church accounting master resource - basic accounting for churches

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Church Accounting: What It Takes (And How You Can Get Help!)

Church leaders know what it means to wear a lot of hats. They juggle responsibilities that stretch far beyond Sunday morning services. They also know that while the spiritual well-being of their congregation is paramount, it takes cold hard cash to keep the lights on, a building open, and a ministry staffed. 

The process of tending to the endless administrative logistics of running a church starts with a firm grasp of finances. If you’re a church leader, you need to understand what basic accounting for churches looks like. What does it mean to collect income, cover expenses, and generally manage money in a ministry context?

Let’s explore what church accounting looks like, its benefits and nuances, and why a solid accounting foundation can play a key role in maintaining a healthy, thriving church. 

The Challenge of Finances and Accounting for Churches

Churches may be non-profit ministries, but they still require structure, especially in the area of finances. From donation management to cash flow, bookkeeping to taxes, it’s important for church leaders to consider how they’ll handle their financial activity. 

While church accounting may be necessary, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. And definitely doesn’t fall on the fun side of the ledger most of the time. In a ministry world already filled with spiritually and emotionally exhausting responsibilities, caring for your church’s finances can be a huge mental weight. 

Implementing and updating digital giving tools is a never-ending process. Following payroll regulations is intimidating. Stewarding your congregation’s resources in a God-honoring and responsible way can be downright overwhelming.

Here’s the thing, though. Tending to church finances doesn’t have to be that way. With a little research, expert advice, and the right tools, it’s possible to establish healthy accounting guidelines that allow you and your staff to tackle your church’s finances correctly and with confidence.

That’s why we’re here. In this resource, we’ve collected all of the major aspects and elements of church accounting. We’ll cover basic terminology and benefits, accounting methods and best practices in a church setting, taxes and regulations, and more.

In other words, you can consider this your go-to source for all things related to church finances. Use it to learn, grow, and gain the capability to make sound financial decisions for your ministry.

Alright, let’s start unpacking things, beginning with the term “church accounting.”

What Is Church Accounting?

At its core, accounting is a pretty simple concept. It refers to the planning, tracking, and recording of finances by an individual or an organization. 

Corporate Finance Institute summarizes accounting as: 

“The process of consolidating financial information to make it clear and understandable for all stakeholders and shareholders.”

Okay. So far, so good. But what does this look like in a church setting? What does it look like to properly engage in accounting for church? There are a few major elements that separate church bookkeeping from secular, mainstream activities of the same nature:

  • No profits: Churches do not operate with the emphasis on profitability that lies at the heart of accounting in for-profit organizations. While prosperity isn’t an inherently good or bad thing, as non-profit, faith-focused entities, churches are reporting on financial activity rather than financial growth.
  • Accountability: Accounting is a naturally accountable activity. When you pay your taxes or balance your accounts, you’re being responsible. For a church, where the focus isn’t on money, accountability takes on a larger role. Healthy accounting is an ongoing litmus test of how well a church is managing the donations that it receives.
  • Clarity: Many churches use an accounting method called “fund accounting.” While we’ll dig into this in detail later on, the basic concept is that churches operate with different accounts and funds. These “pots” or “buckets” of money focus on different needs and ministries, which can get confusing. Accounting keeps everything clear and in order.
  • Faith-focused: Similar to the lack of profits, churches shouldn’t operate with the goal of financial success. They can strive to expand and grow, but even those elements involve spending money on faith-focused initiatives — not fiscal ones. This fundamentally changes the tone when it comes to church accounting principles, activities, and objectives.

To summarize, church accounting is the process of planning, organizing, and managing a ministry’s financial information in a clear, faith-focused, God-honoring manner.

The Benefits of Accounting in Church

Understanding what accounting for churches looks like is a good start. However, if you don’t see its value, it’s difficult to make it a priority.

What are the benefits of truly investing in your church’s accounting? Why is it so important to make sure you’re handling your accounting the right way? There are quite a few reasons, actually. Let’s take a look at them.

Church Accounting Maintains Transparency

It’s easy to overlook financial transparency in a church setting. The focus is on building a community of believers, witnessing to the world, and coming together for that all-important Sunday service. Yes, everyone thinks about the money stuff for a few moments when someone gets up on stage during the service and reminds everyone to “give generously.” But apart from that, it’s easy to forget just how much money is moving behind the scenes.

