Monday, March 14, 2011

To Fund or Not to Fund: The Question of Financial Support in Church Planting

Former President Ronald Reagan had a particularly narrow philosophy when it came to the idea of government funding. He expressed it in three propositions that he felt accurately reflected the disposition of the federal government: 1. If it moves, tax it. 2. If it keeps moving, regulate it. 3. When it stops moving, subsidize it.

Its probably appropriate after an illustration like that to point out clearly that I do NOT believe denominations are in the same category as the federal government. At the same time, the former President's humorous example does appropriately call us toward thinking rightly about money and its use when on mission. Where church planting is concerned, it is of high importance that our strategy for funding an effort be as contextualized as the overal strategy itself. Otherwise, we run the risk of providing "help that hurts." In light of this observation, I want to dedicate this post to a discussion about how to think rightly about funding new churches.

Of course, the discussion itself presupposes that funding IS NECCESARY for a healthy church planting environment. Any Baptist Association or state convention that is chincy when it comes to the direct funding of new churches has already betrayed what it really thinks about God's mandate to extend His Kingdom exponentially. If you don't plan financially for new churches, it says a lot Thankfully, I'm not in that kind of environment. In 2011, roughly 14% of our Association's budget is dedicated to the direct funding of new churches, and another 14% is set aside in a reserved fund for strategic expenditures related to church planting. Additionally, we work with a state convention that, as far as I'm concerned, is unparalleled in its financial commitment to starting new churches. Still, it is not enough to just to have money for church planting. You need to spend it wisely. And contrary to the popular belief of church planters (who all think you can never have enough money. I should know, as I was once one of those guys!), you CAN over-fund. And when you do, you hurt the mission.

I learned this lesson the hard way after first coming to Maryland. With the financial resources at my disposal at both Associational and state levels, together with the generous spirit toward church planting displayed by both of those entities, I figured we could take over the world! After all, my own church planting experience involved "shoe-stringing" almost everything, so as a planter I was always thinking "if I just had more money." Well, now I had it, and was fairly free to grant it to church planters in Maryland.

As a result, we funded very heavily early on, and the result was that in the first two years we had three failures. One of those was a church that had been planted prior to my arrival on the field. But the other two were planted on my watch, and they were our two most heavily funded plants. One of them never even reached the point of a launch service!

I should probably state at this point that there were many factors involved in the demise of these new churches. At the same time, the exorbiant amount of money we invested in them was a huge issue, primarily because once the denominational funding began to dry up the church quickly died. We had funded them to the point that they had become over-dependent on the denominational system. After some intense research into these failures, we made major changes in the way we funded new churches. Thankfully we were able to learn from our mistakes, and no church planted in our Association since 2007 has failed.

So how do you determine how much is too much? The following are some guidelines related to healthy levels of funding for a new church:

1. View Church Plant Funding as an Investment, not as Wellfare.. Before church planting was as sexy as it presently is in the ministry world, those who started new churches were essentially considered the wellfare-recipients of the clerical class. When I served as Senior Pastor of an established church, I "earned" a "salary." But when I left that church to start a new church, I began to "receive funding."

The way such expressions were made betrayed a view that church planters were simply receiving aid so that they could pay their bills. To be sure, I was happy to have a way to pay the mortgage with the support I received. But ultimately, that financial help resulted in a healthy, evangelistic and reproducing church. In other words, the "investment" paid off!

When denominational entities and other supporters of church planting see funding as nothing more than a way of supplementing someone's income, we tend to view such funding as wellfare. This perception yields two corollary and tragic results. On the one hand, those on the front lines of apostolic ministry are treated as though they are taking something they have not earned. On the other hand, pity sometimes becomes the motivation for continued funding of a failing effort simply because we feel sorry for the guy whose church planting effort is failing, and we in effect end up burying the talent God has given us to multiply.

Funding should be seen as an investment in the multiplication of God's Kingdom . . .no less! When our planters are raising funds, I encourage them to encourage others to "invest in this group of people who, as a majority, don't know Jesus" rather than "support me and my family."

Investment also expects a return. If we see no fruit, then we "re-invest" God's money in a way that yields the Kingdom advance He expects. Obviously, this won't look the same in every context. Not every new church is destined to become a "mega-church," and thus, we can't judge success in a uniform way. I once had a church planting leader in another state convention tell me that if the planter hadn't reached 100 people by the end of his first year, he would cut his funding. I responded by saying "I'm glad you aren't overseeing church planting nationally. Otherwise, you would kill 80% of the new work we do in the United States."

But if we are investing in this way, and with this mentality, we will determine in advance what "success" looks like, and judge according to that standard. Conversely, we will not fear putting every dollar neccesary into Kingdom multiplication. In short, viewing funding as an investment means MORE dollars given to church planting, not less.

2. Allow for Scalability during, and Sustainability after the plant. For many years, the standard practice for church plant funding was what I call the "two years and out" approach. Essentially, we would fully fund a church planter for two years, and by year three he was on his own. When you think "scalability," this is NOT the picture you should see!

Part of every church planting strategy should be a plan to offset giving from the outside. No church that is perpetually dependent on outside sources of income can ever be truly autonomous, or truly self-propogating. Funding streams should be scalable, meaning that they should reflect a gradual decrease that is commensurate with the projected increase in internal giving.

But funding should also reflect sustainability. No church planter should be compensated more in the beginning of the church planting effort than the target group he is reaching is estimated to be able to pay him when supporting entities pull out. For example, in central Maryland, the "bottom-line" support package for a full-time, and fully-funded church planter is never less than $60K annually. Due to the high cost of living in our area, this is actually a very modest compensation package for someone considered full-time. But if the receptor culture he is reaching with the Gospel does not possess the financial ability to pay at this level, then the planter should start working bi-vocationally, and plan on remaining bi-vocational. A congregation of 80-100 hispanic immigrant agricultural workers is a huge win in our area, but that church will never be able to pay $60K a year to its pastor. For the funding to produce a sustainable strategy, these things must be taken into account.

3. With Rare Exceptions, Tangible Results should Precede Heavy Funding. Certain church planting networks like Acts29 already have policies like this in place, and require a baseline threshhold of core participants before member churches coalesce to grant financial support. At a minimum, most church planters should demonstrate the ability to pull together a leadership team prior to funded deployment. There are obvious exceptions to this rule, but for the most part, guidelines should reflect these expectations. Make sure a planter is faithful with a few things before granting him stewardship over many dollars.

For the most part, our culture makes way too much of the monetary, and unfortunately, many of our churches have been enculturated into this way of thinking. The result is "tight-wad" misering disguised as "prudence" on the one hand, and over-zealous but undiscerning waste on the other. We want to be good stewards of any resources God grants us to plant churches. Being a good steward means we take care of those who are doing the work, but not in a way that handicapps them in dependency. When it comes to planting churches, give generously, give intelligently . . .give strategically!

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