The Economics of Social Change: Considering Budgets as Moral Documents

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This summer has been full of tense, tragic news stories and world events, but how do we use our work for religious organizations to make a difference in the lives of our communities? Perhaps the answer lies in how we include economics in our definition of moral leadership. When the problems, tensions, and anxieties of the world threaten to overwhelm us, religious practice presses us to draw connections between the activities of daily life and our identity as people of faith. How can we align our lives and communities to be a light shining in darkness, a steady witness against violence, injustice, or greed? How does this alignment intersect with our economic life?

Several years ago in this article, Jim Wallis, the president and founder of Sojourners, an evangelical movement to “put faith into action,” echoed the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in calling on the leadership of the United States Congress to undertake an inventory of the federal budget as a “moral document.” There is no doubt that the ways in which we acquire, invest, and use our resources is a question of great moral significance. Dr. King’s teaching and leadership around questions of economic life were central to his ministry, and so too, today, we can recognize the importance of an ethical framework for considering the work of raising, allocating, and reporting on the financial work of our institutions, however large or small.

How does this question of moral leadership around money intersect with our lives in religious communities or as fundraisers within faith-based organizations? Our use of money and resources reflects our values. Or, in the language of the Gospel of Matthew – “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Every day our small choices are woven together into the whole cloth of our moral lives, and economic decisions and commitments, the stuff of budgets and fundraising campaigns, can function as the warp, the threads first strung on a loom, which create a structured and sturdy frame.

Into this warp we add the weft, threads passed through this established frame, and thus the cloth is woven. We can see how small actions, the choices and practices of our daily lives, weave into the economic commitments we’ve made as individuals and in our communities, resulting in a fabric that is defined by those first decisions.

By holding space in our communities to discuss the priorities we set and reflect in our annual budgets, we can begin to see differently the economic practices of our organizations day-to-day or month-to-month. This is a place where we can concretely express our values – ensuring a living wage to our hourly employees, balancing an investment in the development of our community’s life together with concern for those who are alienated from or disadvantaged by our relative privilege.

Just as Jim Wallis called upon our national leaders to see federal spending as a location for moral action, so too can we consider how our spending is morally relevant, reflective of and animating our ethical activity in the world. Something as seemingly mundane as energy efficiency or health insurance premiums can become an occasion for engagement with the moral dimension of economic life, and all that requires is an intention and effort to consider the budget as a moral document for our communities.

This article was originally published for Lake Institute on Faith and Giving. Lake Institute exists to explore the relationship between faith and giving.  The Lake Institute offers programs and seminars focused on faith based giving such as:

  • Creating Congregational Cultures of Generosity
  • Executive Certificate in Religious Fundraising
  • Spiritual Values and Philanthropic Discernment
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Melissa Spas is the Managing Director of Education and Engagement for the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving. She joined the staff of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy in 2016, having spent two years developing new initiatives and strategic partnerships for Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs in Bloomington. From 2007-2013, Melissa worked for Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, where she contributed to the development, design, and delivery of strategic leadership programs and resources for Christian institutions. A native of Chautauqua, New York, Melissa is a graduate of Allegheny College and Harvard Divinity School, and she is an active lay person in the United Methodist Church.

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