sizable budget. I’m more familiar with a mindset that doesn’t share bad news until it’s too late, shares too little detail along the way, etc. for fear that donors will come to believe that the Spirit of the Lord has left the organization when the financial numbers are poor and stopped giving altogether.

Apparently LCMS Lutherans are not subject to these inclinations.

The appearance by Matt Harrison is less encouraging; to my ears he points his finger at the $66 million unmentioned in the summary above, namely the designated income, and suggests that church leadership should have more say over how money is spent. Broadly speaking, designated income, as Harrison explains, is money that has been given but earmarked for a specific purpose. He doesn’t explain how this money would be repurposed to cover the shortfall: whether there are surpluses hiding all over the place in the designated income, or whether some items that were important to donors would be cut so the money could be diverted to the general fund.

I am a little disappointed to hear his line of reasoning not include some suggestion that perhaps the Synod has overspent from its undesignated income in the past, doesn’t have a history of saving money, etc. It sounds to me like he’s locating, as they say, the budget problem in the pews rather than in the leadership. Still, it’s easy to imagine why: cutting budget is hard and unpopular; suggesting the leadership should have more control is easy.

All that being said, the LCMS is miles ahead of most ministries of comparable size; how many $90 million ministries make their financial statement and auditor’s report [link] available for download on the Web?

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