Church accounting keeps that financial activity in the open. It ensures that every dollar is budgeted for and tracked properly, both when it’s given and when it’s spent. It puts designated and trusted eyes on the bookkeeping end of things. 

At the same time, proper accounting is a quiet, unobtrusive activity. It shines a light on ministry finances without making it the focal point.

Church Accounting Encourages Accountability

We already touched on how accounting naturally makes a church more accountable. It tracks income and expenses and ensures that money is collected and spent in a God-honoring and accurate manner.

However, the accountability factor goes beyond creating a paper trail. A good accounting system also ensures that the process of budgeting, paying taxes, and otherwise moving money around is deliberate and in the open.

For instance, a common church accounting practice is to establish checks and balances. This might look like assigning an elder to oversee spending or appointing multiple trusted individuals to approve major expenses. Working with a third-party accounting firm can also increase accountability, as it entirely removes bias and personal interest from the equation.

Church Accounting Streamlines the Red Tape

A church might be able to operate as a non-profit, but it is still a legal entity in the eyes of the state. This government status requires church leaders to adhere to certain rules and regulations, such as filling out the right forms at tax time and keeping their books clean enough to pass muster in the event of an audit.

By investing in a clear accounting structure for your church, you make it easier to operate as a legal entity. Things like establishing accounting processes, getting the right church accounting software, and appointing the right people to oversee financial decisions provide helpful structure. This makes it easier to zip through the red tape and focus more energy on your actual ministry.

Church Accounting Empowers Fundraising

It’s easy to think of accounting as the part of your ministry that processes money. But it is a critical piece of bringing in donations, too. When your church accounts are in order, it makes it much easier to receive gifts.

Part of this is practical. For instance, a well-oiled church accounting machine can adapt to (and take advantage of) online donation methods. It can implement current options, like text-to-give and QR codes, and can continue to integrate whatever cutting-edge future giving options develop over time.

On top of that, when you have your financial “ducks in a row,” it makes it easier to create more focused fundraisers. A good example of that is end-of-year giving campaigns. When you have up-to-date knowledge of your finances, you don’t have to settle for vague or haphazard benchmarks. You can confidently set up precise goals for the upcoming 12-month period that are well-informed and have maximum impact.

Another example of improving ongoing fundraising through sound financial management is endowments. If your church is gifted an ongoing asset, you can use a solid financial infrastructure to make the most of each resource you have available.

Church Accounting Makes Ministry Activities Easier

Most people would argue that using a credit card or mobile wallet without looking at your balance is irresponsible. It’s equally foolish to simply let church planners and event coordinators spend money without a second thought. At the same time, unnecessarily restricting their budgets simply because you don’t know how much they can spend will dampen the success of their ministries.

If you don’t have a solid church accounting system in place, though, it’s hard to know how much money you actually can spend. Having orderly finances gives you the ability to budget for things like Easter services and Christmas programs. You can empower your team to invest in each event without worrying about breaking the church’s back, financially speaking, in the process.

Church Accounting Creates a Financial Path Toward Growth

Most church growth metrics are focused on what really matters. Things like the number of first-time churchgoers or baptisms reflect healthy church growth. To be clear, you don’t want to emphasize cash flow as a church success benchmark.

Nevertheless, a strong accounting foundation can ensure that your church has the financial resources and discipline to handle the needs of both new and existing members over time. In other words, if you practice accountable, effective financial management as a ministry, you pave the way for your church to maintain healthy, growth-oriented activity (both as a body and individually) over the long term.

Church Accounting Helps With Tax Compliance

This is an interesting one. While we’ll cover taxes in detail in a bit, there are clear benefits as it relates to reporting to Uncle Sam when it comes to accounting in churches. 

Yes, it’s true that your church doesn’t have to pay taxes like a for-profit business. As a non-profit, this makes it easy to think, “Well, we don’t have to pay taxes, so we’re all set.” But the truth is, there are still things you need to think of even after you finish that laborious 501(c)(3) application.

