Finance As Worship

Where does accounting fit in the kingdom of God?

I’m afraid that, despite my best efforts not to, I still feel, see, and practice dualism. I still manage to hold to this belief that the secular is “bad,” and utterly separate from the spiritual. I know that there isn’t actually a Biblical basis for this, rather that God cares for the whole person. The Word took on flesh and dwelt among us. His gospel is so much bigger than just our personal salvation- it extends to the reconciliation of our whole being to Him, as well as our relationships with each other and the environment. Jesus came to take away our sins, and to destroy the works of the enemy (1 John 3:5, 8). Everything that sin made wrong, He is making right as He makes all things new. I know that shalom is about wholeness, not a fractured reality.

However, I still classify certain jobs as ministry, and everything else as, well, just work. Working for the finance department of the Underground Network challenges this dualism for me daily. On the one hand, working for the Underground Network in any capacity seems like ministry. Part of what is so unique about the Underground is the way this organization challenges every believer to engage with their own calling from Jesus to bring the good news to the dark places in our city. Being a part of that dream in any capacity feels like being a part of something much larger than myself- something like the reconciliation of all things to God.

Then again, I work in finances from nine to five, Monday through Friday, and I know of nothing that falls more squarely outside the “spiritual” in dualism then numbers. What could accounting possibly have to do with spirituality?

At the Underground, though, we are committed to surrendering our whole selves to Jesus, even our accounting. With materialism and greed dominating our current culture, especially our accounting needs to be surrendered to Him. This is actually a way that we resist the works of the enemy in the world, as we seek the kingdom of God in how we use our money. Because of that, being a part of the Finance team at the Underground is deeply spiritual, and interwoven with prayer. We are constantly confronted with the behind the scenes needs of committed missionaries, and pushed to cry out for the provision of God, and the leadership of His Spirit as we seek creative solutions. Simultaneously, we worship Him for the ways He does provide through the sacrificial generosity of people in our community, both near and far. I am aware every time I fill out a form, run a report, or reconcile an account, of how small I am, and how large this thing that God is growing out of our mustard seed faith is.

I need this reminder, that every detail in our lives and our organizations has to belong to Jesus. He has to be Lord, in the way we do our accounting, the way we design our websites, the way we coach and train. Our learning and action should be defined by His leadership and mission. In the finance department, this means wrestling with how to better manage risks, as people who both trust Jesus and also need to effectively steward what He has given us. It means welcoming and embracing the highest standards of accountability. I need this reminder because I need every task that I undertake, from simple data entry to creative problem solving, to be submitted to Jesus, covered with prayer, and done with commitment to His mission. When I look at my job this way, finances and accounting feel like intercession and worship; a valuable piece of equipping missionaries of the kingdom who are wholly surrendered to Jesus.

Of course, I still don’t want to neglect Jesus’ mandate to go out and look for lost sheep. Underground staff don’t just spend their days serving missionaries, they also are missionaries in their families, neighborhoods, and the communities they have been called to serve. I think in this season, I am just realizing that the reach of Jesus’ kingdom extends farther than I’ve imagined before. The specific ways I assumed and expected that He would use my life, the things that I tried to control, have not worked out as I planned, or hoped. Instead, He is leading me towards deeper surrender as I learn to do everything for His glory and honor in the world, from making a deposit in a microchurch’s bank account, to serving as part of a tutoring program for kids, to loving the people in my home church. I want to value and be faithful to each of these roles He has given me as I continue seeking His leadership.

Reflections on Organizational Integrity

I’ve been reflecting lately on the distinction between compliance and integrity. Compliance is following rules — especially when it comes to finances. Regulations give us lines not to cross. Our internal policies or IRS regulations or state regulations give us parameters in which to stay. Or at least, not get caught if we stray from these regulations (whether it’s intentional or an honest mistake). Some of these make sense and some don’t, but they are an inevitable part of operating as a nonprofit organization.

