Complicating Values Based Budgeting

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In my first few weeks directing the Center for Stewardship Leaders, it’s been fascinating to observe how often the topic of budgets comes up. Pastors, non-profit leaders, money managers, students, and others have all encouraged me, with the center’s resources, to emphasize the importance of careful budgeting.

A common sub-theme of these conversations is the notion of values based budgeting. In a nutshell, values based budgeting calls you to claim your, well, values as you construct a budget. For instance, if one of your values is traveling, acknowledging that before you create your budget will help guide your spending decisions and help you save more for a vacation. With a corresponding value based budget, you may decide to eat out less frequently so that you can travel down the road.

That description is pretty basic, but you get the point. Values based budgeting encourages us to develop spending and savings plans that align with our goals and values, not ones that simply reflect current realities.

I find this approach helpful overall, and Megan and I try to practice it. But as I’ve considered the values based approach in recent weeks, I keep running my finger across a splinter.

I’m getting stuck at the prickly fact that most values based budgeting is so damn individualistic, so personal.

This critique probably applies to most money management, but my sense is that values based budgeting particularly emphasizes the individualistic nature of budgets because of the suggestion that people claim their own personal values. Such a move is almost always a personal decision. (Well, it can happen as couples, but the basic point still stands.) In fact, values based budgeting practically requires that individuals make their own claims about what matters to them.

For these reasons, I’d like to complicate values based budgeting for Christians. The Christian life certainly calls for a personal claim, a personal response to God’s acts for us, but it’s not about our values. In fact, one of the essential notions of the Christian faith is that our values are flawed. Without God, the Word, and the Spirit working in community, we’re apt to claim the wrong values. We humans excel at making our own idols. We screw up all the time.

The Christian word for this is “sin.” It’s a word that gets used far too seldom these days, and seems to be especially avoided by progressive Christians. But, as the old liturgy goes, “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.”

So, I’m somewhat skeptical about my values driving my budget. I’m skeptical about my ability to choose what’s best. I’m skeptical about my vision, my goals, and my reading of the world.

“Presbyters,” in my Presbyterian tradition, is a funny word that means, basically, church leaders. Those of us ordained to particular service in the church are deemed “presbyters” (usually, teaching elders and ruling elders). I note this strange factoid to contextualize the following quote from the Presbyterian constitution:

Presbyters are not simply to reflect the will of the people, but rather to seek together to find and represent the will of Christ. (F-3.0204)

Presbyterians have this delightfully weird system of church government that calls upon us not to simply vote our own opinions, and not to vote the majority opinion of a certain church constituency, but to seek together to find and represent the will of Christ. In other words, a guiding value of Presbyterian polity is the claim that we best make decisions together, and that when we do so, we seek Christ’s will, not our own.

It’s certainly feasible, then, that presbyters might make decisions in which they discern Christ’s will is pushing the church one direction—and so, they vote that way—while, at the same time admitting if it were up to them alone they would opt for another way.

Which brings me back to values based budgeting. While I realize there’s a difference between governing a church and deciding upon a household budget, I think there’s some overlapping principles at play.

On the whole, sure, values based budgeting is probably a good idea. Or, at least, values based budgeting is better than an alternative of unreflective, unmoored budget planning that meets the bottom line without much thought as to how or why.

But I can’t quite shake the sneaking suspicion that my values based budget surely doesn’t quite balance with the will of Christ. I don’t really know what to do with this suspicion, but I do know this: I value it.

CC image by kafka4prez

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