What images come to mind when you think about your church?
What means the most to your membership?
This is the story you want your budget to tell!

You probably support a range of not-for-profit organizations — from your alma mater to health and human service organizations to the arts. How many of these groups send you their line-item budget when they’re asking you to give? None? So why does the church think a boring page of numbers is going to inspire anyone? Forget the “shoulds” of church giving; like it or not, we compete for charitable dollars.

A narrative budget — also known as a Mission Spending Plan — offers an unparalleled opportunity to tell the story of your church’s mission and ministry in a way that inspires engagement and giving. Not a replacement for the line-item management budget, these documents are more like marketing brochures. And when they’re well done, they’re often better brochures for newcomers than the standard tri-folds found in many church foyers.

When people ask you about your church, what do you tell them? Do you talk about how much it costs to heat the building? Or what percentage of the budget is spent on youth ministry? No… more than likely, you tell them about your friends, about your favorite parts of worship, about your Sunday School class, or about that ministry that means so much to you. A narrative budget tells the story of your church in terms that connect with your members. Sure, they want the lights to work when they come to church, but they give because they value your church on a much more personal level. And when you want people to give, you need to reach them on that personal level.

Narrative budgets are stewardship documents
Most people see the budget around annual campaign time. The finance committee distributes the usual page of numbers and hopes people will give enough to make all the numbers match up. Narrative budgets remind people of the relationships and programs that mean so much to them, and to move them toward ever-greater support of the ministries they value.

Narrative budgets don’t replace financials
The usual page-of-numbers budget is great for management — but does it make you smile? Just like you don’t mow the lawn with hedge clippers, you don’t inspire giving by focusing on the bills. A narrative budget has its place alongside the traditional financial documents that the finance committee or church council use to manage the church’s day-to-day operations. They are complementary, each with its own job to do.

Narrative budgets may even be more accurate!
Because narrative budgets divide costs up across ministry areas, they actually reflect the cost of a given ministry more accurately than a traditional budget. Your church’s worship budget, for instance, probably doesn’t take into account the amount of staff time that goes into preparing for worship — that’s on a separate line! But a narrative budget divides staff time, even administrative costs, across your ministries and ultimately reflects the true cost of a ministry with even greater accuracy than a traditional document.

Narrative budgets are flexible
With a narrative budget, you tell a story — and that gives you the opportunity to highlight areas that need special focus. Have an outreach program that’s new to the budget? A narrative gives you an opportunity to say more about it. Want to celebrate the hours of volunteer work that helps make your church successful? In a narrative budget, you can do that with words and photos. You can be as creative as you want to be. The idea is to inspire!


Budgets are moral documents that reflect the values and priorities of a family, church, organization, city, state, or nation. They tell us what is most important and valued to those making the budget. — Jim Wallis, Sojourners

Most churches approach budget development, preparation and presentation from an accounting point of view — offering a (rather dull) page of numbers categorized in a manner that may or may not reflect the ministries of the church. Narrative Budgets transform that page of numbers into a series of stories that bring to life what’s best about your church, and identifying the cost of offering the ministries your members value.

1 — Determine your frame with a few categories
The story told by your budget may be structured or framed in a variety of ways —

  • by ministry areas: worship, education, pastoral care, youth, mission…
  • by goals: building faith, reaching out, working for justice…
  • around your church’s mission statement
  • using a combination of categories

Choose just a few categories to create your frame, ideally just four to six. Active words are better — instead of a churchy category like “Christian Education,” how about “Building Believers”?

2 — Assign expenses to your categories
A category like “Building Believers” might combine expenses associated with Christian education, pastoral care, youth ministry and more. Your “frame” will determine how you allocate costs. Feel free to divide costs among different categories. The pastor’s salary, for instance, might be divided between worship, education, pastoral care and administration — allocations that actually reflect the cost of ministry more accurately than one number lumped under “personnel” (or worse, under “administration”).

  • Ask the pastor to estimate the percentage of his/her work that applies to each of your frame’s categories. Combine the salary, housing, fringe benefits, and all professional expenses (ie, book allowance, educational travel) into one total amount. This does not need to be a scientific exercise — a breakdown over four categories like 30/30/30/10 will suffice!
  • Follow a similar procedure with other staff compensation and even with office expenses like postage and internet costs. Eliminate the catch-all “administrative” category by dividing costs so that each category in your frame includes its fair share of office costs.
  • Consider spreading the cost of “Building and Grounds” among the other categories like Worship or Christian Education, estimating the percentages of the use of facilities required by the ministries in those categories.

3 — Tell the story as many ways as possible
Some people love photos. Others like bullet-point lists. Still others prefer pie charts and graphs. Use this opportunity to describe each category using a range of appeals. You’re limited only by your imagination!

A FEW TIPS (in no particular order) —

  • Photos are key — be sure to include the cute kids AND the grumpy people. Photos draw people in like nothing else, but start early to collect them. Ask church members of all ages to take photos often — and consider a church photo-cloud site like Flickr where people can upload their pictures. You’ll need more than you think you will.
  • These may be called “narrative” budgets, but less is more when it comes to words and paragraphs. Direct mail writers will tell you that people read their name, the PS at the bottom of a letter, and the bullet points. Short bullet points are your friend.
  • The four or five categories you develop should telegraph your church’s mission/ministry — preferably in marketing-type language that’s inspirational or last least appealing. For instance, instead of a category called Building & Grounds, consider something like Creating Sacred Space.
  • Gather a small committee of creative people to develop the narrative budget — the finance people can support the group by providing the very few numbers that will appear in the document and explaining the expenses included in each number. The narrative budget can also be a great place to involve youth!
  • Don’t leave this with the pastor. The narrative budget can be considered a joint project between the giving, outreach and finance committees — and developing the document should be fun.
  • If you print your church bulletin in-house, you should be able to print a narrative budget. Use the color ink — this project is worth that small annual cost!