I’m married to an accountant, so the personal side of finances has always come easy to my family and me. From the first years of our marriage we followed a solid pattern of generosity, living within our means, and setting aside a margin. It worked out well.

But when I became the pastor of a church plant, I made the mistake of casting all those principles aside. It was as if I saw no connection between personal and ministry finances.

Each year we set a budget that presumed upon growth. We launched new ministries and hired staff on the assumption that God would provide. And we spent every penny that came in.

We called all this “trusting God.”

If God hasn’t spoken explicitly, it’s not a step of faith to launch out. I wish I’d known that a church’s finances are no different than personal finances. The principles that lead to success in one lead to success in the other. And the principles that lead to disaster in one will eventually lead to disaster in the other.

The same two principles that guide my personal budget and finances now guide our church budget and finances.

1. We don’t presume upon the future. We set our budget based on what we have, not what we hope we’ll get. James 4:13–16 warns against presumption. In my personal life, that means not assuming I’ll get a raise every year. In our church, that means setting our budget in light of what God provided the previous year, no longer assuming that attendance and offerings will automatically grow every year.

2. We don’t devour all we have. Proverbs 21:20 says that a wise man has stores of treasure and oil stored up, but a fool devours all he has. In my personal life, that means living below my means so that I can be generous and prepared for unexpected crisis or opportunity. In our church, that means living below our means by setting a ministry budget based on only 90% of the previous year’s income. That leaves us with a built-in margin. It sets us up to be generous and it prepares us for unexpected crisis or opportunity.

I wish I’d known that a church’s finances are no different than personal finances. While this means that we may have fewer staff, buildings, and programs than most other churches our size, it also means we have a lot less stress and a lot more flexibility to respond as God leads.

What works at home works at church. I wish I’d known that from the beginning.