September 12th, 2016

Leading a Budget Retreat

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The following post was written by David Putman and Todd McMichen.

We all desire to do a better job when it comes to our church’s budget. How many times have we had to move funds from one line item to another creating a lack of clarity, confusion, and frustrations among our board and staff? How many times have we over-funded the wrong program while under-funding the right opportunity? Imagine for a moment a way forward with our budgeting that is clear, concise, catalytic, compelling and most of all on point. Imagine leaving a budgeting meeting as a team energized about the next ministry season instead of weighed down by spreadsheets and numbers.

One way forward is a vision-based budgeting retreat. The following is a simple step-by-step process to consider.


Reconsider your language. Language creates culture. This is especially true when it comes to your church’s budget. Does our language indicate scarcity or provision? A church with a generous culture chooses its language carefully. A budget becomes a spending plan or investment plan that funds our vision. Our budget retreat becomes more about how we “finance the mission” and less about how we divide up the “money pie.” Regardless of what language you use, connect it to your vision.

Turn a “have to” into a “get to.” Long before your budget is due, plan an offsite meeting for the purpose of resourcing next year’s vision. Nothing frustrates a team more when it comes to budget than to be excluded or have budget planning sprung on them at the last minute. Budgeting can be stressful enough without creating unwanted urgency with last minute planning. People are down on, what they are not up on. This includes your staff.

Do some spiritual prep. Before the offsite, consider spending some team time working through a book or some devotions on generosity. Encourage your team to begin a journal noting how God is speaking to them related to their specific area of ministry and better collaboration as a whole. You may consider using a tool like Leading A Generous Church by Todd McMichen.

Work on your vision. The question we need to answer prior to any attempt at budging is, “Where is God leading us?” This is the question that underpins all of our stewardship. Remember, budgeting is about resourcing our vision. An excellent resource for working on vision is God Dreams, a book written by our founder Will Mancini and also Warren Bird. In God Dreams the authors look at vision through four horizons. They are:

  • Beyond the Horizon (10 plus years) – This horizon is actually what it sounds like. If you are looking into the future it is what’s beyond our horizon. It’s that one big idea that compels us as a church. For planning sake, it’s the big idea that drives our sense of mission accomplished. It’s our ultimate destiny.
  • Background Horizon (3-5 years) – Our background horizon represents the strategic objectives we must accomplish over the next few years if we are going to ultimately accomplish our beyond the horizon vision.
  • Midground Horizon (1 year) – In our budgeting process, the midground horizon is critical. This is the one thing that we can do or even must do in the next year if we are to advance our vision. It’s that one thing we as a team must pool our resources toward in order to achieve.
  • Foreground Horizon (90 days) – These are the four initiatives that must be started within the next 90 days and result in our accomplishing our one big thing or our midground vision.

A potential action point is to have a God Dreams Retreat six-months prior to your budget retreat.


Start with your vision. If you worked on vision prior to the retreat spend some time updating the team on the previous vision work. Let the team give you feedback. You can do this around four questions: 1) What’s right? 2) What’s wrong? 3) What’s missing? 4) What’s unclear? Collect the team’s responses on a whiteboard or flipchart. You can refer back to it at another time. Don’t allow the team to get bogged down. Remember this is simply about getting vision in front of the team. If they were part of your earlier vision work, this should move fast and create synergy. If you’ve failed to do any vision work prior to your retreat, you’re not ready to work on your budget. Remind the team that the budget is about funding the vision.

Evaluate last year’s ministry effectiveness. An additional grid for resourcing the vision is evaluating your ministry effectiveness. There are three types of results that we need to evaluate as we consider how we are going to invest next year’s resources – they are input, output, and impact results.

  • Input results – These are those things we commonly measure in our churches. Things like attendance, baptisms, new members, small group attendance, volunteerism, and giving. These are an important matrix that provide a unique snapshot into our effectiveness in ministry. At the same time our evaluation needs to go further.
  • Output results – These are more difficult to measure, but at the same time can be measured. They tend to be more qualitative than quantitative. They describe the qualitative life of the average disciple in our church. Things like: they are experiencing intimacy with God and others, they are living from a place of meaning and purpose, they are engaging in mission, and they are growing in generosity. It’s one thing to attend, and another to experience life change. Output results focus on life change.
  • Impact results – Impact goals are even harder to measure, but an important aspect of our overall ministry effectiveness. Are we ultimately having an impact on our community and world? One of the most effective means of measuring our impact results is collecting the stories in our church and community of changed lives and greater community impact. These stories should ultimately align with our Beyond the Horizon Vision.

Input results by far are the easiest to assess. Numbers don’t lie. Output and impact results can be more difficult to measure. Have your team share stories related to output and impact results. For example, an output result would include a story of life change, while an impact story may include a story of community impact. Make sure you pause long enough to celebrate your effectiveness.

Pay attention to your financial details. Wow! Up until this point this hasn’t felt or been like any other budgeting meeting, but we must drill in and pay attention to the details. This involves paying attention to our finances at the macro and micro levels. There are a number of things to consider at the macro level in order to learn more about how people give and how we might disciple them.

They include:

  • Did we meet budget?
  • Are we living under our means or over our means?
  • How many people contributed to our budget this previous year?
  • How does giving grow as an individual’s engagement in ministry grows?
  • What was the average gift?
  • How did giving break down by amounts?
  • How many people use some form of electronic giving? What were they?
  • Did we have unbudgeted expenses?
  • Do we have large capital needs on the horizon?
  • What are our cash surplus levels?
  • How is our debt to budget ratio?

Once we have a handle on the big picture, it is time to dig deeper and pay attention to our budget at the micro level or ministry level.

This includes:

  • Were there areas that were over budgeted?
  • Were there areas that were under budgeted?
  • What ministries are in growth, plateau, or decline?
  • What ministries did we see the highest and lowest return on invested dollars?
  • What ministry line items could be reduced or eliminated?
  • What ministry line items need to be increased or added?
  • What new investments do we need to make to support our one-year horizon and measurable results?

Be willing to give “up in” order to “go up.” Give your team some time to make adjustments based on all that has taken place up to this point in the retreat. Let them work in subgroups. You will be surprised how this collaborative process will open up the willingness for team members to make sacrifices. When you include them in the process, they are more than likely willing to lead the way and the charge. Ask every team to give up something for the common good. Create a spirit of sacrifice by leading the way.

Conclude the retreat with a season of celebration and prayer. Model the way by affirming the contribution of the entire team. Celebrate the specific contribution of team members by highlighting how they have lived out the values of your church. Call the team to a season of fasting and prayer for next year’s vision.


Scrub the results before presenting the final budget. This next step requires time. Let the team know that the executive and finance team will pray and look at everything over the next few weeks before presenting the final budget to the entire team. Make sure you don’t over promise and under deliver. It is better to under promise and over deliver. Have a defined time when you will bring closure to the budgeting process. Informally include the entire team in the scrubbing process by soliciting feedback when needed.

We are recommending a process that is more vision based than most. Why? It keeps the process fresh and every year people know you rally around the vision. This will help diminish silos, personal entitlements, relational fears, and prevent you from just doing the same thing every year. Vision based financial leadership will also create the necessary clarity that when enacted properly will produce generosity, confidence, and surplus.

Ready to plan for your budget retreat? Click here to download a tool to help prepare and execute your retreat.



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