3 signs your accounting department is broken.

Jul 01, 2021

Despite my fitting in the mold of the stereotypical CFO/accountant type (hyper detailed, analytical, process driven, etc.), many are surprised when they hear I'm one of those people who will push the limits of the fuel gauge. While my wife thinks it's absurdly annoying, I tell myself that I'm simply checking the accuracy and validity of their estimated miles until empty. To this day, I have never run out of gas...looks for wood to knock on.

Even though I have an annoying habit with the fuel gauge, I don't have the same attitude when it comes to a check engine light, brake wear sensors, or when the vehicle tells me I have a low tire. To me, if these issues go unaddressed, the damage could be catastrophic. 

Like my vehicle, we have notifications that tell us when things aren't quite right with our staff or our overall organization. There's isn't a bright light on a dashboard for all the potential  issues (How awesome would that be?!?), but we all can see or sense things when things aren't at their best. You'll never hear me claim to be an expert on managing staff, but I do have considerable experience with churches and their accounting teams. We've heard and seen numerous others, but here are the top three signs we witness that your accounting department is broken.

1. Difficult to work with.

When it comes to staffing the accounting department, it requires a level of humility, dedication, and collaboration that is unique to this role. If left unchecked or the wrong hire is made, there are several factors that often contribute to the staffing personnel becoming overly challenging:

  1. Very few understand what accountants do or what they should be doing, oftentimes creating significant freedom and flexibility for the accountant.
  2. Significant tenure on staff from a lack of knowledge to assess the position.
  3. Significant tenure on staff from the fear of losing this one person that has all the knowledge.
  4. Ability to set policies or systems in motion that impact all leaders, including the senior leader(s).

For someone who is dedicated, humble, and willing to collaborate with others, these factors do not negatively impact their ability to do their job, nor impact how they treat others. Adversely, if someone does take advantage of any of these factors, they often feel untouchable and irreplaceable and treat others accordingly. Just so you know, this isn't unique to churches. It's all too common in small and mid-size businesses for the accountant to be the most challenging person on the staff. They push their weight around, daring someone to challenge them or miss a deadline, and will stand on the hill of compliance as a means to get your attention.

Thankfully, not all accounting teams behave in such a way. We've met some outstanding accountants that serve the church with integrity, humility, and gentleness. If your accounting department isn't just as cooperative as other ministries in your organization, your accounting department is broken. 

2. Decisions without leadership buy-in.

I'm all about decentralized decision-making within churches, especially when it is ministry-specific that has little to no potential effect on those outside of this area (What color should the wall color be in kid's ministry? Should we do pizza or pasta at our next student event?); However, when there is overlap to other ministries, these ministries/departments should be considered/consulted (Should VBS be on the week of June 6 or October 25? Should we start holding our student gatherings during weekend services? Should we start requiring our staff to submit POs before any purchases, even if they've been approved in the budgeting process?). 

If your accounting team is making decisions that impact the organization's processes or staff without a conversation, this is a red flag.  At a minimum, the leadership team should be a part of the conversation. If left unchecked, these team members may begin to establish their own set of rules, tailored to their preferences, and dare anyone in the organization to challenge them. If you sense this with your accounting team, it's broken.

3. Compliance over stewardship.

We get it - compliance matters. We'll be the first to tell you that doing things in a systematic, appropriate, and consistent way is the only way to manage finances effectively. However, we've seen way too many accountants that make their entire role focused on one thing: the yearly audit. Doing so makes each transaction, process, and dollar a detail on a checklist and not a resource to be leveraged for greater ministry impact.

To say that technology has changed the way we do things is an understatement. With financial data, it's no different.  What used to take 24 sheets of paper and 4 days to review, now can be done inside one spreadsheet, shared across countless individuals, and reviewed in a matter of minutes. I could go on and on, but the added transparency of information, increased clarity and insight of performance, and the efficiency in which we do things is unlike anything we've experienced thus far that can make a significant impact to our churches. And with this improvement, accounting teams should be leveraging these tools and best practices in order that they may spend time better understanding the data and determining how it might be better leveraged in order to steward it in the most impactful way. 

Want to know if they are hyper-focused on compliance? Ask them to take note of their time for one week. When you review it, look for time spent with other departments (collaboration), time spent learning/reading about best practices (education), and trying new approaches (innovation) to better leverage the resources of the church. 

As you know, the mission of the church hasn't changed. The way in which we approach is certainly has. If your accounting department has one or more of the symptoms listed above, don't panic. They could take your church in the right direction IF they are both willing (cooperative) and able (competent). If that's not a likely outcome, you've got other options that you didn't have 5 years ago:

  • You're no longer limited by your local pool of qualified candidates because of remote accounting.
  • You're not restricted to their limited exposure to one or two churches they worked with but can implement best-practices from experts who work with churches all across the U.S.
  • You're not sacrificing significant costs that go along with in-house staff, leaving you more financial resources to move your mission forward.

Want to know more about outsourced accounting? Schedule a time to talk with us and we'll explore what that could look like for your church.


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