Training Tools

When the Ministry Budget isn’t Big Enough

His motives seemed pure. “I just want to see kids reached with the Gospel.”

Who can argue with that?

Well… he spent his entire youth ministry budget by January 17th.

I first met “Chris” about six months prior to that ominous January. He contacted me about speaking at his community outreach event. The event sounded fun: inflatable boxing ring, Bar BQ, a band, t-shirts… he went all out.

Maybe that’s why his budget ran out.

In preparation for the event I asked him how many kids he expected. The number changed each time I talked with him. Once I heard “hundreds,” another time “a thousand.” But as we got closer I could hear the fear in his voice. “I really hope to have at least 200.”

About a month before the event he jacked up the admission price in fear of not making enough. When all was said and done, about 68 kids showed up. I’m not going to criticize an event that brought out 68 kids to hear the Gospel. But when your budget requires over 300 just to break even… “Houston, we have a problem.”

January 18th was a very hard day for poor Chris. “Poor” isn’t a bad choice of words either. He hadn’t even exited January and he was already in the hole a few hundred dollars for the rest of the year. Consequently, he wasn’t able to reimburse some expenses he had put on his credit card (which didn’t put him in good standing with his wife).

“It was all for the sake of the Gospel.” He told me sheepishly.

Was it?

Or was it just bad money management?

A Common Dilemma
Chris isn’t alone. Just last week I met with a senior pastor picking my brain about “what to do” about his youth pastor. “He spends all of his money by March! He always has an excuse. But come April he’s in my office asking me for more.”

I talked with another youth pastor recently who started off the budget year with a huge event that would cost him almost his entire budget.

Every year in January I get the most amounts of people booking me simply because they have the money in January.

Why is this the case? Do many youth workers lack good money management skills? Are churches just cheap when it comes to youth ministry? Do youth leaders just need to learn how to adapt and survive on what they have?

Yes, yes, and yes.

It’s Never Enough
No youth ministry budget seems enough. Think about it. Doesn’t it seem that way with our personal finances?

I remember my wife and I struggling to make bills the first few years we were married. I recently watched a video that my wife shot of me when we were expecting our first child. She was interviewing me and asking me if I was worried about anything. You could see it all over my face—the pressure of being the provider for the family. I told the camera exactly how much I needed to earn to provide for my family. I probably repeated it three times. “If only I could earn…” I figured. If I had that amount of money, we wouldn’t need a thing.

Now I need twice that amount.

What was I thinking back then!

Isn’t it the exact same way with our ministry budgets? As our ministry grows and our budget grows, so do our needs (as well as a few wants).

Sure, some churches are stingy when it comes to youth ministry spending. But I’ve met youth pastors from huge churches who complained to me that their budget just wasn’t enough with an annual youth ministry budget of $500,000 including the salaries of youth interns and secretaries. $100,000 of that was allocated for trips, meetings and expenses during the year. Sound stingy? To those youth workers, it wasn’t enough.

Many youth workers can’t even imagine that kind of budget. Their budget is $3,000 a year… and that includes their salary! (you probably think I’m kidding) The sad fact is, the majority of churches in America have zero youth ministry budget and are run by a volunteer.

I received this email from a youth worker.

“Dear Jonathan- My husband and I are youth leaders at a small, small-town church. We don’t have any type of youth account or budget…and we can’t afford to put our own money into the program…any ideas???? I feel like our kids don’t get to experience anything exciting or fun because of lack of money and most are from families who can’t afford the things we do get to plan?” -Jessica

I think a lot of us can relate to Jessica. Money can feel like a huge barrier. So, what do you do when the budget isn’t enough?

Do With Whatcha Got!
Maybe some of us just need to learn to survive on what we have.

I understand what it’s like to have “no budget.” For years I was a youth worker in charge of a ministry with zero budget. If I wanted to do an activity, I had to break even. That required very prudent budgeting.

On top of that- the kids I worked with were from a poor area. Parents never seemed to provide more than a few bucks for events. So I had to be pretty frugal, without appearing “cheap.” (Have you seen those events? “And for the grand prize… a Happy Meal Toy!”)

Despite our lack of funds, our ministry managed to match caring adults with kids in the community, as well as providing a ton of great activities and fun events (I’ve posted many of these event ideas on our website It’s amazing what you can do with a little creativity, a handful of volunteers, and a few bucks.