Integrity, on the other hand, is the bigger vision I seek for us as an organization and the missionaries we serve. The word integrity, while its definition connotes honesty and morality, is really a picture of wholeness. If a person has integrity, he or she is the same person inside and out. She’s a person who lives the values she professes. He’s a person who is honest and open about his personal life because he has nothing to hide. As I’m sure we’ve all experienced, it’s a fight to be a person of integrity.

I’m wondering if when we consider integrity, we should think more in terms of an organizational culture that pauses to ask questions as we go about our daily work.

  • How can we be an organization that lives out values with openness and honesty and has a holistic approach to finances and administration? The values we profess should be evident in the way we use money, interact with donors and vendors and treat our resources.
  • How does this reflect our values?
  • Is this empowering something God wants us to do?
  • Even if this action is legal would I want all the people involved in our organization to see this?
  • Most lapses in integrity happen as a gradual eroding over time — maybe training ourselves to ask questions in the small daily decisions will strengthen our integrity for the long-haul.

I wonder if in addition to all forms filed and paperwork in line, we create a culture in which each action involving funds gives leaders pause to consider not just if the action is within set rules but if it embraces the values the organization professes. When we follow rules our motivation is external — we don’t want to get in trouble. When we pursue integrity, we bring God into the small questions and actions of our days to build a life of integrity. It grows something beautiful. Could organizational finances really be beautiful?

Maintaining true integrity will always be a battle — against our selfishness and pride and sense of entitlement. When we follow rules and focus on compliance, we risk becoming legalistic or people who block ministry in the name of safety. When we ask the question of what God is doing and how can we shape it in a way that is both compliant and full of integrity, we empower kingdom work.

Cultivating a Love of Invisibility

What does being a missionary look like working in finance? Most of my day involves making sure bills get paid, reports get compiled, and missionaries get walked through budgets and expense reports. I believe deeply and passionately that where I am now is in obedience to God and builds the Kingdom, but it’s easy to lose sight of that when a lot of what I do doesn’t look like what culturally might be dubbed “ministry”.

I read a couple books recently that got me thinking of the many ways our society, and really the Kingdom, is driven by people who operate daily without being seen.* Maybe I was drawn to them because I sometimes indulge dreams of being in more visible ministry. It often feels we live in a culture where extroverted, visible leadership is glorified, even in church and ministry circles. It has moved me to look for the unique rewards of serving in the background.

I don’t think I’m alone in finding it easy to get addicted to outside approval — the feeling of being adored, approved of, applauded gives anyone a jolt of good feelings. That feeling can be addictive. Yet I’m becoming aware of a special sweetness to doing something that no one but God sees — laying down my life in a way that is just pure obedience, nothing quantifiable other than feeling God’s pleasure and the love of what I have been called to do. Here are three things I’m learning to appreciate about being invisible:

The power of integrity. The strength of my integrity is never great than when I choose to do the right thing when no one is looking and probably no one will ever know. The choices I make in secret, usually the small ones that seem insignificant, build the strength of that integrity for when it the big things loom. It’s part of walking the way of the cross — denying the desire for ease or gain to do the right thing. Those choices bear the kind of fruit that is truly satisfying.

The power in prayer. It’s hard not to seem trite when talking about prayer as the unseen work, but it is the ultimate invisible ministry. Many needs cross my path during the day, big and small, and it’s a challenge to take them to prayer before tackling them with my own resources. In those times I do remember to pray, I get to be part of what God is doing and am blessed. It’s like an inside joke or special secret between God and me.

The power in small things. Early in my Christian walk, I thought of ministry as intense moments strung together and earnestly sought those moments. With some years behind me, it feels more like a hike — slow and steadily climbing. It seems like doing the things in front of me and being faithful doesn’t seem like much until I look up and see something beautiful that God has done while I’ve been moving step by step. If I focused on what was seen, I would miss those beautiful things.

