Church Finances during COVID-19 (part 1 of 5)

Issues to address immediately:

  1. Online giving – if you don’t have it, get it now. My currently preferred vendor is Tithely. They can get you set up in a few hours (they say they can do it in minutes but…). Then, promote the heck out of your online giving.
  2. Audio & video technology – This crisis has forced many churches to acknowledge their AV equipment wasn’t ready. PLEASE invest more money into this area. You won’t regret it. After this is over you’ll have really good microphones. With your video equipment, you can improve or launch an online service so that members can watch you whether they’re homebound, traveling, sick, in a retirement community, or just want to watch the service again during the week.
  3. Paycheck Protection Program – the $2.2 trillion CARES Act (and its related additional acts) provide churches federal money. This is the first time the US government has offered money to faith groups. Fill out the forms, work with your local banker, and get the money. If you don’t need or want the money – get it anyway. You can always
    1. Return the money later
    2. Give it to a non-profit that you partner with
    3. Use it for missions in your community


I think every church in the world has realized the need for those two things. These are no longer “wants” but actual needs. Yes, it will cost some money but it may be the difference in survival and closing your doors.

Lead On!


Listen to the podcast:–the-CARES-Act–and-Making-Tough-Decisions-ecfgm7

Columbarium – Part 6: Moving?

One of the serious considerations that each church faced was moving the columbarium should the church ever relocate and the property be sold. As cities and suburbs change, churches wax and wane; some are closed for good and some move to a new location. In either case, what would the church do if moving the columbarium was necessary?

Relocating the Church

  1. The columbarium committee secured a commitment from the church leadership at the time that if the church ever moved, then the columbarium would go to the new location. That leadership will certainly be gone when/if the church ever moves but at the time that was comforting to the people who were buying niches.
  2. The niches were in a brass box – a series of about nine rows and seven columns which created 64 niches (singles and doubles). This brass box is exceedingly heavy and sturdy.
  3. The decision was made that should the church relocate, then a mason would chip away at the bricks surrounding the brass box of niches, each box would be lifted out and moved. At the new location, a new columbarium would be constructed and house the brass boxes.
  4. As to the areas where ashes were scattered or interred in the ground, the committee said that as much dirt as possible would be transported to the new location and placed in a new area set aside for ashes. It was recognized that not all dirt could be moved but that every effort would be made to move as much as possible in a dignified way.

Closing the Church

  1. Should the church close, the decision was that the church would approach a cemetery and make arrangements to move its niches and dirt. The sale of the church and the perpetual fund would cover the moving costs and the permanent fund at the cemetery.
  2. Then, the move would follow steps 3 and 4 above.

The committee was thorough. We wanted to ensure we created a sacred space for the eternal rest of people created in God’s image and then ensured that they would be taken care of forever. The committee achieved that and then disbanded. We gather now only when we meet at the funerals of friends but we also are glad that we made a place for them to be and their families to visit.

Lead On!

Steve – all kinds of FREE church manuals and sample documents – 400 plus blogs on every church administration topic you can think of

Columbarium – Part 5: Extra Info

I kept 2-3 urns in my office for quick access and so I didn’t have to get one right away when someone died. Don’t let families go buy their own urns – they may not fit. I also had 3-5 niche face plates in my office. When someone died, I took the niche plate to the engraver who had a pretty quick turnaround. When the funeral day came, I removed the blank niche plate and after the service put up the engraved one. If a spouse of someone already in the niche died, then I took the engraved niche plate off, put up a blank plate, got the niche plate engraved with the second name, and returned it in time for the service.

For tracking purposes, I created a spreadsheet in which I color-coded which niches were available, which were sold but not yet occupied, and which niches had urns in them. I did the same for a place where ashes were interred in the ground (by the way, it takes three years for ashes to totally be absorbed so on my spreadsheet I marked those plots as being occupied for a three-year term).