Some of these are basic regulations and rules (many of which change on a regular basis), like filling out W-2s for employees and 1099s for contractors. Others are actually positive tax benefits that are easy to miss. In 2023, for example, the Employee Retention Tax Credit (ERTC) gave churches a pandemic-related employee tax credit that they could claim — if they knew about it. Having an accountant or financial consultant you can trust makes it easier to take advantage of these incentives.

Church Accounting Helps With Payroll

Financially speaking, payroll is one of the most complicated and overwhelming parts of money management in the church. It is the spot where tax requirements, legal regulations, and financial consistency overlap — and it requires a steady and knowledgeable hand at the tiller.

Having an accountant on hand — either in the building or a third party — to take care of payroll does two things. First, it ensures that you’re dotting all of your “i’s” and crossing your “t’s.” Second, it streamlines the payroll process, turning a black hole of time and resources into a series of relatively quick and easy staffing decisions.

Church Accounting Sets the Stage for Longevity

No one founds a church and then plans on wrapping up shop a few years later. Every ministry hopes for a healthy, successful future for their church. Of course, they can’t be sure what that will look like, which is why you engage in things like succession planning.

A solid financial foundation is a critical part of that future-oriented focus, too. You don’t want to hand off a pecuniary hot mess to the next generation. This can create instability and undermine the potential of an otherwise healthy ministry. Things like solid accounting practices, clean bookkeeping, and thoughtful financial decision-making allow you to build a church that lasts.

Keep these benefits in mind as you read through this and other resources. Church accounting may feel like a lot at times. But the benefits make it well worth the investment.

Where Do Churches Make Money?

Basic church accounting revolves around two key activities: income and expenses. In other words, it focuses on how money comes into your church and how it goes out. 

The output part of that equation tends to soak up most of the conversation since that’s the part that can get tricky. But it’s important for church leaders to consider how the money flows into their church, too. 

For most, this isn’t new information, so much as an important rehashing of existing knowledge. You don’t need to take a church accounting course to know where your ministry’s money comes from. But have you considered it in the context of financial management? Have you thought of all of your church’s streams of income and what other potential options are out there? 

With that in mind, let’s review a few of the most common ways churches can generate income:

  • Tithes and offerings: The most obvious item on this list is tithes and offerings. This is the iconic and traditional form of funding that has kept most churches alive throughout history. It typically consists of steady or semi-steady recurring donations that congregants make to their church.
  • One-time gifts: While consistent giving is the lifeblood of most church finances, one-time gifts, especially larger ones, can also create a powerful impact. These can come during fundraisers and capital campaigns where they are requested. They can also appear on your doorstep when you least expect it. Tracking them takes focus.
  • In-person giving: Passing the ol’ offering basket remains a common income stream for most congregations. While it isn’t the primary form of giving that it once was, it remains an effective way to raise funds from guests and more traditional givers in the form of cash and checks.
  • Digital donations: Many congregants have shifted to a digital form of giving. In fact, often, they don’t have a physical alternative available. From one-time text-to-give and website donations to in-person kiosks to auto-deposit, there are many ways you can receive financial support via the Internet.
  • Fundraising campaigns: When a church has a specific financial need in mind, they can fundraise for it. This can apply to anything from a missions trip to a building fund. These are isolated and independent giving initiatives that typically don’t overlap with weekly giving and ongoing expenses. They can address financial needs that span the gamut from a few thousand to millions of dollars at a time.
  • Special giving: There are many unique giving scenarios that churches can financially benefit from, too. For instance, they can receive grants, create pledge drives, and benefit from endowments. These often take on the feeling of investments that churches can shepherd as a way to enhance their financial capabilities.

The specific way each church brings in its income varies. Some organizations tap into all of these income streams. Others lean on a handful at a time. 

Where this matters, as far as accounting is concerned, is the way you track and manage everything. From accounting methods to reporting (both of which we’ll discuss further down in this piece), everything is smoother when you understand where your money is coming from in the first place.

What Kind of Accounting Method Is Best for a Church?

Accounting is an activity. It is a series of actions that you take in relation to your church’s finances. There are multiple methods that you can employ when engaging in accounting as an organization.

For-profit businesses tend to use general accounting. This is all about income and expenses. A for-profit business’s general ledger considers the money you generated, how much of it you spent, and how much is left.

