Making Church Sustainable

I have a half-baked thought that I need to throw out here for discussion. I’m not sure if that will help or impede progress, but I tend to only post ideas when they are fully formed . . . and where’s the fun in that. I want other people to do the thinking for me. :)

The stage is set with a weekday breakfast and the book of Jeremiah. I was reading through Jeremiah and I kept noticing a conflict between Jeremiah and the prophets of the king. The king’s prophets continually proclaimed victory and prosperity for Israel, while Jeremiah listened to the Lord and predicted destruction.

In a flash it occurred to me: well of course the king’s prophets said things were going to fine, they were on his payroll. Add echoing voice-over “they were on his payroll,” “they were on his payroll,” “they were on . . .”

My mind immediately turned to pastors and the pressures they face.

Now I am currently immersed in the non-profit world and I know what the directors of art centers and social service organizations face with the services they provide. People look to them for art exhibitions, events, food, entertainment, and even cheap heating oil. That brings a lot of pressure.

Yet, the stakes are immensely higher for pastors who are expected to provide for people’s spiritual needs. I will spare everyone a lecture, tirade, or rant about the failure of the church in consumer culture. Let’s just acknowledge for now that the church often places unrealistic expectations on elders, pastors, etc.

Pastors essentially have to care for the people in their congregations and somehow help them grow spiritually. Unfortunately they are dependent on the goodwill and generosity of these same people. Am I the only one who sees how this can become abusive and manipulative?

I am not saying that it’s wrong or impossible for Christian ministers to be supported by freewill donations. I’m not even saying that a minister cannot be supported by the same people receiving the ministry.

What I am saying is that money can be used to exert influence and manipulate. In some cases it may be enough to have open conversations and dialogue among the pastors and their congregations about this danger. In other cases alternative funding options may need to be explored.

And here is where we arrive at my half-baked idea.

Is it possible and even desirable to make the church self-sustaining? I’m thinking of monastaries who can pay the bills by training dogs or operate electricity via hydro-electric power (really, there’s one near Mt. Equinox here that uses the mountain streams for this).

So take the most highly regarded if not overused ministry idea: a coffee shop. Everyone who wants to minister for the Gospel at one point or another will want to have a coffee shop. Churches start them as little side ventures and some people become nervous. They wonder if the church is becoming too commercial.

Now hear me out. What if the coffee shop was the church? That’s right, you open a huge coffee shop/community center, hire some staff for it, and let it pay a chunk of your bills as a sustainable business.

Now you have done several things: you can pay your bills with minimal donations, your congregation’s $ can be used for something other than your own facility, you’ve created a space for your community to gather, and your pastor(s) would theoretically be less dependent on the donations of church members. This certainly does not change the expectations placed on pastors or even solve manipulation issues outright, but perhaps it creates a healthier environment.

You can insert whatever sustainable business model you want. This is certainly not for everyone and I’m sure it has some woeful shortfalls, but I wonder if it’s worth exploring further. I know that Karen Ward does something like this and so does Todd Hiestand at The Well.

Any one care to jump in on this?

3 thoughts on “Making Church Sustainable

  1. makeesha

    I agree that money in the world of "ministry" has potential danger. We really prefer not to be paid through the ministry and so we’re "bivocational" which is how we plan to keep it.

    I love the idea and think it’s a very viable plan…IF, the church has business minded people willing to volunteer their skills OR knows business people willing to volunteer their skills.

    I personally would love to open a tea house complete with a play area for kids and an art gallery and I think it would work well in our community…but the initial financing and the fact that I have ZERO business sense would keep me from every persuing something like that.

    I wonder if perhaps it would need to be done in a "network" sort of way – either denominationally or with a group of local church bodies – which I think would be AWESOME but realistically, anytime US churches try to get together to do something we end up infighting all the time.

    Good thoughts :)

  2. Bryan Riley

    It is a good idea so long as giving continues. What i really like is that the giving could then be used for true ministry instead of staff salaries and building expenses. Much could be given to missions in the community as well as cross-culturally. Wow. The more I think about it the more I like it.

  3. makeesha

    I’m going to blog about this today if I get the chance. My husband and I have been talking about the ramifications of "paid staff" and this idea of sustainable church.

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