Dave Odom: Your congregation needs an investment plan -- and not just for money

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Having a strategy to guide decisions about where and how to spend time and money creates transparency, builds trust and provides a framework for the desired result, writes the executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

What is your investment plan? Where do you spend your time and money? What returns or results do you expect?

We might think of investors as the wealthy ones on Wall Street. Many people think their only opportunity to invest is when choosing stock funds for a retirement account. In reality, every paycheck is a chance to think about investing. How much will I pay off on the credit card balance? How much will I help my parents pay the hospital bill or my brother buy school clothes?

At a higher level, how will I consider my financial choices alongside my time investments? How can I keep my long-term goals in mind without becoming overly reactive to immediate needs?

Congregations too face choices about where and how to commit time, talent and treasure, and the decision making can be a cumbersome process. Having an investment plan creates the transparency that is essential to being a trustworthy organization. Such a plan makes clear the organization’s priorities for allocating resources -- whether staff, building, services or something else.

The framework for investing prompts considerations about the future, well beyond surviving. It evokes the expectation that something will be different as a result of supporting a person or project. Financial markets hope for a return. All of us hope that our commitments will make a difference.

A key to creating a wise investment plan is to begin by naming clearly the desired result. What difference is the investment going to make? That clarity makes it possible to determine how to achieve the impact.

One of my personal strategies for investing time is to get up and arrive at the office early to work on the most difficult and intense task first. I’ve learned that this helps me make more progress on challenging assignments. By contrast, if I put off big projects in favor of checking off small tasks, I am much less creative and less focused on what matters most.

Others do their best work when pressed against a deadline. Personal strategies must be individualized to account for context, work style, time management skills and other factors.

When it comes to financial investing, anxiety can drive decision making. Everywhere I go, people express worry about the economic model of their congregation, school or project. Sometimes leaders say they haven’t “made the budget” or have decided to reduce mission giving or eliminate jobs. This pulls people into a cycle of fear -- fear of making the wrong investment, fear of losing additional resources, and so on.

Remember Jesus’ story in Matthew 25 about the talents given to three servants? The master took away the talent from the servant who had buried it. This servant’s risk-averse approach had failed to produce even a modest yield. Jesus challenged his listeners to invest and to trust.

While financial investments are easily measured, the return can still be uncertain. A congregation I know recently borrowed funds for renovation, and now the loan payment has created cash-flow stress. Some congregants want to lower the monthly payment, and others want to pay off the debt earlier than the 25-year loan. Everyone is asking for clarity: If we contribute additional money, what will be the result?

Naming clearly the return that is expected on an investment can be difficult. I have found that often people want to change expectations midstream. For example, an outreach ministry’s intended impact is identified as serving alongside those released from prison. These men and women get jobs and develop friendships. Then someone comes along and wants to know why this investment is not increasing worship attendance or offerings. If that becomes a new set of expectations about return, it requires a different ministry plan.

One of the reasons that we have to revisit our investment strategy is that the returns do shift over time. In the 1950s and 1960s, an investment in youth or children’s ministries would naturally lead to higher attendance and giving. But in a world in which young adults owe substantial educational and consumer credit debt, todays’ families might attend activities but not contribute substantial cash. Average attendance is not the clear predictor of revenue it once was.

As you begin to develop an investment plan, consider these initial questions:

  • What assets are ready to be invested now? The available assets are constantly changing. New people come with different gifts. The value of property in the area or the availability of community funds can change dramatically over time.
  • Who in your neighborhood is open to collaboration? How can your investment be combined with that of others?
  • What challenge could you address that would make a huge difference in your community? Social innovators are galvanized by challenges such as food insecurity, climate change and affordable housing. Congregations are taking on challenges such as the opioid epidemic and bridging the divide between the housed and the unhoused.
  • What is the gap between the assets and the challenges? What does closing the gap look like? How would you measure progress? How would you measure return on the investment?
  • What is the next step you can take to close the gap between the opportunities for investment and the challenges in the community?

Building a framework for investing creates opportunities for conversation. Intentions get clearer. Commitments get stronger. Where will you invest? Why? What is the expected result?