Obviously it would be difficult for me to cover every aspect of ministry budgeting in this one small article. Entire books have been written on the subject. But I can share a few tips that have helped me survive in ministry when the budget was tight. For the sake of this article, I’m going to assume the extreme case and assume that we are all in Jessica’s situation—no budget whatsoever! Regardless if you’re paid, barely paid, or a volunteer in ministry, these tips will help you continue to minister to kids, even if you have $0 to spend.

Let’s look at four areas of ministry spending: Week to week, Activities & Events, Weekend Trips, and finally Camps & Week Long Trips.

Week to Week
Most ministries don’t require a lot of money week to week. A typical ministry director should be hanging out with kids, developing adult leaders, and creating some sort of venue where these adults get to connect with kids.

Hanging out with kids doesn’t have to be expensive. All we need is an arena where communication is cultivated. It’s nice to take a kid out for french fries or a milkshake. That’s usually not too much of a financial burden. But when money is tight, youth workers can find other arenas like hiking, tossing a football, walking on a beach, playing Frisbee golf… the list is endless. Regardless of the venue, make it happen. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of one-on-one time with the kids we minister to.

One-on-one time is so important that it shouldn’t be reserved for just a ministry director. We should be equipping our volunteers to be hanging with kids one-on-one as well. Whenever I recruited volunteers in my ministry, I let them know up front that the number one activity they will be doing is connecting with kids. Most of these volunteers didn’t have a problem with treating a kid to fast food here and there. Others would invite kids to their house for dinner. This vital connection between adult leaders and students never required money from our ministry.

Even though the word “program” seems to be taboo lately, most ministries have some sort of weekly venue (dare I call it a program) where we reach out to kids, build them up in their faith, and/or equip them to go and make an impact. This weekly venue (program) doesn’t require big bucks. If necessary, it doesn’t require any bucks! I’ve seen incredible ministries where the group all met together in a home some night during the week. Leaders wrote their own curriculum (or grabbed free curriculum off the web from websites like ours), led discussions and sometimes even provided cookies or brownies that volunteers baked the night before.

Week to week ministry is all about connecting with kids. Connecting doesn’t require a budget.

Activities & Events
Sometimes ministries like to provide fun activities for kids on a Friday or Saturday night. I used to plan one fun event per month. These activities or events can be great tools for outreach. Other times they can have the simple purpose of just providing a place of fellowship for kids, building unity among believers. Whatever the purpose, they don’t require a huge budget. Actually, without sounding repetitive… they don’t require any bucks!

What’s the secret?

Two words: break even.

This is simple with creative activities like video scavenger hunts, manhunts, swimming parties and movie nights. These are the types of activities and events that cost nothing but creativity, gas and maybe some food or prizes. Charge $3 a kid and you’ve got it covered.

But sometimes we want to do something a little more pricey like a baseball game, a concert, laser tag, or a place like a mini-golf fun park. How can you take kids to a mini-golf fun park without a budget?

Easy. Charge what it costs ya… and break even.

Sounds simple enough. How’s it work?

Budgeting 101. Let’s use the mini-golf fun park as an example. My local mini-golf fun park (mini golf, bumper boats, Indy racers, etc.) has a deal where the average kid that walks in the door can get an “All Access” pass for $15.95. Most the kids actually know about this because they’ve been there. Here’s the deal I give the kids. $20 for an all access pass and $5 of game tokens. They think it’s a great deal, and somehow, I manage to still break even.

How do I do that?

Anyone who’s planned an event to these places knows that they have group rates. I have built a relationship with the guy who runs this facility and he gives me a group rate of $12 a kid. So with the $5 in video game tokens, my cost is only $17 a kid. Not to mention, this guy gives me a free adult pass with every 7 kids because he likes having chaperones around and adults don’t tend to go on the rides as much (most adults don’t… but my adults do, because they actually want to be with the kids! So this is a great deal for us.). My adult to kid ratio was about 1 to 7 anyway… so basically my adults were free. And I had a $3 per kid surplus to give volunteers gas money.

Programming events can take a lot of work. We’ve just scratched the surface here. If you’d like to dive in deeper, check out my other book by Youth Specialties, Getting Students to Show Up: Practical Ideas for Any Outreach Event from 10 to 10,000.