This accounting methodology focuses on profitability. In contrast, with churches, the emphasis isn’t on how much money you’re making. (You’re a non-profit entity, after all.) Instead, the focus shifts to how you’re spending each dollar that you collect.

Since this is the case, Churches don’t benefit from a general accounting method approach. Instead, their goal, financially speaking, is to invest the income they generate into the right areas. This leads many churches to use a method called fund accounting.

What Is Fund Accounting for Churches?

As the name implies, fund accounting consists of dividing your money into separate “funds.” These are groupings or “buckets” of funding, each of which is allocated for a specific use. You could have funds for building maintenance projects, missionaries, special benevolences, and so on.

Each fund can function semi-independently in the sense that it can have its own assets and liabilities. It can also have its own income and expenses. Many of these funds may require their own ledger, too. This creates multiple ledgers within your church, which at some point must be consolidated to track your organization’s overall financial activity.

This dividing of resources should be done thoughtfully. In other words, you should never shovel donations into a fund without a valid, clear, and explainable reason for doing so. That way, when you go to generate accounting reports on your financial activity, it is easy to justify why each fund received the amount of funding that it did.

While general accounting focuses on profitability, fund accounting is designed for purpose, transparency, and accountability. This puts the emphasis on accomplishing what your church exists to do.

That could include Sunday services, staff salaries, local outreaches, youth events, missions trips, new buildings — you name it. Whatever your church is trying to accomplish as a ministry, the fund accounting method works to reinforce those goals.

Fund accounting is ideal for a church setting. However, it’s important to recognize that it is a unique way to handle finances. It requires an accountant who is specifically trained to handle balancing a multi-ledger, multi-fund organizational balance sheet. 

Job site Indeed reports that the average salary for a full-time accountant of this nature is north of the $50,000 per year mark. This is an ongoing expense that is out of the question for many smaller ministries. The good news is that there are alternative solutions for full-time employees, such as Chaney & Associate’s third-party accounting services and software solutions.

Other Church Accounting Considerations

Fund accounting is a powerful way to bring a sense of accountability and clarity to a church’s finances. But you don’t want to stop there. There are other considerations that church leaders should keep in mind, too.

For example, all church accountants (especially in the United States) should be aware of and follow General Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). This is a set of universal accounting rules created by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB). They function as a set of consistently updated standards, guidelines, and expectations that normalize most accounting behavior and reporting.

Along with following GAAP principles, you want to consider things like using single vs double-entry bookkeeping. You also want to create a chart of accounts to track your various assets, liabilities, and equity and consider the financial statements you’ll need to generate.

Church Finances, Reporting, and Uncle Sam

As a church, you don’t need to worry about paying taxes in the same way that a for-profit business does. However, there are plenty of rules and regulations that you still need to follow. Unsurprisingly, this is another area where having a healthy accounting structure in place can make everything much easier.

A full-blown breakdown of how each church needs to approach taxes and legal reporting is far too complicated, even for a resource like this. It requires insights gleaned from up-to-date information and presented by trained professionals capable of properly interpreting and executing legal responsibilities.

To put it another way, the following is not legal counsel. Nor is it a comprehensive resource for making your church’s tax decisions. That said, it’s helpful to at least have a rough idea of what the church’s relationship with Uncle Sam looks like.

Let’s start with reports. Each church must decide what kind of financial reporting it can and should be producing. Some options, like an annual report, can help maintain financial transparency. A statement of financial position (i.e., a list of assets and liabilities from each fund) is also helpful in this area.

While you don’t need to report for tax purposes, it’s important to generate the right accounting reports to keep your finances viable and healthy over time. These reports can be tailored to your organization. However, they should all include a few key elements, such as:

  • Income and expense statements
  • Fund balances
  • A balance sheet

There are also various IRS forms that you must keep in mind when it comes to tax compliance. For instance, Form 990 is helpful for annual filing and keeping the government up to date on (and consequentially unsuspicious of) your church’s finances. W-2 forms are also important for employees and payroll, as is Form 1099 for contractors.

