The 7 Top Issues Church Planters Face, Issue #2: Financial Self-Sufficiency and Viability – by Ed Stetzer

This is part of a series of posts on Church Planting. This post originally appeared on Ed Stetzer’s blog, The Exchange. You can view the first post in the series here. Ed Stetzer is the President of LifeWay Research, a prolific author, and well-known conference and seminar leader. Stetzer has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books.

The 7 Top Issues Church Planters Face, Issue #2: Financial Self-Sufficiency and Viability

In my last post in this series, I unpacked the leadership development and reproduction issues faced by church planters as reported by our “panel.” Todd Wilson, Director ofExponential, his team, and I looked at responses from some of the best-known church planting practitioners in America and the issues flow from their observations. We hoped to discover the top issues in the ministries of planters that work with these leaders.

We discovered that these experts believed that leadership issues were the greatest challenge faced by church planters. Now, let me say that this is not a scientific quantitative survey, but rather an informal qualitative survey, now combined with our (Todd, me, and the Exponential team) advice and input but flowing from their responses and in the contexts of their plants.

Now, I should not have to add this to every post, but since I am about to talk about funded church planting, there is always someone who comes by and says, “But you don’t have to do it with money, you could be a house church.” Yes, I get that. I’m for that. I write about that probably more than you have (unless you are Neil Cole or Felicity Dale), and I invite others to talk about that.

But, during small church week, I am asked if I’m anti-megachurch. During megachurch week at the blog, people complain that I don’t like missional-incarnational communities. Then, I talk about bi-vocational ministry and “clergification” and people ask if I am against paid ministry. You get the point. So, consider this “contemporary church plant week” and thank God for what He is doing in those kinds of churches. And, if you are in a different setting, listen in and learn about a different way to do things than you are. It will be good for you. 😉

In surveying these leaders, leadership development was the first issue, but finances were a close second in frequency.

In our conversations, the financial issue was a big concern for many planters. We found that money management in the church, and personally for church planters, are ongoing concerns. Internal giving (and the lack thereof) and external fund raising are other concerns. Often these issues are not confronted but avoided, which can lead to all sorts of personal and ecclesial disasters for the planter. And, put on top of all that, for most planters the administrative/financial part of ministry is what they enjoy least.

The financial strains of planting represent one of the most significant challenges for planters. Many planters come from a relatively safe and stable job (including pay) into an entrepreneurial, risk-taking endeavor with an uncertain future. Often planters are thrust into fund-raising for the first time in their lives with little or no training. Many plants take years to become financially self-sufficient, relying on other churches and donors. The journey to financial self-sufficiency often places a heavy burden on the church planting family.

In Viral ChurchesWarren Bird and I talked about the need for financial self-sufficiency. Self-sufficiency is almost always assumed as a goal (and rightly so, from a missiological perspective). For centuries, it has been a missiological axiom that churches should start and get to the point where they support themselves (and, among other things, reproduce themselves). But, as this chart shows, it can take awhile.

The chart shows the percentage of church plants that reported they were self-sufficient at each year mark (assuming they were still in existence, with about 2/3 of those started in year one still existing in year four). (You can see Viral Churches for all the research info.)

So, what are the big considerations? Here are a few based on the interviews and observations. There are several things to consider, but here are five ways to break this down.

  1. The BiVo Challenge – The financial realities of planting leads many planters to be bi-vocational. Let me say that I am a big proponent of bi-vocational ministry. But, that is generally not the goal of most church planters (though I think more should consider it, but that is not this project). Employment presents a unique set of challenges for planters and families. For many bi-vocational planters, fulfilling the work for their full-time position becomes the necessary priority– you need to be a faithful employee. Outreach, ministry, and service, however, are also important and are limited as a result. A fully-funded lead planter is generally assumed to be the goal and most would say that it is best for the church and the planter when possible. I would say it this way: if the plan is to have a full-time pastor, it is best to start with a full-time pastor, if you have a plan and resources to get to full-timestatus before running out of full-time funds. We have some good statistical evidence that there are some positive outcomes with full-time pastors starting churches using this approach.
  2. Tension Over Talking/Teaching About Giving – Tom Nebel and Gary Rohrmayertagged this one as “Church Planting Landmine #7” in their helpful book, Church Planting Landmines. Often with good intentions, they overreact to the perceptions of lost people. No doubt, money issues need to be handled differently in church. So with those concerns they avoid talking about money at all (which robs people of the giving experience). Conventional wisdom is that people new to church do not give much during the early years. But you have to wonder if one reason they are so slow is because church planters overreact on this issue.
  3. Limited Budget Experience – Most planters lack training and experience in budgeting. While many have been involved in preparing a budget for an individual ministry in a previous job (e.g. student ministry, worship ministry, etc), few have been responsible for an entire church budget including the process of turning vision into a financial plan. Some planters become paralyzed and have trouble moving forward while others blindly move forward without a budget. For bi-vocational planters, the budgeting process is often simply allocating salary to their part-time planting work since there are little to no additional funds to be budgeted.
  4. Flow of Funds Trap – Related to consideration #3, the lack of experience causes another issue. Planters who raise considerable funds for a large launch face a common trap– misunderstanding the difference between cash flow forecast (i.e., having the right funds at the right time) versus total cash commitments, which are not limited to a specific schedule. The result is that some planters over commit funds at specific times even though they’ve raised enough total funds.
  5. Personal Financial Impact – Like many who start new initiatives, planters often drain their savings and retirement accounts to pursue their dreams. Putting start-up costs on personal credit cards is also more common than you might believe (and a really bad idea). Not only does this cause incredible stress for the planter and family, but good strategy can be sabotaged. Planters know that the ultimate answer to the financial need is in the harvest. So, launch day is often hurried with an eye toward generating offering to offset personal investments and ministry needs.

“Conclusions and Observations” are coming in the last installment of this series. But for now, key questions about the handling of money, fund-raising, teaching, and offerings should be considered for planters and planting support personnel. Issue #3 for the next post will cover core team building and volunteers.

By Ed Stetzer


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