CHURCH PLANTING & the Barna Computes the Cost (Financial & Emotional) of Starting a Church

Commentary by Dr. Whitesel: As a former church planter, I concur with Barna and believe we must find a better method to plant churches. This involves medium to large churches getting more involved. I have urged such churches to embrace a multiplication strategy that includes multiple sites and multiple venues, some of which can become planted churches. Denominations are too cash-strapped today to give the level of funding needed. And, often large churches spend money on tactics that have less missional impact than church planting. Read this article and begin to rethink the way we do church planting.

The last two decades have seen an explosion of church planting and multiplication ministries and networks. Most church startups are planted by leaders in urban core or inner suburban neighborhoods—and this trend, among others, has financial implications for church planters and their families. But what other factors shape their financial reality?

In a study of 769 planters from across the nation, Barna assessed the general financial condition of church startups 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. The findings from the full study release today in a new Barna report produced in partnership with Thrivent Financial, Church Startups and Money: The Myths and Realities of Church Planters and Finances.

Here are a few of the standout findings.

Church Planters Feel Financially Insecure
As part of the survey, Barna asked what Thrivent calls the “5S question,” which has been asked by more than 85,000 people over the past four years. It is a reliable indicator of a person’s perception of their financial situation—their emotions surrounding money, regardless of their actual financial situation…

As the graphic shows, church planters’ assessment of their personal financial situation is less stable overall than the general U.S. population. About one-third say they are struggling or surviving (32%), compared to only one in five among all U.S. adults (20%). And they are much less likely to think of their situation as secure (23% vs. 41% of all adults) or in surplus (4% vs. 12%).

The Impact of Strained Finances
Church planters don’t just feel insecure—many are financially insecure. For the most part, planters’ assessments line up with their strained financial reality. If anything, startup leaders’ perceptions are more positive than one might expect, given that three out of five live on a household income lower than the national average. Thirty-nine percent bring in between $35,000 and $50,000 per year, while one in five reports an annual household income of less than $35,000 (21%). In most states, an income of $31,525 or less qualifies a family for food stamps.

Yet resource constraints take a toll on church planters beyond just financial burdens. One-third of startup leaders admit they have considered quitting ministry because of because of financial strain (33%). 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 leaders report strains on their marriage as a result of the financial stresses associated with church planting (35%). Again, those in the lower income bracket—and those who assess their personal financial situation as surviving or struggling on the 5S question—are most at risk.

Location Impacts Planters’ Finances
Barna identified several factors that shape the financial reality of today’s church planters, which are explored at length in the new report published today. For instance, church location makes a major impact on startup leaders’ finances. There currently seems to be a concentration of startup efforts in large (16%) and medium (26%) cities and in inner suburbs (28%) that ring major metropolitan areas. Seven out of 10 new churches are in cities or dense inner suburbs.

Ministering in cities presents unique financial challenges for many reasons. Urban centers and their surrounding communities are often diverse, but may be segregated by race, education level, economics, age and cultural differences. Thus, urban planters are more likely to have diverse congregations with varying levels of income and needs, as well as higher operational and facility expenses, than their suburban or rural counterparts. Plus, residents of urban centers, no matter their level of income, live in environments with a higher cost of living. This puts extra strain on a church planter’s personal finances.

This is reflected in planters’ 5S assessments. Church planters in cities and inner suburbs feel the most financial strain, likely due at least in part to income that insufficiently covers the cost of living in those areas. Also note than planters in outer suburbs, small towns and rural areas more often consider their financial situation above stable.

What the Research Means …

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