Financial reporting to the government is generally associated with paying money. As nonprofits, churches don’t need to worry about that in most cases. However, that doesn’t mean they should skip over taxes entirely. There are some important deductions and incentives that churches can tap into as a fiscal positive for their organization, too.

For example, in 2023, many churches qualified for the ERTC program designed to relieve payroll pressure in the wake of the pandemic. There are various other deductions for churches that are worth consideration, too. As a nonprofit organization, make sure to do your homework and seek professional accounting advice on how these can benefit your church.

Addressing Accounting as a Church

From accounting methods to tax incentives to simply understanding where all of your church’s income is coming from, it’s important to address the accounting aspect of your ministry. This brings a sense of structure and health to your finances and ensures that everything remains honest, transparent, and moving in the right direction.

The question at this point is: how do you make that happen at your church?

What steps do you need to take to address accounting as a church? The answer is going to be different for everyone. Unless you’re at the very beginning of the church planting stage, you already have some kind of accounting solution in place, even if it’s just a spreadsheet. 

So, what do you need to do to identify and address gaps in your organization’s accounting practices? Here are a few questions to ask you and your leadership team to get you moving in the right direction.

Do You Have the Tools to Handle Your Church’s Accounting Needs?

There are many accounting tools and software solutions available. Do you have one that fits your ministry’s needs? If you do have something, does it work well with the needs of a church’s finances in particular, or are you just trying to adapt Quickbooks for churches? 

At Chaney & Associates, we designed our complete accounting and financial management system specifically with churches in mind. This is because churches have unique financial needs that you can’t answer with generic solutions. Make sure your church accounting tools are actually helping you manage your ministry’s money effectively.

Do You Have the Personnel in Place to Address Accounting?

Having an “internal” person taking care of accounting can look very different from one ministry to the next. A mega-church in a major city might employ multiple full-time, in-house CPAs, while a small rural ministry’s equivalent could consist of a volunteer bookkeeper putting in a few hours on a Monday morning. 

Regardless of the specifics, make sure you know who is in charge of overseeing (and improving) your church’s finances.

Do You Need Outsourcing Support for Your Church’s Finances?

You should always have someone on the inside of your organization that oversees finances. But that often isn’t enough. Skill gaps, insufficient knowledge, and lack of time can all be factors that hamper your ministry team’s ability to manage your church’s money properly. When that is the case, you may need to bring in third-party support. 

Unless you’re a big church, hiring a full-time CPA isn’t an option here. However, working with a financial consulting firm gives you access to the experience and expertise of an accountant without the expense of a full-time employee. It’s difficult to overestimate the peace of mind that this can bring to an overburdened ministry leadership team.

Are You Thinking of Accounting Both Now and in the Future?

Balancing your church’s funds in the here and now is obvious. But what about a year from now? What about 10?

If you aren’t thinking of your church’s finances in the future, you need to be. Financial consulting and financial planning are just as important in church settings as they are in individual and business ones. What are God-honoring financial benchmarks and goals that you want to achieve as a ministry in the years to come?

Are Your Accounting Solutions Church-Specific?

Hopefully, by now, you’ve seen how unique it can be to tend to accounting needs in a church environment. From fund accounting methods to ERTC programs, you want to have a church-specific accounting focus.

As you consider both internal and external solutions in the form of accounting software, services, and consulting, look for options that are church-specific. These are the solutions that will consider how your church works and how accounting can factor into both present and future success as a ministry.

At Chaney & Associates, we consider ourselves the accounting firm for the church. When you work with us, you gain access to professional faith-based accounting expertise that you simply can’t get from a mainstream accounting solution.

5 Best Practices for Church Accounting

As you consider the state of your church’s accounting and what steps you can take to improve it moving forward, here are some best practices to keep in mind. Remember, these are church-specific solutions to receiving, managing, and spending money.

  1. Delegate Your Accounting

Ministry leaders — especially pastors — shouldn’t be involved in bookkeeping for churches. Instead, this should be designated to someone with the training, capabilities, and ethical track record to manage everything properly.

Even if you’re a hands-on leader, remember that accounting is a hands-off part of your ministry. Find a dependable designee who can be trusted to handle your church accounting jobs, and then let them do it.