So these days I’m trying to cultivate a love of invisibility. I’m finding power in the invisible and unseen things God is doing and trying to keep my heart in line with His purposes. I am thankful to be able to spend the bulk of my hours, my treasure, my energies, my mind and my talents doing the largely unseen work. And I am fighting my bend to want to be seen and affirmed so I can gain the greater joy or pleasing God.

*If you’re curious the books are:

Invisible: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion by David Zweig

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

One More Thing that Makes Underground Unique

It might be hard from an outside perspective to appreciate the way we handle financial matters here at the Underground. Perhaps it looks similar with offering boxes, online giving and many of the ways we put checks and balances in place which are similar to other churches. But there are several things which make us unique in the way we approach finances.

· We limit the number of times we ask for funds. One of the reasons Core Conference is so important is that it is the one time of year we openly ask for money. Rather than revisiting our needs week after week, we want to present the vision, gather commitments and then move on the rest of the year serving God, loving people and equipping missionaries to live out their calling.

· Our general budget is a small but essential part of a bigger picture.Our budget for 2014 was roughly $620,000. But we actually collected nearly $2 million dollars in donations. We keep our general budget funds separate from what our microchurches and staff raise. Our general budget serves to support and empower a work that is bigger than the operation at the Hub. And since we give 50% of that budget away, we do an amazing amount of work on just over $300,000. This budget puts into place an infrastructure that supports work around the world.

· Our spending is completely transparent Did you know that you can look up how the Underground spends every dollar we receive? Using tools like Guidestar and the Foundation Center’s 990 Finder, you can view our full nonprofit tax return. Because we have chosen to operate as a nonprofit, rather than a church which is exempt from this filing, our financial operations are open and accessible to the public.

During Core Conference, we will be hosting a budget dinner during which Brian will present the budget and you will have a chance to ask any questions you have. On the Sunday of Core Conference we will be asking those who call Underground their family to make a commitment towards that budget. You can prepare now by looking at your personal budget for the year and asking God to lead you in the grace of giving. If you feel you want to be on the front lines and make an early pledge, Click here. You can also watch a video here of Brian explaining how our budget is unique.

As we start a new year, we are humbled by the way this community comes together to do so much with relatively little. We look forward to seeing what God has for us in 2015.

Are You Ready to Start a Nonprofit?

Some ways to know if starting a non-profit organization is a good fit for you…

Most weeks, I get to talk to a person or two who has a dream of starting something that will make the world better. It’s one of my favorite parts of my job. Often, the automatic thought is to start a nonprofit (often referred to as a 501(c)3 after the IRS statute that gives tax exemption to qualifying organizations). For some, this seems like a scary process wrought with potential pitfalls that result in IRS men clad in dark suits knocking at your door. Others are more cavalier thinking it’s a simple process that will enable them to get paid to do what they are passionate about.

The reality is somewhere in the middle. There are many laws, regulations and ethical standards that need to be taken into account when starting a nonprofit or tax-exempt organization. But these are pretty straightforward and can be navigated with a support team familiar with the legal and record-keeping procedures necessary. Conversely, jumping into the process without a good handle on what running an organization effectively entails can cause problems that will shipwreck great ideas. Here are some suggestions to evaluate whether you are ready to start a nonprofit:

· Your idea is truly unique. There are lots of people already serving many needs in your community. It is possible that what God has put on your heart is part of a bigger story. Look around your community or church to evaluate whether the idea on your heart is already being pursued in a way you can jump into. You will experience joy in finding others with a similar heart and may avoid the pressure that comes with striking out on your own.

· You have already been doing the work for at least a year. Often, the idea of serving a particular population or addressing a particular need comes with expectations of how that will work. In reality, those expectations may be off-base. If you have an idea, it’s a good idea to start working that area in your spare time to see how the reality of the work fits the ideas you have. There’s nothing magic about the 1-year point, but it’s long enough to require some perseverance and give you a decent assessment if your idea.

