The future is all around us if we look for it. The future of the Church is not coming—it is here.
Are there worrisome trends at work in the U.S. Christian community? Yes. David Kinnaman and the team at Barna continue to help us unpack these trends and understand our times.
Are there worrying trends among church planters, too? Yes. I wish the report you’re about to read could say everything is coming up roses for church planters when it comes to finances. Alas, it does not.
In delivering this challenging news, this Barna study is not especially novel or unique. Many individuals and organizations before ours have done crucial work to illustrate the challenges that face church startup leaders.
This report adds to that important body of work by bringing into focus the money troubles—and opportunities—that are particular to early stage church startups. Indeed, it was a group of church planters who asked our organizations, Barna and Thrivent, to undertake this research. They wanted to know if their own experiences were representative of a broader trend.
As it turns out, yes: Most church planters feel acute financial tensions in the early stages of planting a new church.
If it were read in isolation, this report might freak some people out. Yet even though these trends may seem threatening, and the financial tensions appear quite real, it only takes a few minutes hanging out with a group of church planters to know the future of the planting movement is bright— money problems notwithstanding. No report can do justice to their tenacity, courage and conviction. When I’m with church planters, worry fades to the background, upstaged by an awe that comes over my soul. Because the hundreds of planters I’ve connected with are truly awesome, in the most literal sense of the word.
I am awed, as well, by the graciousness of the organizations that helped to develop and refine this report. Denominations, sending churches, planting networks, seminaries and more could have shied away from the implications of the Barna findings. But they did not. Indeed, they aided us at every turn. For this we are deeply grateful.
And of course this report would not be a reality without the engagement of hundreds of church planters who shared their experiences with Barna researchers. We are honored and humbled beyond words.
Our organization’s purpose is to serve our members and society by guiding both to be wise with money and to live generously. We anticipate this report will bring some measure of wisdom to the church planting space. Yet our prayer is that it will also inspire generosity that will bolster and bless the work of America’s church planters. May God add to their number day by day.
Best and many blessings,
Christopher J. Kopka
President, Thrivent Church Solutions Group
Our teams at Barna Group and Thrivent Financial celebrate church planters’ entrepreneurial spirit, their obedience to the Great Commission and their commitment to the hard work of building a new faith community from the ground up.
At the same time, we see how the administrative and financial challenges of church startups can take its toll on its most committed laborers. How many ministry leaders dread talking to potential supporters about their financial needs? How much time to do they spend trying to line up the resources they need for basic operations, all while longing to get on with their “real” work?
According to a 2007 study by the Center for Missional Research of 12 denominations and church planting networks, one-third of church plants do not survive past four years (32%). Among those that do survive, financial self-sufficiency and a proactive stewardship development plan are among the top four factors with the greatest impact on their success. Having a solid financial foundation increases the odds of survivability by 178 percent. 1
Barna and Thrivent undertook this new research project to promote healthy conversations about money and ministry. We wanted to uncover insights that would be genuinely useful to both church planters and those who support them, reliable data about planters’ financial burdens and the impact of operating with limited resources. In releasing this data, our hope is that these findings, though often painting a stark picture, will not be received as doom and gloom, but instead will liberate church planters to have open and honest conversations about their financial reality—and that those conversations will lead to innovative ideas that advance the church planting movement into a season of unparalleled health and growth.
This study examines the general financial condition of church plants and their leaders; how different funding models hamper or facilitate various facets of ministry and family life; and what resources leaders need to effectively manage their personal and church finances. We believe this research can equip planters with evidence of their needs to use in conversations with supporters, and inform church planting organizations, denominations and ministry networks about the type of preparation planters need to be effective resource managers.
The analyses, insights and recommendations included in this report were independently generated by Barna researchers based on data gathered in a study commissioned by Thrivent Financial. Both organizations desire to assist church planters increase their overall well being so they can fulfill their calling. We hope this report will be a helpful tool for these leaders in their vital ministry.
This study includes qualitative and quantitative research among church planters. Direct quotes come from individual webcam interviews Barna researchers conducted with 20 church planters across the U.S.
Data and findings are based on an online survey of 769 church planters who identify themselves as either leaders (84%) or co-leaders (16%) of a ministry that they consider to be in “startup” or “planting” mode. At least 71 percent of participants were planting with the support of a denomination or planting organization. To reach church planters, Barna partnered with church planting networks such as Exponential, Converge and Ignite, as well as denominational networks, to send invitations to leaders via their normal communication channels, which consists of emails and e-newsletters. Also invited to participate were members of Barna’s Pastor Panel.
Eight out of 10 survey participants come from non-mainline denominations and the remaining from mainline denominations. More than seven out of 10 have been at their church startup for fewer than five years. Churches range in size from very small (fewer than 10) to larger: 42 percent have 51 or more people in attendance.
Note that the research does not include data from “failed” church plants and thus may actually underrepresent the impact of finances on the success of fledgling ministries. Three-quarters of planters believe “how much money a new church can raise is extremely important to whether it will survive” (74%). Anecdotal evidence supports this belief. It is reasonable to infer, then, that some failed plants discontinue due to insufficient funding.
The research shows the heavy financial burdens on today’s church planters. For example:
• Three-quarters of church planters say finances are one of the top two or three things they are concerned about (73%).
• The typical church planter spends 21 percent of his or her time on finances.
• More than one-third says their church startup’s income is inad- equate (37%) and half report it is “just sufficient” (51%). Only 12 percent say the church’s income is “more than sufficient.”
• One-third says they have considered quitting their ministry because of finances.
• One-third reports considerable friction in their marriage due to finances.
• A majority believes finances will play a major role in the survival of their ministry (74%).
In statistical models, Barna found that church stability—defined by church attendance and the percent of the budget comprised of tithes and offerings—is correlated with higher pastor salary, less personal debt, a location with a population that is less dense and sustained funding sources (i.e., those without an end date). New churches in rural and suburban areas tend to be more stable, and those where the pastor is more amply compensated are more likely to become self-sustaining than those in urban areas or where the pastor subsidizes the ministry with his or her own money.
But these indicators of stability are not as common as they should be if we hope to see more new churches become self-sustaining communities of faith.
One in five church planters (21%) report an annual household income of less than $35,000. This would qualify a family of four for food stamps in most states. Thirty-nine percent are in the $35,000–50,000 bracket and 41 percent bring in more than $50,000 annually.
When asked to choose a description of their finances, 8 percent of church planters say they are surviving—that is, they require financial assistance to get by. Twenty-four percent say they are struggling to keep up with day-to-day expenses, twice the norm of 12 percent among all U.S. adults.
Among church planters with less than $35,000 in household income, 69 percent say either that they are struggling or surviving. Conversely, among those earning $50,000 or more, half consider their financial situation as sufficient to cover their needs and leave at least some money left over (47%).
A final area of concern is that church planters carry a significant amount of personal debt, including 39 percent with credit card debt. Half say their debt is a significant problem (47%), and 4 percent consider their debt a “huge” problem. This is higher among those with income less than $35,000: 68 percent say their debt is significant or huge.
This research highlights four implications of church planters’ financial situation. First, money equals time. This is true for anyone but is especially salient for church planters because they tend to have a scarcity of both resources. Scarcity of money leads to scarcity of time—because more time must be invested in fundraising or administrative tasks.
Second, time equals ministry. A lack of time reduces a church planter’s ability to nurture relationships, prepare messages and teaching, develop innovative ministry practices and maintain a healthy margin in their personal lives. One church planter describes complex financial and administrative duties taking “time from what I can be doing in the community, to be building relationships, to be developing the core team, seeking out worship leaders and youth leaders.”
Third, money equals stress. The greater the financial burden on a church planter, the greater his or her emotional burden. The data show a correlation between financial stress and marital and emotional stress. One church planter describes the challenge of “learning how to handle the emotional stress of being a church planter, without taking that home and allowing it to affect my relationship with my wife or my kids.”
Fourth, ministry finances affect personal finances. While legally and technically the finances of the ministry and of the church planter are separate, in practice the distinctions are, at best, often theoretical for many planters. This does not mean we discovered ethical violations. Rather, money flows from the ministry to the church planter via salary, allowances and reimbursements, and from the planter to the ministry via personal tithes, offerings and operational subsidies. The health of one impacts the other. One church planter wishes she were in a financial position to contribute more to the ministry: “Financially, if I were still in corporate America, money wouldn’t be an issue for the ministry in terms of getting it off the ground. But because I’m not, I’ve had to [trust] God that ‘Lord, you have to open these doors,’ because financially I don’t have the money to pour into the ministry the way I would have if I was still working [in the corporate sector].”
It is not the opinion of the researchers that church planters should avoid all forms of financial risk. Still, it is important for these leaders to count the cost, to become wise stewards of resources and to learn how to be effective managers for the sake of ministry and of their families and marriages.
The facts revealed by this research are the clearest evidence yet than money problems frequently constrain the health of church startups, negatively influence pastors and their families and make it less likely they can lead a new church to be self-sustaining. Acknowledging the four implications above may help church planters and those who support them make real-world decisions that improve a church startup’s chances of survival and lighten the planter’s financial and emotional burden.
With all this in mind, let’s dig into the data.