Many of my friends are in the financial field, lending, investing and holding money on behalf of businesses, institutions and organizations. While ‘talking shop’, they often ask me: “What’s with these churches and all their money?”
As a small church pastor even with a small budget, I find that far too often we can’t figure out what to do with excess money that sits in our checking account.
Which begs the question should Churches invest it?
The Fallacy of Stewardship
Advocates of churches investing point towards the parable of the talents as a sign that Jesus instructs us to “be faithful with (the) little” money that we’ve been given.
The argument takes a literal stance on the parable indicating that those who ‘grow’ their money, as the stewards did, honor God.
Advocates of church investing have tolerate the world in which we live.
They understand that unexpected events happen, so having some ‘hay in the barn’ for such occasions makes good sense.
The money is better served growing in interest or dividends than sitting idly in a checking account.
Market Avoidance= Heavenly Rewards
Detractors from churches investing in the markets are split between two concerns.
First, churches with excess cash are concerned with the preservation of capital over the growing of capital. These church boards think “Gee, these donors trusted us with this money, we can’t lose it!”.
Alternatively, other churches find the participation in an economic system that sometimes creates ill-gotten gains, distasteful.
Staying away from the market in its entirety ensures the purity of the funds that they hold.
The Elephant in the Room
While both of these arguments have merit and biblical support, they fail to address the issue involved in church investment decisions:
“Why isn’t the money on the mission field?”
“Good steward” churches miss the mark when they use a far too literal lense to interpret an illustrative parable.
It should be clear that the actions we’ll answer for in eternity have nothing to do with our accumulation, growth or loss of wealth.
The Parable of the Talents illustrates the need for deployment of wealth to accomplish the Master’s will. No Christ follower could argue that the Master’s will is for Christians to accumulate worldly assets.
Is the highest and best use for ‘extra’ money in the church’s budget to create more?
Similarly, “market avoidance” churches preserve their capital rather than risking it to accomplish a Kingdom purpose.
Not sure you’re budget is ‘on mission’? Download my Mission Minded Money Worksheet.
When Churches Invest
There are times when a church’s mission requires smart investing or preservation of capital.
In the event that a church is saving for a building, they will need to save money for the project. Perhaps, investing the money at a gain will allow them to reach their goal quicker, freeing up other capital for the mission of the church.
Perhaps, an endowment by a donor would be better served netting a perpetual income for a specific project or ministry. In this case, the investment is supporting the mission of a church rather than becoming the mission of the church.
Additionally, a church board may want to hold onto a large amount of capital as they seek the perfect opportunity God has called them into. In this case, liquidity, not return, is the priority for the funds.
Moral Investing for Church Boards
Should a church profit from evil?
Is it right when churches invest in companies that produce alcohol and tobacco? What about companies that censor religious expression?
This is a heavy burden for a church board, especially if they are not familiar with stock analysis or business practices.
There are two ways to think about how churches invest morally:
Do No Harm Approach
This approach insists that the money churches invest stay pure from anything that sets off the ‘moral alarm bells’. For different strains of the church these may be focused on different issues, but ultimately, the goal of the church is to avoid profiting from practices they disapprove of.
This is hard.
Even companies that seemingly have innocuous ways of making a profit may engage in unsavory business practices (Enron much?) or own subsidiaries that do their ‘dirty work’ (Think Harper Collins the owner of Zondervan and Harlequin).
This takes an immense amount of research, debating ethical lines, and staying on top of the markets and potential scandals.
The industry is emerging with ESG funds (this link is an example not a recommendation) that allow you to filter out companies based on certain parameters of business and ethical practices, but their research is expensive. (Think 3-5X normal expense ratios).
You’ll still have to do the debating to draw your own lines.
The Redemption approach can be accused of being a cop out. But it can also be a practical way of existing in a complex world.
The redemption approach thinks of churches investing this way “Whatever we make in the kingdom of darkness is going to be used for the kingdom of light”.
The redemption approach doesn’t seek to defraud, or harm, but it recognizes that it might.
In this approach, an organization will do the best it can to honor ethical business practices, but take solace in the fact that, any profit made participating in an unholy market will be redeemed for holy work.
Should Churches Invest?
Church boards need to settle the issue of ‘why’ before they settle the issue of ‘if’.
What does the church exist for? What’s its mission?
If you gained a large endowment today, what would it go towards?
If you don’t know, maybe you don’t have a mission to begin with.
Whether your church invests in the market or steers clear of it, the growth of church assets should be oriented to the advancement of the Kingdom of God, not the enrichment, or preservation, of the church.
Jesus called us to “go and make disciples”. He said he would build the church.
Does your church have an investment strategy? Is it on mission or is it burying assets in the sand?
Many thanks to reader, Justin H. for the inspiration for this post!