· You are fairly certain you want to make this idea your life’s work.Because of the resources, both personal and financial, entailed in getting a new organization off the ground you will want to honestly assess what you think about the longevity of your commitment to your idea. If it’s just an idea your are floating for a year or two, starting a nonprofit might not be a good idea. If you feel relatively certain that this is something you believe in enough to do for the next 10 years, then it might be time to take the jump.

· You have a small team willing to take on responsibility for the organization. At minimum, you will need a Board of Directors. These aren’t just folks who will give you a pat on the back and tell you that your idea is fabulous. This would be at least 3 other people who would be willing to take legal responsibility for an organization and slog through the process of forming the organization with you. These are the folks who will be writing your bylaws, helping you hammer out a reasonable budget, make a strategic plan, evaluate the integrity of all actions and support you in making the risky calls on what direction to take your ministry. A nonprofit is not a lone ranger activity – this step is essential.

· You have a network of resources. Forming an organization will take time, money and expertise. You will want a network of people you know and trust who are willing to lend a hand with donating funds, fundraising, legal advice, volunteer recruitment, record-keeping, etc.

If you look through this list and think you aren’t ready to start an organization but still have a passion for something, don’t give up that dream. Keep doing what you are already doing and see where God takes you. Look for these things to fall into place in the future or keep working as a volunteer. Most of Underground Network’s ministries operate this way – some raise a little money through us but most just keep serving on evenings and weekends with their families giving time and personal resources to see the kingdom come. Find an organization that will support and empower that dream and keep pursuing what God has given you.

If you look through this list and think your idea is a good fit and ready to start an organization, don’t let fear hold you back. Ideas and visions are worth pursuing. Gather some people who will walk with you and believe in what God has called you to and take the plunge.

Regardless of the structure you pursue, don’t discount what God is doing when you have dreams and take steps of faith. God works in the details and you will be amazed to see what He will do with a small band of committed people.

Why I Love Working in Finance

Whenever I tell someone I work in nonprofit finance, I generally get one of two reactions — either a blank stare (usually with a sympathetic nod) or something to the effect of, “So you are the bean counter” or “That can’t be a fun job.” While finance and administration are not glamorous ministries (and there are certainly days when it does feel like glorified paperwork) here are a few reasons why I love serving as Finance Director for the Underground:

  • The role of a finance or administrative person is pastoral. While I do a lot of number crunching, bill paying and report preparing many times I’m playing a pastoral role. It might be walking a microchurch leader through making his first budget or demystifying a profit and loss report for a leader trying to make important decisions affecting her ministry, I play a pastoral role. I am calming fears, holding people accountable to the budgets they create and making sure finances don’t hold a ministry back or don’t bring unnecessary headaches to someone laboring in the kingdom. To me, that is a privilege and high calling.
  • Our finance department holds the potential to be prophetic. I believe that thorough, effective, transparent systems are a prophetic voice in the world and in the kingdom of God. In American culture, money and the corresponding power dynamics and temptations are a stronghold — even, and perhaps especially, in churches and ministry organizations. Systems that address and redeem those systems are built by daily tasks done with integrity and excellence. In the end, God is honored and the people we serve are released for kingdom work.

· I find joy in creating systems that are efficient and thorough. A system that fulfills the requirements of legal accountability and ethical transparency without causing an unnecessary burden to people in ministry can be a thing of beauty. Finding a way to empower someone to do something risky God has called him to do within the confines of the law brings a smile to my face. Processes that enable people to move forward with kingdom dreams with faith and confidence bring me joy. In the end it’s being a small, not very visible part of a group of people who bring God’s heart joy.

I work with the daily awareness that every dollar the Underground Network receives represents an act of worship — resources that people have made the decision, often at significant sacrifice, to dedicate to God and entrust to our organization to manage. With that in mind, numbers become less of a mystifying bore and more of a picture of how God is working among us. What an honor it is to serve these people in this way.