The Mystery Box Effect

Several months ago, I preached a sermon on the Presbyterian model of stewardship. If you were present, you’ll remember that I talked about the way in which we often “put the cart before the horse” – doing our annual stewardship drive prior to establishing our ministry budget for the year. While there’s a lot to be said for a balanced budget (I’m a big advocate for this both personally and corporately), it’s also important to recognize that budgets that aren’t based on a shared corporate vision tend to shrink rather than grow. And there’s a reason for this; I call it the “Mystery Box Effect.”

If you aren’t familiar with mystery boxes, these are curated collections of items pertaining to a particular interest group (fishermen, cooks, comic book collectors, etc.) that can be purchased for a flat price (sometimes as a subscription) and may or may not contain useful or desirable items. Sometimes you really luck out and hit the mother lode. Others… eh. Mystery boxes can be a lot of fun if you’re looking to part with some spare cash, but they leave a lot to be desired if you’re looking to make a solid financial investment.

The truth is that most of us try to invest the financial resources God has entrusted to us in known products or outcomes. We don’t just want to know what we are getting, we want to know why. We have an end-goal in mind and we are seeking to invest in something that will better enable us to reach that goal.

Imagine yourself strolling through the supplement aisle at the grocery store. The shelves are lined with bottles which we know (or at least assume) contain things that are “good for us.” Yet aside from the truly malnourished, most of us don’t just stroll down the aisle and grab one of everything. (Imagine how expensive a shopping trip that would be!) Nor do we simply roll the dice and hope whichever random bottle we select will help treat our insomnia, hair loss, or skin rash. Instead, we make well-researched decisions based upon our end goals. Got the sniffles and want them to go away? Vitamin C. Need a mood lift? Vitamin D. Need to stay focused? Maybe some Ginkgo.

Selecting ministry investments for a church budget really isn’t that different from selecting a good dietary supplement. There are a lot of missions and ministries which are “good for us” (or more precisely, the Kingdom of God), but not every one is a good investment for us. So we prayerfully (and corporately) work to discern God’s will – identifying those investments which best meet the immediate needs of the congregation and help prepare us to meet developing needs in the community around us. The church budget shouldn’t be a “mystery box.”

Toward that end, we’ve asked our committees and boards to break down their budget proposals for 2024 into three key categories:

1. Essentials – These are necessary expenditures without which the church cannot function. They include things like heating, snow removal, and staff salaries.
2. Low-Hanging Fruit – These are projects which require a limited investment of time and money, but which have the potential to yield immediate, noticeable results. Without these, the church cannot grow. They are the things which nurture the spirits and souls of our congregation in such a way that our parishioners feel compelled to go out and share the Gospel with others or which enable us to better invite others into the family of God.
3. Vision Projects – These are high value projects which will yield noticeable results, but only when examined over a longer period of time. These are investment projects without which the church cannot maintain long-term stability. They include those things that often go unnoticed unless they have been left undone, but which have the potential to severely impact the congregation and its ministry if left unaddressed.

These three categories will help clarify the “why” behind our ministry investments. But discerning the end goals of these investments isn’t just a function of our committees and boards – it’s a task that belongs to all of us as we corporately seek to discern God’s leading. With that in mind, now is the time to share your hopes and dreams – to think about where you feel God calling us as a congregation. If you’d like to be involved, here are three ways to engage more deeply in this process:

1. Talk to the pastor. I take walk-ins most days during regular office hours and am available at other times by appointment. The more I understand about your perspectives – how you believe God to be leading us corporately – the better I’m able to assist our committees and boards in trying to put the pieces together.
2. Talk to the chair(s) or moderator(s) of the committee, or the president of the board.* Ask questions to better understand the committee or board’s mission and take time to share your ideas.

Our standing committees and boards are:
a. Christian Education
b. Music and Worship
c. Outreach
d. Fellowship
e. Personnel
f. Trustees
g. Deacons

*If you need names and contact information, please contact the office at or 315-655-3191.

3. Join a committee. It isn’t too late! Christian Education, Outreach, and Fellowship all have vacancies waiting to be filled. Our only request is that you take time to ensure that you will be able to attend the majority of the committee’s meetings (a quorum is necessary to conduct business) and have the interest and capacity to actively participate in the services the committee performs for the congregation. (Limited to one committee per individual.)

By corporately engaging in the process of discerning God’s will and carefully targeting our ministry investments, we will avoid the “Mystery Box Effect.” Instead, we will begin to develop the unity and drive necessary to pursue God’s vision – bringing the Good News of God’s Love to Cazenovia and beyond.