God’s Work, Our Line Items

Year-round stewardship and narrative budgets

young man adjusting a thermostat

How does my church’s utility bill reflect our mission statement? 

Two years ago, I wrote my first narrative budget for a seminary class called “Money and the Mission of the Church.” Beginning with my church’s mission tagline, “Held in Grace … Belong, Believe, Befriend,” I wrestled with where to put many of the line items in our budget, but our utilities (and really most of the Property Board’s budget) was the most difficult to place. Where does the heat bill, or office supplies, or work force insurance fit into our mission of “Belong, Believe, and Befriend”? 

But before jumping in, a quick moment to address …

What is a narrative budget?

A narrative budget is a document that tells the story of how a church’s budget reflects their mission. While some pieces of the budget are more easily connected: missionary support, local outreach, food shelf ministries, others are more elusive. Looking from a holistic stewardship viewpoint, narrative budgets fill in the connections between line items in a church’s budget and the ministry of the congregation. Using stories, pictures, and graphics, they add missional context and wider connections to a “boring” list of line items, but especially those year-round expenses like utilities or pastoral staffing that are less attractive “asks.”

Pay for the lights, give to the needy, or … both?

So back to my first question: how does my church’s utility bill reflect our mission statement? For many churches, thermostats and lighting are not just used on Sunday mornings. Every week, my congregation hosts Sexaholics Anonymous and their companion S-Anon group meetings, our quilting group, text study for area pastors, and a small food shelf that is open to anyone in need. Our utilities and building don’t just benefit our worship or coffee hour, but also give recovery groups a safe, well-lit, temperature-controlled place to meet. When someone in need of food walks into our building during mid-week office hours, I can offer them a cold bottled water because we have electricity running to our refrigerators. The utilities are part of the mission.

Every day asks…

In a recent stewardship letter I wrote to my congregation, I wrote that “our staff and our building are our biggest assets, and they are also our biggest expenses.” Giving to one-time fundraisers or specific causes are much easier “asks” than talking about needing funds to support the year-round costs of a church. This is why I love narrative budgets: they tell the story about how those year-round bills are entwined in the church’s mission.

My congregation’s narrative budget centers around our mission of “Belong, Believe, Befriend.” Every single line item in our budget has been placed under one of those headers. That means our insurance is paid because we want to care for the building that belongs to God and the people who gather here. Our pastors are compensated in salary and benefits because we believe that it’s important to care for those who care for us. And we make sure to keep paying for the plows to clear all the snow we’ve received this spring, because having an easily accessible parking lot and sidewalks shows our befriending hospitality to our members, visitors, and neighbors.

Every piece of the puzzle matters in telling the whole story.

Bring in the storytellers

My Stewardship Board has helped me write all three of the yearly narrative budgets for our congregation, including the one for my class! Each time, I have been surprised by the stories they want to tell of how we have stewarded the budget for that year. They name a few that fit under each theme, and then as the resident writing enthusiast, I expand and connect. So many of the stories start because we have a welcoming place with hospitable people. Basic things, entrusted to us by God to continue to tell God’s story of love and goodness in this world … one light bill at a time.

There’s so much more!

There are so many things I could say about narrative budgets, they are truly my favorite marriage of stewardship and mission. If you are interested in writing one with your congregation, there are all sorts of examples with just a basic online search. If you’d like to see my congregation’s, you can find it at blcfargo.org under “Giving.” Peace to your storytelling!

  • Lexy Steinle

    Pastor Lexy Steinle is a 2022 graduate of Luther Seminary and stewardship enthusiast. She lives in Fargo, North Dakota, with her two beloved cats and serves as the lead pastor at Bethlehem Lutheran Church.

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