Three necessary shifts in our thinking on funding & resourcing

Most churches are after resources. Whether they are seeking money or people, they tend to want more resources to achieve more of their ministry goals (whatever they happen to be). You would be hard pressed to find the pastor who is glad to achieve absolutely nothing with his decades-long ministry and so it shouldn’t surprise us that everybody is after the resources they need in order to make these things happen.

Just to be clear, there is nothing wrong with wanting such resources either. Money and people are the petrol and engine of ministry. Without money, it is very hard to go anywhere and without people no amount of money will get you moving by itself. Of course, if you have enough people who are able to support your ministry internally, you have the equivalent of a self-charging electric engine (just to stretch the analogy to breaking point). In many ways, that is what most churches want. They want enough people who can given financially to sustain the work of ministry as well as enough people to then use those resources in the work of ministry to maximise the church’s gospel output.

In deprived communities like Oldham, however, both those resources are extremely hard to come by. Planting in a deprived community – as we are seeking to do in Rochdale – it is difficult to convince people to move to an area that most people spend their lives looking to leave. The council estate in Birkenhead I went to church in as a lad was not the kind of place to which you aspired, it was the sort of place people looked to leave as soon as they were able. Convincing people who have been taught that life’s aim is to make money, get better houses and hold down a successful job to move to such places is extremely difficult.

But even if you do have people – and you frequently see people saved in your deprived community – they are rarely the sort of folks who have any money to support the work. At Oldham Bethel Church, for example, we have seen good numbers of asylum seekers coming to faith. But as much as those guys are keen to give and support the work, we could see hundreds of them soundly converted and still not be self-sufficient. Aside from the fact that such ministry often has a high turnover – typically out of the control of either the church or the people moving on – becoming financially self-sufficient in a community where nobody has any money is extremely difficult. It isn’t because we aren’t, or can’t, grow. It is because any growth we may see is almost always amongst those with the least ability to financially support the work of ministry.

Churches in deprived communities then, more than many others, are utterly reliant upon outside supporters and funding bodies. Unfortunately, many take the view that churches should grow and, within three to five years, become self-sustaining. They are often glad to make a one-off grant to get you going, but don’t recognise the need to sustain ministry. Those that do offer repeat grants tend to do so on a reduced grade, offering 90% in year 1, 60% in year two and 30% in year three with no further right to apply thereafter. Whilst I can understand the desire to stop perfectly able and self-sufficient churches from applying in perpetuity, the unintended consequence is that we may well stop fruitful smaller churches in deprived communities from being able to continue to function because our model of growth does not fully understand the context in which they are working.

The fact is, most churches in deprived communities are in this sort of boat. That is just the nature of the beast. The problem then arises that all those same churches are seeking after the same sources of funding too. Many of the funding bodies and those who want to support ministry in deprived communities (and I believe them when they insist they do) find several things then happen. Either demands outstrips the resources available and a grant to one church in a deprived community is, in a sense, to the detriment of a church in another deprived place. Or, grants may be made to some churches in deprived communities, but having done so, feel they have supported such ministry and, once again, others who were applied later simply miss out.

What is needed is a slight shift in our thinking on these things.

First, it would help us to have a kingdom mindset. Rather than viewing these things as a zero-sum game – any grant made to you is necessarily a loss to me and vice versa – we should view all of it as kingdom increase. Giving financially to a fruitful work in another place is a kingdom investment. It is not a ‘loss’ to you as giver, but it is a gain for the kingdom. Likewise, churches receiving the money are not ‘gaining’ as the receiver, but the kingdom is gaining. It is allowing their work of ministry to continue and souls – in a place that would otherwise be bereft of Bible-teaching churches – to be saved and discipled.

Second, we need a new category for churches in deprived communities. We cannot expect the old models of growth and expectations of financial self-sufficiency to hold. Churches in deprived communities may grow and have strategies to reach their communities effectively, but they are also conscious that those they are reaching are least equipped to financially maintain the work of ministry. We need a shift in our thinking away from short-term start up funding that ratchets down to long-term ministry funding that aims to financially support a church that is simply unlikely to ever become self-sufficient in the way others might be expected to do.

Third, we need to recognise that there is a greater need for staff the smaller your church is, not the bigger. It might seem counter-intuitive, but larger churches should need less staff. That is because much of the work of ministry should be carried out by the members of the church. If you have a large membership or 80, 100, 150 or more, you have the all the workers you need to do the work of ministry. If most of your people are also in reasonable jobs, you are likely to be able to sustain any appointments you may choose to make internally at any rate.

Smaller churches, by contrast, cannot draw upon their large memberships. A small church plant with 8 people – trying to reach a community that has a strong matriarchal culture – doesn’t have the people available to do the essential work of ministry. Someone needs to be freed up to spend time with the women in their community so they can reach their area. A male pastor on his own is simply not able to break into that in any sort of appropriate way. In a Muslim area, like Glodwick, it is often women who are home and hold the keys to establishing yourself with a family. And Muslim families tend to beget introductions to Muslim families. But a male pastor, on his own, simply cannot break into that because it is culturally inappropriate. If you are a small church, you need people who can do this work. There isn’t a large membership to draw upon to do it between them and there isn’t the money within the congregation to support just the pastor, let alone further appointments to reach the people he is in no position to reach. We need a shift in our thinking that recognises it is smaller churches, not larger churches, who are really in need of second (even third and fourth) workers.