One third of churches in the U.S. are in the red this year¹, living “paycheck to paycheck.”
Some of these will close.
According to Jim Tomberlin and Warren Bird, authors of the book Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work, just over 25 percent of the churches in America are somewhere between death and life support.² These churches may not be able to keep the doors open much longer. This financial stress takes a toll on the leadership and ultimately decreases the missional effectiveness of the church.
But financial viability is not exclusively an “established church” problem. New church plants and church-planting teams face similar challenges. The passion to reach a new group of people can fade after a few difficult months of fundraising and in my (Jon) first year of church planting, I remember wondering, “Will we ever be financially viable?”
- What happens when tithes and offerings are simply not enough to fund the mission?
- What can churches do to increase their financial viability AND missional vibrancy?
- How can churches innovate to create new streams of income?
As older generations continue to age, emerging generations aren’t closing the gap in tithes and offerings.
Mark DeYmaz and Harry Li in their book The Coming Revolution in Church Economics warn that the financial models of many American churches will not be sustainable into the future.³ As older generations continue to age, emerging generations aren’t closing the gap in tithes and offerings. Furthermore, the recent talk of rescinding property tax exemptions for local churches and removing housing credits makes this issue even more pressing.
In 2022, Asbury Theological Seminary (Jay) and Leadership Network initiated a research project to explore new ways that churches might increase their financial viability while, at the same time, maintaining missional effectiveness. This article is a summary of that research and a brief description of six non-traditional options for funding the mission.
If you want to dive deeper into the research, a copy of “Missional Vibrancy and Financial Viability” can be found by CLICKING HERE.4
1. Monetizing Assets
The first innovation is to monetize assets. Churches acquire assets over time (buildings, property, land, vehicles, etc.) that can be leveraged to generate rental income. The most common application of monetization is for event rental for weddings, receptions, funerals, and community events. Another emerging market is the rise of co-working.
One author writes, “Co-working is a new but fast-growing trend in the United States – from only 14 spaces in 2007, the number of co-working and other shared, collaborative office spaces increased to 4,043 in 2017.”5
This not only provides an income stream for the church, but also connects the congregation to entrepreneurs and other leaders in the community.
The Post Commons in Alton, Illinois, converted an old post office to create a collective workspace. The ministry also rents the building to a local business that operates a coffee shop inside the building. This provides the necessary cash flow and also creates an ecosystem for ministering to people’s needs in the neighborhood.
2. Incubating Businesses
Another innovative approach to financing the mission of the church is to incubate a new business.
Grace Chapel in Cincinnati, Ohio, incubated six businesses that provide more than $200,000 in annual profit to the ministry of the church through rental incomes and other revenue. In addition to providing this cash flow, the pastors describe how this creates the opportunity to help entrepreneurs engage faith and work.
The ideas are endless from hosting a photography business, renting out the parsonage as an AirBNB, launching a counseling center, a workout facility, or even a coffee shop. While this approach is often closely overseen by the church staff, it provides churches with something larger than an hourly rental and creates relationships and mutual trust.
3. Non-Profit Creation
Another common approach for increasing financial viability is to form a separate non-profit. Since the non-profit is a separate entity from the church, it is eligible to receive grants from organizations that would normally not give to a local congregation.
Mosaic Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, formed a separate non-profit called Vine and Village which receives government grants and donations from entities that would not normally give to a church. They have also partnered with other churches in the area to donate to their non-profit, increasing their missional impact by assisting immigrants, training teen moms, offering fresh produce in “food deserts,” providing extended family for those with disabilities, offering community chess clubs, clothes closets, employment training, and more.6
I (Jon) attended a church in Texas that created an assisted living center called Dayspring that donated more than $50,000 of its revenue per year to church planting efforts in the city. Other non-profits could include schools, day cares, mission expressions, or meeting social needs in the community.
