Sustainability and Church Planting
Church planting is a risky endeavor that requires sacrifice, faith, & hard work. The goal should be to bring new people into the kingdom & to do it for years to come. Most church planters who start from scratch begin with support raised from denomination, other churches, & personal relationships. The church planter usually feels an internal clock ticking for the day when this support will begin to diminish. My denomination usually supplies 2-3 years of financial support. Sponsor churches will usually commit 3-5 years. Individual partners may stay on longer, but to be sustainable, the church plant is expected to & will have to make disciples who support the work of their church. A recent audit of failed church plants in my state, found that 50% of them just ran out of time before becoming financially self-sustainable. The outside support ran out before the disciples reached could carry the budget of the church. So how does a new church begin with the end in mind in relation to finances? Here are some helpful questions / exercises that a planter or planting team can work on to help count the cost & plant for financial self-sustainability:
1. If my vision is realized in 5 years, how much will it cost?
or a better question may be, How much will it cost annually to bring new people into the kingdom in this community? The work here is first to design a strategy that will actually reach the unchurched in the community, instead of just looking at what’s been successful in other places or by other people. Then, if the strategy & need is for the church to have things like full-time staff & a building of its own, go ahead & plan for those realities now. You will most likely need a budget of at least $120,000 per year to afford small doses of those two common realities.
2. Does this vision fit my context?
or, How long will it take to become financially self-sustainable in this particular community? or How many people will I need to reach to become financially self-sustainable in this community?
So this exercise is to look at economic realities in the community to begin to diagnose reasonable expectations of financial viability from within. In Louisiana, we’ve used a figure of $800 per year per person in average attendance that can be expected from the congregation as a way to project financial viability. So, average attendance, multiplied by $800 will usually put you in the ball park of what your annual budget will be. So if I will need $120,000 per year, divide that by $800 & that tells me that I’ll need to reach 150 people to be around financial self-sustainability. But the economic realities in some communities may not support that figure. For some, $400 per person per year may be more realistic. Talking to local pastors & looking at average incomes in the area will help with this exercise. We know all things are possible with God, but now you’re counting the cost of a potential church plant in this community. Questions are: Do I believe this can happen here? Am I willing to lead my family & people reached to get there? Do I need to be bi-vocational to start a church here?
3. How many years will I need financial support from the outside?
Outside support is great & needed, but most church plants will not be able to depend upon it beyond five years. These exercises may tell you that you will need to because of the realities on the ground. Plan for that by spending more time & energy on raising outside support. Developing partners that will be OK with long term sponsorship of your work. Or raise large amounts of capital on the front end for the new work. With more churches looking to support church planting directly, the good news is that this is possible today. But we also must be cognizant of the danger of getting top heavy – depending upon an amount of outside support that the congregation will never be able to sustain on its own. This scenario has meant for some plants, losing staff & making major course corrections in years 4 to 6, which could prove fatal to the work or put much pressure on the planter family or sending church.
4. How will I teach new people reached by the new church about Biblical Stewardship & Giving?
The sooner you begin discipling people & teaching them the principles of Biblical Stewardship the better. If you really do reach new people, you will have to lead them down the road to Biblical giving. Today, people are experiencing mountains of debt, high costs of living, & more taxes, so it may take longer than in previous generations. So don’t wait to start healthy financial systems in your new church that teach people to steward their money for the work of God’s kingdom.
5. How can I create a reproducible model that can produce disciples, leaders, & churches for years to come?
And one major consideration for the future of church planting is that new churches learn to create reproducible models that can plant churches that deliver the gospel to different communities for generations to come. If it costs you $2 million dollars over five years to launch a church that has reached 150 people, who are now strapped with debt on the new building that took hours of volunteer labor to build & seats 175 (not an uncommon scenario), it may be a tough sale when you start talking about doing it again. Making reproducibility a core value at the beginning will call for simplicity, creativity, & people based not funding based strategies. These things require more patience, but will lead to less stress & pressure for the church planter & plant in years 4 through 6.
What do reproducible models look like? Most of the time in the west, it’s about strategies that keep cost down. Scenarios like:
- Plants led by bi-vocational staff, at least initially.
- Keeping gatherings smaller, but adding locations to grow.
- Commitment to longer term portability may work in some communities.
- Starting a non-profit to raise money through grant writing & corporate donations for ministries to the communities.
I love the axiom, “Begin with the end in mind.” Jesus commended counting the cost (Luke 14:25-34). These questions may seem unspiritual, but are necessary part of planning for delivering the Gospel to generations in your given context.