I recently was speaking to a church that wanted to talk about sustainability over the next 3-5 years. They had already recognized the need for the congregation to reinvent itself for 21st Century ministry and they were taking steps to figure out what that could look like. Exciting stuff! At the same time, they also knew they needed to find a way to give that work time to bear fruit. So, in the interim, what could that do?
We discussed the usual ideas which typically focus on cutting expenses by either cutting staff or moving to a less than full time clergy person. For years these have been the primary tools we’ve applied to this type of problem. After that discussion however we turned to discussing the other increasingly popular option, leveraging the assets of the congregation to fund its mission and ministry.
Very coincidently, the next day I read the new book Funding Ministry with Five Loaves and Two Fishes by Rev. Rosario Picardo. Let me just say I wish I had read it before the meeting!
This book is timely, useful, and a quick read. All things I appreciate given the number of church books I consume these days. In it, Rev. Picardo shares his experiences which line up very well with my own. The truth is that many congregations are sitting on piles of resources often in the form of buildings, relationships, and plain old stuff. Everything that can be leveraged for doing ministry in a variety of ways.
In his book Rev. Picardo tells the story of discovering two sets to silver handbells in his church that had not been touched in the better part of 10 years. He later discovered that the handbell sets had a value in the thousands of dollars. At the time his struggling new church start had recently taken over the building and was very underfunded. So, the hand bells when out the back door through a craigslist ad and the finance team received a check for $8000.
Nobody, in the years since, has asked about the handbells.
Free Store Story.
In my own experience, a church I served as pastor created a Free Store ministry. It is, as it sounds, a store where everything is free. Over time it grew to consume most of the second floor of the education building in space that had been used mostly for storage. The ministry gave life to the congregation in many ways, but important to this post is how it paid for itself. While the stuff we gave away was almost all donated, the extra traffic in the building came with expenses for heat, electricity, and custodial time. Not to mention the value of the couple thousand square feet of space the store took up.
With the help of the trustees and finance team we roughed out an estimate of what the stores costs were for a year. That became our fundraising target. In its first full year ministry we figured the Free Store gave away over $80,000 of stuff to over 300 families. Our fundraising goal was only a small fraction of that amount and it was astonishingly easy to raise. For two years in a row a single grant application to a large church with a mission focused endowment would pay the full bill. One year the Free Store received a random check for $2500 from another church. When I called the pastor about it the response was, “We thought you could use it.”
To be clear, there was a monthly amount the Free Store was expected to pay into the church general fund to cover its expenses. Anything over that the Free Store team could use for other parts of the ministry. We were very upfront in our fundraising that the money was going to cover utilities and the such. Nobody ever complained about it since the labor and merchandise were all donated.
It is actually easy to understand why this works. Which of the following to pitches would be easier to make:
“I’m part of a Free Store ministry that gave away $80,000 worth of clothing and household items to over 300 families in need last year. Would you mind donating $100 to help us out?”
“My church is full of great people but we are struggling financially right now. Would you mind donating $100 to help us out?”
Yet, from a bottom line perspective both have the same effect. The church was already paying to heat the space even when it was just storage. By leveraging our assets differently we both created a new opportunity to bless the community around the church AND took space that was costing the congregation money and made it into to space making the congregation money.
It’s Possible! But Not Easy.
There are of course challenges with doing this type of thing well, but they are not as bad as many think. The biggest is often just being able to think creatively about the assets you already have. Seeing Sunday school rooms as a Free Store took some imagination!
If this is something you are interested in, starting with this book is a great way to begin a conversation. If it had been available, I would have given everyone on my finance team a copy of this book as a way to explain what I was after when we created the Free Store.
We need to be unafraid to leverage all that we have been given to do the work of God in our communities. While we seldom ask individuals to sell all they own for the sake of the mission of the church, like the first community of Jesus followers did, surely we can ask our congregations to leverage all they have.