I installed a glass-enclosed bulletin board on which I posted the spreadsheets for the niches and for the interment area. This allows passersby to see what spaces were available and which had been claimed (either occupied or paid for but not yet occupied). There was some marketing material there, too. This bulletin board was right next to the door leading to the columbarium garden.

Lead On!

Steve – all kinds of FREE church manuals and sample documents – 400 plus blogs on every church administration topic you can think of

Columbarium – Part 4: Where to Put It

I’ve led in the construction of two columbaria, one at a Baptist church and another at a Presbyterian church. There was no denominational difference. Our respective goal was to honor the saints and provide a place of sanctuary for people visiting those saints.

In each case we found a secluded area of the church’s grounds. One was an existing patio immediately outside the sanctuary and the other took a grassy semi-circle at the end of a building. The patio was far cheaper because the walls and concrete flooring were already there; the masons just had to build up a structure into which the brass niches were installed. The other was a much larger construction project requiring about six months of work. It was designed by a landscape architect; it required a lot of bricks, major landscaping improvements, plumbing for a waterfall and electricity for some uplighting. It also contained seven sets of niches whereas the first one I did only had one set of niches.

Both columbaria provided a quiet place even though they are both near a major street. One of them has a waterfall which covers the noise of the nearby road and both have lots of greenery to enhance the atmosphere and provide privacy. Both have benches for people to sit while they visit and they are open to the public at all hours-the gates are never locked. The seclusion of each one ensures that for the most part only church-goers even know the columbarium is there.

In both cases the columbarium has enhanced the landscaping of the church. Each has been a wonderful addition.

Lead On!

Steve – all kinds of FREE church manuals and sample documents – 400 plus blogs on every church administration topic you can think of

Columbarium – Part 3: How to Pay for a Columbarium

Here are two ways to build and fund a columbarium that I used.

  • The columbarium was built in phases due to the construction costs. Phase I cost $60,000. The pastor asked three families to each give $20,000 in exchange for a tax-deductible contribution and a double niche. All three families gave the money and we built it a few months later. As people purchased niches, that money would pay for the next phase until all phases were constructed. Sales from the sales phase would then become the source of the perpetual maintenance fund.
  • The columbarium was built all at once for a cost of $225,000. Solicited donations and sales of niches generated about $75,000 initially. The church was fortunate to have over $150,000 of reserves. In lieu of borrowing money from a bank, the church loaned itself the money and then as niches were purchased, the loan declined. At some point, the loan was paid off and then all subsequent money was used for the perpetual maintenance fund.

In all cases, handling the money for a columbarium requires careful record-keeping to ensure you know which niches or plots have been sold to whom. You need to keep copies of the agreement you have with each family, know where their money has been placed, and then have easy access to it when the time comes to inurn or inter a loved one for any expenses (engraving, buying urns, etc.).

Lead On!

Steve – all kinds of FREE church manuals and sample documents – 400 plus blogs on every church administration topic you can think of

Columbarium – Part 2: Funeral Costs and a Columbarium Niche Sales

Cremation is the safest and cheapest way to bury a person. A casket funeral can cost upwards of $15,000 (for the casket, the funeral home, the lot and concrete vault, etc.). That is money that is literally poured into a hole in the ground. Inurning (in a niche) or interring (in the ground) cremains can cost several thousand but it can also be done literally free.

  • For a few thousand dollars: the body can be cremated, placed in an urn, and then in a plot in the ground.
  • For free: the body can be donated to a med school which will cremate it; when they’re finished, they’ll return the ashes to the family who can then scatter the cremains

The cremains are placed in the columbarium in one of three ways:

  • In an urn which is set into a niche
  • Buried in the ground
    • In an urn (usually biodegradable) which is set into the ground and covered with dirt and grass, or
    • In a hole in the ground which is covered with dirt and grass
  • Scattered on the ground and grass

I built a columbarium at one church where we set aside a section of the wall for plaques of people whose ashes were scattered or interred elsewhere. One teen’s ashes were scattered at the beach while another member’s ashes were placed at Arlington National Cemetery near DC. In each case, the family wanted some remembrance of their loved one at the church and we were able to meet that need.