4. Co-Vocational Pastoring
Karl Vaters in Christianity Today recently called co-vocational ministry the “new normal” after a 32 percent increase from 2010 to 2015.7
The percentage is much higher today. There are a growing number of pastors adopting this approach for both financial and missional reasons. The marketplace can become particularly helpful to opening relational networks in addition to providing another source of income.
The term “co-vocational” assumes the pastor will continue to work outside the church even when the church can afford a full salary. It is a long-term approach with sacred potential by serving the community and creating relational networks through the pastor’s job.
I (Jay) am part of a co-vocational leadership team for Shadowland Community Church in Nicholasville, Kentucky. Three teaching pastors share the preaching, but only one is paid part-time for mission mobilization. The church gives a significant percentage of their tithes and offerings to impact the community.
5. Entrepreneurial Churches
The fifth innovation in financing the mission is to launch churches that form communities of Christ followers through businesses in the marketplace. These church planters start new businesses with the goal of planting churches within existing business venues.
Paul Unsworth in London, England, noticed that 20,000 people walked down his street each weekend with no vital Christian witness on his block. His response was to open the Kahaila coffee shop that serves excellent coffee and cake. The church now meets there one night a week.
Similarly, Scott Waller launched Corner Coffee in 2006 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and has since launched four other Corner Coffee shops that each offer a designated worship service. This model not only creates a third place for people to gather, but also finances a pastor for each location through its revenue. Entrepreneurial church plants can begin as workout facilities, bakeries, barber shops, hotels, cafes, and numerous other options with the intent of planting smaller microchurches in the marketplace.
6. Decentralizing Congregations
While there are a few examples of churches that made the decision to sell their property to decentralize in home groups or smaller fellowships, this approach works best when applied from the beginning. They can be called a variety of things – house church, simple church, organic church, dinner church, fellowship band, or microchurch – but one thing they all have in common is a minimal cost structure that meets in everyday settings. By reducing the cost needed for facilities and mortgages, as well as reducing salary expenses with co-vocational leadership, decentralized forms of church are much more immune to financial challenges.
Navigating the Options
Which of these six options will be most effective for your church?
This question will depend on two variables: The financial liquidity of your church and your access to relational networks.
Financial liquidity refers to how easily assets can be converted to cash at market value. Certain assets like stocks and bonds can be converted to cash quickly and are very fluid. However, many larger assets such as property, land, or equipment are not as easily converted and oftentimes frozen.
Relational networks are crucial for building bridges. When these relational networks are open and accessible, there is easy access between church members and those outside the church.
The chart below can be helpful for understanding which approach fits which variable. The x-axis considers the financial liquidity of the church/church plant, from frozen to fluid. The y-axis considers the church’s access to relational networks, from closed to open. Notice which methods are more viable depending on where a church finds itself on this spectrum.
The combination of network access and financial liquidity can provide a set of useful criteria for thinking innovatively.
While tithes and offerings will always be a portion of maintaining missional vibrancy and financial viability, the MINCED (monetize assets, incubate businesses, non-profit creation, co-vocational pastoring, entrepreneurial churches, and decentralization) options also have advantages. It could mean the difference between shuttering operations or charting a brand-new course into a missional future.
- Based on a recent seminar led by Capin-Crouse, an accounting firm that engages many churches.
- Andy Crouch predicts that every organization (including church) is now in startup mode since the COVID 19 pandemic has created a new ecosystem, similar to a small “ice age.” If churches simply try to get “back to normal,” they will likely not survive since the ecosystem has changed so quickly. See: https://journal.praxislabs.org/leading-beyond-the-blizzard-why-every-organization-is-now-a-startup-b7f32fb278ff. Accessed 03/16/2021.
- DeMaz, Mark, & Li, Harry. The Coming Revolution in Church Economics: Why Tithes and Offerings are Not Enough, and What You Can Do About It? Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 2019.
- Moon, Jay. Missional Vibrancy and Financial Viability. Exponential: 2021. pg. 30.
- Ibid, pg. 55.
- Ibid, pg. 60.