What About Kids That Can’t Afford $20?
Great question. I always had a handful of kids that couldn’t afford my $15 to $20 events. (Funny, they always managed to scrape up $5 or $10. But above $10, I would lose kids.) Since my adult volunteers were all in contact with kids weekly, we quickly learned when certain kids were not able to come to an event because of money. In these situations I gave my adult leaders the freedom to scholarship these kids from a scholarship fund. This is something we never talked about out loud. My leaders handled this one-on-one so it was never abused.

I found it very easy to raise scholarship dollars for this scholarship fund. I had about 10 businessmen and women that I called from time to time throughout the year and shared my need. Very often I would ask each of these people for $100 and told them exactly what we would be doing at the event, my goals, and specifically who this money would pay for. Ten phone calls would usually be all that was necessary to have $1,000 in scholarships. (Sorry, you can’t have their phone numbers. Find your own!)

Weekend Trips
Weekend trips aren’t reserved for groups with big budgets. These weekend get-aways can be made affordable for almost any kid. For years I planned a weekend retreat for just 25 students at just $39 a kid (Today, that same trip would probably cost me $45 per kid because of the increase in gas and food prices alone in the last few years). This small budget wasn’t easy for me. I had grown up in a church where a typical youth weekend was closer to $100 (some of you have probably experienced weekends for several hundred dollars). Well, a few hundred dollars wasn’t even fathomable for the kids I worked with. And with nothing in the bank, I had to get creative fast.

Remember. I’m assuming we have no money in our budget. So like our Activities & Events, we will need to charge appropriately and break even. Planning a “break even” weekend trip will require us to become a little more savvy with an Excel spreadsheet… or if you’re old school… a calculator and piece of yellow binder paper! If you’re not gifted in the area of administration, don’t let that scare you. These trips don’t require an accounting degree, just a little bit of organization and thinking ahead.

Here’s how I did it.

I had a choice of several different places to take my kids for a retreat. There was a fantastic camp up the hill from us that was reasonable… if I could commit to 100 kids. At the time I was averaging about 35 kids a week. 100 would not have been a step of faith, it would have been stupid.

Ask any youth worker, you don’t typically bring more kids to camp than you have attending on a given week. Once I built momentum, I might think about larger numbers. But right now I knew that I had 35 kids to work with. And many of them had sports and events on weekends. So I found a cabin that slept 25 kids.

The rent on this particular cabin was $500 for the weekend (do the math, that’s $20 a kid).

But that was just the lodging. What about food, transportation and programming?

Back then I spent about $2 per kid, per meal for four meals. ($8 total: three meals on Saturday and one meal Sunday morning. I told them to bring money for fast food on the way there and back.) Obviously $2 wasn’t steak and eggs. Saturday morning usually consisted of a cereal & muffin breakfast. Then we did a sack lunch that we could bring with us Saturday. For dinner, usually spaghetti and breadsticks. And we finished with more cereal and sweet rolls Sunday morning. Thanks to Costco, we could do this with the money allocated.

I added a little into the budget for games and prizes. I couldn’t afford money for elaborate programming or a speaker, so I always did one of three things: 1. I did the speaking myself. 2. I traded speaking with a youth pastor friend just to change things up. He would speak at my retreat and I’d speak at his. 3. I would just lead small groups using movie clips as discussion starters (also available for free on our web site).

Other Expenses:
I allocated money for gas (volunteers drove minivans), a trailer rental for all the luggage, and a little money for miscellaneous.

Bringing it all Together:
Here’s the breakdown of the budget for this weekend:

$20 cabin $500
$8 four meals at $2 a meal $200
$2 programming/prizes $50
$4 gas $100 (this needs to be increased now)
$2 trailer rental $50
$2 misc $50
$38 TOTAL $950

I charged kids $39 for this weekend retreat and never had a problem. I’d advertise a few months out and told them I only had 25 spots. They could hold a spot with a $20 deposit. Since I was running more than 25 kids weekly, there was always a rush to get money in. The balance was due the Wednesday before the retreat. The separation of the deposit and the balance made it easier on poorer families because it was only $20 at a time. Even some of my “absent parents” didn’t mind dipping $20 bucks into their beer money for that trip (sadly, I’m not kidding).

As cheap as it was, we would often find students who couldn’t afford these retreats. We scholarshipped many of these kids using the same methods I discussed in the Activities & Events section. This always opened the door for supporters of our ministry to become involved in what we were doing.

As the years progressed momentum was built. I was able to do larger scale retreats and trips for hundreds of kids using the exact same budgeting tactics. The above trip was with only 25 students. Imagine what you could do with 100 or 500 students. Larger student numbers create more opportunities for your budget.

Even if you have a small group of kids, networking with other area groups allows you to do occasional events with large numbers. Every year, I always did an outreach event with several other youth groups that got together to do a huge trip. This trip always brought in several hundred students. These greater numbers opened the doors for bigger budget items like speakers or equipment & facility rentals. It was always fun to see kids from small groups experience a “large group” trip.

Let’s quickly take a peek at what kind of budgeting these weeklong trips might entail.

Camps and Weeklong Trips
Camps and trips can be fantastic experiences for kids. Organizations like Young Life successfully use camps as incredible tools for outreach. Churches consistently use camps and weeklong mission trips as opportunities for outreach or spiritual growth. But big trips cost big dollars. Any time we take kids away for a week our budget requires three digits per kid (in other words, costs in the hundreds). And three digits per kid is a lot of money for a ministry with no budget.

So what can we do?

Yes, you probably already know the answer: charge appropriately and break even.

Every three years I brought my student leaders to a student evangelism conference. Many of the students I brought received little or no support from their parents. This made things difficult because the conference came to several hundred dollars per student by the time we included lodging and food. But I didn’t want my students to miss this experience.

This begs the question: how do you take kids who can’t afford $20 events on $200 trips?

Great question.

I always found two methods to be effective:

1) More than a fund-raiser
For big trips, conferences or events, I always did what I called “more than a fund-raiser.” Basically, it was a fund-raiser with a purpose.

I called the Salvation Army (or any homeless shelter near us) and scheduled a day we could come and work for 8 hours.

Then I made up pledge sheets for the kids. They all tried to get pledges per hour, for a total of 8 hours. Imagine the fund-raising potential. If they can get 20 people to pledge just one dollar an hour, they will make $20 an hour for 8 hours of work. That’s $160 for ONE STUDENT! If you do the math, this is better than your typical car wash- and it’s a great experience at the same time.

This alone usually was all I needed to do to help most needy students. But some students always seemed to need more help. So we also provided…

2) Sponsorships
The other method I used to help students afford camps or big events was what I called “sponsorships.” I would start by making a list of the students who needed serious financial help- I usually had about 8 to 10 of these students. I approached the students individually and told them that if they would make the effort and fund-raise (using the idea above) or come up with half of the funds for the trip, I would match any funds they came up with. If students didn’t have any money at all, they could do the fund-raiser, knowing that I would give them a dollar for every dollar they raised.

Most students agreed to this deal. So it was necessary for me to find scholarships, which, in this situation, I called “sponsors.” I would create a one-page bio on the student with their picture and why I wanted him or her on the trip. I would then approach people I knew who had a heart for our ministry and ask them if they would sponsor a student. I would hand them the “one-page bio,” presenting the need. I was always able to find 8 or 10 supporters who were glad to sponsor a student.

As an added bonus, these supporters would have a vested interest in this student. I would give them a list of specific prayer requests for the trip or the conference. It was always nice knowing that the student was covered in prayer for that week or weekend. This became more than just a way to raise money; it was a way to bring in ministry partners who got to be a small part of what God was doing in the lives of students.

Don’t let a small budget stifle your ministry. God is so much bigger than any need you’ll ever encounter. Our faith in Him, combined with good management of the resources He provides won’t ever be in vain.

Keep up the good work. (And don’t forget to break even!)

If you enjoyed this article from Jonathan McKee, learn even more about programming and budgeting in Jonathan’s award winning book, Getting Students to Show Up!
(Get the book at a discounted price here)

Jonathan McKee

Jonathan McKee is the author of over twenty books including the brand new The Guy's Guide to FOUR BATTLES Every Young Man Must Face; The Teen’s Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices; If I Had a Parenting Do Over; and the Amazon Best Seller - The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket. He speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources for youth workers on Jonathan, his wife Lori, and their three kids live in California.

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