For each of these, we had different pricing levels. We sold niches for singles and spouses (kiddingly referred to as “double-wides”). We sold plaques to memorialize people whose ashes were elsewhere. We also sold interments (placing the ashes in the ground). In all instances, we standardized the wording format on the niche plates and plaques to ensure uniformity. We also sold the urns to be sure they fit inside the niche. I did encourage people with niches to personalize the urns and/or to place personal effects in the niche such as a picture or word tribute (both laminated). Some families did this as part of their communal grieving process.

The columbarium is a part of the family’s grieving and healing. That garden is a place of solace and remembrance.

Lead On!

Steve – all kinds of FREE church manuals and sample documents – 400 plus blogs on every church administration topic you can think of

Columbarium – Part 1: What is It and Why?

A columbarium is a place where the cremated remains of a person are kept. It comes from the Latin word for dove (columba) because doves build their nests in niches in a wall and cremains are frequently placed in niches.

Burning a body has been a human tradition for millennia because of their health hazards of a decomposing body. Cremated remains are completely safe to handle. Early Christians, who were within one generation of Jesus, were cremated. The catacombs of Rome have thousands of niches where urns with cremains (both Christian and non-Christian) were placed.

Churches have always been a favorite place for putting the dead. In America with its large open spaces, graveyards are common. In Europe, bodies are stacked in mausoleums or cremated. In other parts of the world where space is scare, cremation is the standard. Increasingly, people in the US want to be cremated; they don’t want their bodies taking up space forever.

This presents an option for churches in urban and suburban settings. They can convert one of the church’s gardens or patios into a columbarium. The purposes are several:

  • It keeps generations of the family attached to the church and visiting their deceased loved ones at the church
  • It provides a revenue stream if done properly. The revenues can pay for the perpetual maintenance of this part of the church grounds.
  • It tells the current members that the church honors the lives of the saints by giving them an eternal location.

When the subject of a columbarium comes up, do some research and consider having one. I’ve built two columbaria and each church has loved having it.

Lead On!

Steve – all kinds of FREE church manuals and sample documents – 400 plus blogs on every church administration topic you can think of

End of Calendar Year Gifts

When it comes to end of year, you need to have careful attention to some details:

  • What is the date on the check?
  • When did it come into the possession of the church?
  • When did it cease to be in the possession of the donor?
  • If it was mailed, what is the postmarked date (and keep the envelope for future reference)?

The IRS says that you can give tax credit for gifts that are not in the possession of the donor as of 1/1 @ 12.01 a.m. So, if someone makes an online donation at 11:59 p.m. or earlier on 12/31, then the gift can go toward that year.

If someone puts a check in the mail on 12/31, then it is no longer in the possession of the donor. The IRS considers it valid for the prior year. It may be postmarked in the new year but it should go toward the prior year, unless the check is dated for the new year. If the postmarked date is January 3, 4, or 5, use your best judgment to decide if it was still in the donor’s possession in 2019 or if it was mailed in 2018. You may even need to call the donor.

For depositing money received in the new year but credited to the prior year: make the deposit to the bank as early in January as possible; in your accounting software put a deposit date of 12/31 so it will show up on the income statement for the prior year. It will show up in the bank reconciliation as a “deposit in transit.”

The date that the money is in the bank is not important; the date that it ceases to be under the control of the donor is. Dealing with stock gifts at this time of year is especially tricky in determining what year to credit it to because you have to factor in when the donor gave instructions to the broker to sell the stock. Talk with the donor and the broker to ensure you have accurate info regarding last minute stock gifts. 

Lead On!

Steve – all kinds of FREE church manuals and sample documents – 400 plus blogs on every church administration topic you can think of