Friday, May 15, 2009

Spring: And Money Is In The Air

You can always tell when it is spring in the monastery. We begin to count time according to “before” or “after” Easter. The wildflowers peek out on the hill. The weather seems to be suffering from bi-polar disorder, swinging from snow to sun several times in the course of an afternoon. And budgets are due.

Money is probably one of those things that many people are curious about in monastic life but are hesitant to ask about. The other is probably celibacy, but we won’t go there. Since poverty is associated with religious orders there is a lot of curiosity and misconceptions about money. People assume that we are supported by the Church which isn’t true, we are entirely self-supporting. There are probably a lot of other interesting assumptions that I’m not even aware of. But one of the biggest differences about money in monastic life is the way we are accountable for it.

Money is basically community property not private property. Each sister turns over whatever she earns to the community without keeping any of it. In turn we all rely on the community to pay for our expenses such as health care, food, computers, work expenses, etc. We don’t personally own large items. The monastery owns all the cars and we use them in common. At the same time each of us also gets a small, personal allowance for individual expenses like clothes, toiletries, entertainment, books, that sort of thing. Each of us has to rely on community for our needs and each of us has a say in how community spends money. This is where budgets come in.

Being able to rely on community to pay your bills should lead to a healthy humility. Hopefully we all come to a point of gratefulness for what we have been given. But since human beings don’t always learn the intended lessons sometimes we have to have some imposed accountability. All of us are required to estimate our expenses for the coming year on a budget form. I try to plan and estimate what my health care expenses might be, if I know that I will need some kind of treatment, dental work, glasses, etc. I put down plans to make a retreat, go to conferences workshops or attend classes. If I know I need a new winter coat or special shoes that I can’t afford from my personal budget I put those in my budget for the year.

The process is designed to help me think through what I really need versus what I want. It encourages a mindfulness about expenditures that may not happen if money is readily available. In turn the budgets are reviewed by the monastic Council, the advisory body for the Prioress and leadership team. They review the budgets of individuals and departments and can discuss whether expenses are justified.

After the budget is discussed and possibly revised by the Council the last step is for the community to approve it. At our last community meeting before the new fiscal year the entire community receives a presentation about the coming year’s budget by the staff of the business office. We hear about income, projected expenses, large projects and the “bottom line” of last year’s budget and the current proposed budget. Finally the whole community votes to accept it.

Like any system it isn’t perfect. There are disagreements about expenditures, concern about income, murmuring about how some people always seem to spend more money than others, but overall it is a surprisingly peaceful process with common consensus. The goal, which we may not totally achieve but at least we try for, is for consensus and accountability. In a society oriented toward competition and accumulation we try to model a different way.

Budgets are still not my favorite part of spring, sometimes I need to see the wildflowers on the hill just to get away from budgets and worksheets. But monastic life aims to be a tiny microcosm of a society lived according the promise of the Reign of God. It is in little ways, with little budgets and a lot of accountability that we inch our way to the new reality of transformation.

No comments: