The median age of a church planter is 38, much younger than the average of pastors overall, which is 53. Almost all are married (96%) and most have children living at home (79%).
Before they began their current ministry, seven in 10 church planters had a non-ministry career (70%). This is most common among bivocational planters, who continue to hold jobs outside the church while planting. Most church planters do not come directly out of ministry training or theological education into church planting. They often have years of previous work experience outside the church environment.
Beyond their primary source of funding (bivocational, salaried, fundraising), church planters draw household income from a variety of sources. Over the past two years, approximately half have tapped into personal savings or investments (49%). Forty-one percent rely on a spouse’s supplemental income. One-quarter received support from someone outside the church (27%) and one in six from extended family (18%).
The type of secondary income varies by primary funding source. Bivocational and fundraising church planters, for example, tend to be more diversified; they report receiving support from a broader range of sources than salaried church planters. They also appear to have deeper and wider networks, and maintain a variety of relationships with both individuals and organizations that provide support to their ministry. This may be an important consideration when it comes to the health and spiritual wellbeing of church plants: While bivocational and fundraising planters may be more stretched financially, they may also enjoy a sense of encouragement from the support of personal and professional contacts.
Fundraising leaders (whose income is largely from raising support, “mother” churches and planting grants) have the greatest level of diversification, though most of their networks are personal—that is, their income originates from the church plant itself, individual supporters and other churches. A bivocational planter, on the other hand, may rely more on income from a job outside the church, a spouse’s income, support from individuals or a salary from a church planting network or denomination. A salaried startup leader is most likely to use their own personal savings or investments, a spouse’s income and income from the church plant.
A majority of planters feels fairly comfortable with how much they think they know about their near-term financial future: 81 percent are very or somewhat certain about their level of personal income for the next two years, and 84 percent are very or somewhat certain about their sources of income for the next two years. However, qualitative interviews revealed that being just “somewhat” certain can involve a great deal of emotional stress. And, as previously explored, regression analysis of funding end dates reveals they have a negative effect on church stability. So, while planters may put on a positive spin, there is vulnerability beneath the surface in terms of sustainability and financial well-being.
Church planters are about as likely as the national norm to rate themselves as surviving on the 5S question (8%)—but bivocational planters are twice as likely to say they need assistance to get by (15%). Salaried leaders are struggling more than the other planters (30%), indicating that they struggle to keep up with day-to-day expenses. Fundraisers are most likely to feel secure (30%). A large majority report being somewhat or very certain about their major income sources over the next two years (84%).
Most church planters report that at least some of their income has a specific end date (62%). The obvious selling point of a specific end date is that it allows for greater planning. Yet the vast majority of those who say their personal finances are below stable have an end date to major sources of financial support (84%). The opposite is true of those who say they can meet ends meet or better (stable or above): 71 percent of these do not have an imminent end date for their support.
Despite a relative sense of stability among a majority of church planters, most are not earning enough to cover the cost of living in the locations of their church plants (primarily urban and inner suburban areas), especially when they have children. One in five have an annual household income of less than $35,000 (21%); 39 percent make $35,000 to $50,000; and two in five earn more than $50,000 (40%).
Statistical analysis reveals that church attendance is strongly correlated with pastor income levels. These may be reinforcing factors: Church planters with a larger congregation size may earn more income because they take in more tithes and offerings, and those with a higher salary may be able to spend more time on outreach and growing their church and less time on resource management.
Not surprisingly, two-thirds of church planters with less than $35,000 in household income rate themselves at struggling or surviving on the 5S question (69%). Conversely, nearly half of those making more than $50,000 consider their financial situation secure or in surplus (47%).
For context, the poverty level for a family of four in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, was $24,250. A salary of $31,525 would,
therefore, qualify for food stamps in most cases.
One significant source of strain comes from church planters’ personal debt. Since half of church planters tap their personal savings and investments as a source of income, it is not surprising that many also carry a significant debt burden. In both cases they are making personal financial sacrifices for the good of the church plant. Half of church planters say their personal debt is a significant problem for them.
The most common types of personal debt are a mortgage (48%), followed by credit card debt (39%) and/or a car payment (36%). Three in 10 are paying off student loans (30%). Importantly, these debt levels vary by household income; those with higher income tend to carry a larger debt load. Their higher, more reliable income seems to give them confidence that they can service debt for a home (70% have a mortgage) or a car (49% have a car payment). Those in the lowest income bracket are much less likely, by comparison, to have a mortgage (32%) or a car payment (27%). Church planters earning less than $35,000 are more likely to carry credit card debt (43% vs. 28% of those in the middle-income bracket), indicating another financial resource they tap to make ends meet on a tight income. This is further evidence of the strain taken on in order invest in their ministry.
These financial burdens create additional stress for church planters: About half say their debt is a significant problem (47%) and 4 percent a huge problem for their overall financial situation. The remaining half says it is a minor inconvenience (25%) or not an issue (25%). Again, the burden varies by household income level, with those in the lower income brackets feeling more strain (68% say their debt is a significant or huge problem) while those earning more than $50,000 tend to consider their debt a minor inconvenience (34%) or not really an issue (37%).
The Impact of
Resource constraints take a toll on church planters beyond just financial burdens. One-third of church planters admit they have considered quitting ministry because of financial strain. This admission, perhaps not surprisingly, is most common among pastors in the lower income bracket (47%). Further, and more worrisome, is the fact that similar proportions of church planters report strains on their marriage as a result of the financial stresses associated with church planting. Again, those in the lower income bracket, and those who report their personal financial situation as surviving or struggling are most at risk. Personal debt is also highly correlated with marriage friction.
In most cases, church-planting spouses make personal sacrifices to make the ministry possible. Two in five are working to contribute to the family financially (41%); many have moved to a new location to plant the church; and most play a variety of support roles in the church plant. Some have sustained a loss of household income for the sake of planting a church and felt the impact of that loss on their lifestyle. These effects, coupled with the uncertainty and challenges of a limited household income, can easily lead to marital strain.
The Emotional Burden
of Low Income
Numerous studies and data reveal the impact of work stress and low pay on individuals and families. Here are some examples:
• Forty-two percent of Americans say household money management causes them a lot of stress. After household finances, the second most common sources of stress are personal health and work issues.3
• Young and lower-income Americans are most likely to put off medical treatment due to constrained income.4
• According to the Consumer Price Index, the average American earns $65,596 and spends $51,442.5 Three-quarters of church planters in this study fall below this average in their household income—not just personal income.
• When an increase in income propels adults from financial instability to financial stability, they experience a significant benefit to their general well-being—up to three times the benefit of an income increase alone.6
• Financial stress and marital trouble go hand-in-hand. Couples who report disagreeing about money at least once a week are 30 percent more likely to divorce than couples who disagree less often.7
• Adults ages 40 to 59 say financial security is their top barrier to happiness.8
A planter comments, “When I told my wife initially about my call to the ministry she wasn’t really excited about it because we were both in our early 40s at the time, and we were both employed with good jobs. . . . I recognized this call in my life was really kind of upsetting for my wife.”
Many church planters also struggle, like other church leaders, with balancing home and ministry demands. One church planter admits, “The biggest danger that can creep in is that I would not see my family as my first church that I need to pastor. So if I can’t care for my family how can I care for God’s flock, right?”
Anecdotally we know that many spouses are quite enthusiastic and supportive of the new church; for many, it is a ministry the couple embarks on together. However, even in a best-case scenario, the stressors of starting a new church bleed into a marriage.
Experience and Resources
Financial matters are a top priority for most church planters, yet their training, in many cases, has been inadequate. Two-thirds report that church finances are one of the top two or three things they are concerned about (65%), with an additional 8 percent saying it is their number-one concern.
Most church planters had some kind of finance or business administration training or experience before beginning their new ministry (66%). It is interesting to note, however, that 55 percent of those who report their personal financial situation as above stable had no training, and 83 percent of those below stable did receive some training in finance. This may indicate that instability in personal finances is not directly related to a lack of financial knowledge, but more likely to a straightforward constraint on resources, or that financial education sheds an unflattering light on church planters’ financial situations.
Those who are bivocational (54%) or who raise funds for their plant (57%) are less likely to have received education or professional training in this area than their salaried peers (72%). Bivocational leaders have a more diverse range of backgrounds, while salaried leaders are most likely to have professional experience specifically in finance.
Despite how common it is for planters to have gained relevant experience or training, there seems to be much room for improvement in administrative and financial skills. Very few describe their training in any aspect of ministry-related finances as excellent. They are least confident in their training related to church legal compliance, personal fundraising and church fundraising, but feel somewhat more equipped in church administration and personal and church financial management.
Six in 10 planters say they feel somewhat well equipped to handle the day-to-day financial management of their church; 29% feel very well equipped. A small proportion feel not at all or not very equipped when it comes to church financial management.
While on the surface this data suggests a relatively strong level of confidence, qualitative interviews reveal insecurities. One minister laments, “I have a Bachelor’s, two Master’s and my Doctorate, and I got [no financial training] at all. No training in seminary. No training in college. No training in my Doctoral program about how to run church finances, how to create a budget.”
Another remarks, “We’re preparing seminary-trained ministers to be awful stewards of God’s money. . . . The church leader directly impacts the finances of the church. If the leader is not good with money, then the church won’t be good with money.”
Church planters appear to have a thin support network in this area. Nearly half strongly or somewhat agree that they “often feel isolated and alone when it comes to finances” (45%). According to one church planter, one of the most significant obstacles to accomplishing his vision is having enough people to share the work: “We need more hands. Sometimes I feel like we’re in this huge battle. I look around and though there’s prayer support and there are churches behind us, I just feel like there are very few people standing in the trenches.”
Most church planters are entrepreneurial problem solvers. But these findings add up to a daunting reality for even the most resourceful of ministry laborers.
The emotional implications are most concerning. Half of church planters with debt say their burden is a significant or even “huge” problem. One-third have considered quitting their ministry because of finances, and 35 percent say financial problems cause friction in their marriage. The latter should be reason for serious reflection. Ministry and marriage are hard enough without the added stress of insufficient support from the Church.
Barna and Thrivent see in this data a call to action to denominations and planting networks to provide greater financial support to church startup leaders—especially those in urban neighborhoods. If we want planters to engage a new community with the gospel, we should free them up financially and administratively to do so. It is not sustainable for the spiritual leaders of new faith communities to live at or below the poverty line or to take on personal debt to cover everyday living expenses. If we believe in the work they are doing, we must commit more financial resources to their success.