I was sitting across the table from a church leader as he outlined why the congregation I was consulting with couldn’t continue it’s brief path towards transformation. “You see,” he said “I am a fiscal conservative and as our expenses stay the same but our income drops, it’s not sustainable to draw on our reserves.”

I nodded and then said “I understand…I am personally a fiscal conservative.” I watch across the table as his shoulder unplugged from his ears and dropped six inches and he sat back in his chair, visibly more relaxed to be in the presence of a kindred spirit, another person who shared the same values and view of the world.

“Oh, so you get it” he said as he continued on to explain some of the challenges up ahead for the congregation, outline the contours of the questions looming and the stack of answers that were yet to emerge from the process. They were to typical fears that all congregations with varying degrees of intensity face–how will we transform? Will we be able to make this change quickly enough to change our course? What if the risks become our reality and not our dream?

But as the conversation continued I realized we were indeed, not at all on the same page. When a natural pause came in the conversation I pressed “what is your fiscal conservativism FOR?” He shook his head and so I explained, “My family and I practice fiscal conservativism because God has given us resources we need to honor and use to the fullest. But we practice it FOR something. We aren’t conservative for conservatives sake–we have three values that ground that practice. We want to pay for our children’s college, we want to be a faith informed, counter cultural witness in the midst of the excess of the suburbs and we want to give away as much as we can to the non-profits that we care deeply about. Without those driving values my fiscal conservativism is nothing.” I continued “So, what is it that the church is being fiscally conservative FOR?”

Fiscal conservativism alone is not strong enough a virtue to be a guiding principle in an organization or person’s decision making. The mistake that many people and institutions make is thinking that fiscal conservativism is enough of a principle to sustain decision making. It is not.

Often in church and in our own personal finances we confuse the tools we use with the reason for using them or perhaps we use those tools for so long without questioning them that the tools slowly become sufficient enough that we don’t think we need a reason. Over time we end up committing to practices that have no values to undergird them and therefore have no real value to our ministries.

If a church wants to manage their financial resources conservatively so that there is resources to start a community food pantry or become sustaining partners with the women’s shelter, there are missional values that guide those financial practices. Churches and people do their best work when they let who God is calling them to be in the world dictate how they manage what they have, instead of letting what they have dictate the kind of ministry they do.

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