  1. Set Up Accountability

We already touched on this when talking about fund accounting. The entire focus of a church, as far as accounting is concerned, is to properly shepherd funds to the right places. You aren’t trying to amass assets or streamline profitability. Your goal is to transparently and prayerfully decide how to spend the money that you are given as an organization.

The emphasis on accountability over profits is critical to managing church finances. You have to ensure that everything you are doing is maintaining clarity and communication. Appoint trustworthy people to oversee your church’s finances. Work with reputable, God-honoring partners. Put checks and balances in place. You get the idea.

  1. Follow GAAP Accounting Principles

Try not to see the GAAP principles as another hoop to jump through. Instead, embrace them as a set of standards that help your church achieve and maintain healthy finances.

GAAP consists of 10 key concepts, including things like consistency, sincerity, prudence, and good faith. These are inherently Christian values, and they are well worth formally prioritizing as a church.

  1. File Form 990 Annually

Churches don’t need to pay taxes. We’ve repeated this ad nauseam at this point. We’ve also made it abundantly clear that just because they aren’t required to pay taxes doesn’t mean a church should operate off of the grid.

On the contrary, generating reports and statements is a great way for churches to avoid skepticism from tax officials. It also prevents opportunities for unscrupulous behavior. Filing for 990 every year is an important and simple way to keep your church’s finances above board on an annual basis.

  1. Provide Financial Updates

Keeping the IRS up to date on your ministry’s finances is important. So is telling your congregation.

Use things like annual reports and even monthly statements to keep your finances transparent. Let others around you make observations and ask questions as a way to ensure that your ministry team is properly stewarding every penny that you are given.

Don’t Skimp On Investing in Accounting

If you have the resources to hire your own church accountant, more power to you. If you can’t afford that, there are still options. Don’t short-change your church. Find a third-party solution that can help you stay organized and on top of things as an organization.

As an example, Chaney & Associates provides church-tailored financial tools and services that can help at a fraction of the cost of a full-time hire. As we mentioned earlier, we specifically exist to fill a gap in the market by helping churches of all sizes maintain professional accounting activities without breaking the bank in the process.

If you’re reading this resource and the shortcomings of your current church accounting tools and activities are becoming too big to ignore, contact us. We can explore how our innovative church bookkeeping software and our buffet-style service offerings can address your church’s unique needs.

Conquering Your Church’s Finances for the Kingdom

A church is so much bigger than its checkbook. The entire concept of finances in a ministry setting is simply to empower teams to accomplish the Kingdom-building goals that they’ve set out to do. To quote the classic cliché, in church, money is simply a means to an end, not the end itself.

That said, the way you handle your money as a ministry can either help or hinder your success. On the one hand, badly handled or neglected finances can cripple a church over time. On the other hand, sound accounting solutions are the key to unlocking prosperity and momentum. 

Make sure you’re taking your church’s accounting needs seriously. Don’t over prioritize them as a central metric for success. Instead, invest in them as necessary elements of a healthy, functioning ministry that can have a maximum impact on the lives of your congregation, your community, and everyone else that you come in contact with.

FAQs

Everyone has follow-up questions, right? Here are a few common frequently asked questions about church accounting. If you have any more questions on this or any other church accounting subject, drop us a line, and we’ll be happy to help!

Should I outsource my church accounting?

This depends on the current state of your church. Each church’s financial needs are different. However, we’ve found that most churches need at least some support when it comes to money management. That’s why we’ve created a selection of modular accounting services and tools that can fit your specific needs.

Does the IRS require churches to follow specific rules?

Yes, there are some rules that most churches must follow when it comes to reporting to the IRS. Filing W2s for full-time employees is an obvious example. Each church is different, but don’t ignore the IRS just because you don’t have to pay taxes!

What church tax deductions are there?

There are multiple tax deductions that churches can access. For example, they don’t have to pay federal unemployment taxes or FICA taxes and don’t have to withhold income taxes for ministers. You can read more about potential tax savings here…

What should I look for in church accounting software?

When you purchase accounting software for your church, details matter. The ability to handle fund accounting is an obvious one. Managing an organization with a non-profit tax status is another. At Chaney & Associates, we are always working to keep our software up-to-date and are invested in providing forward-thinking solutions that make church accounting easier at every step!

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