How Churches Can Re-think Money and Giving
4 questions with Mike Bonem, author and executive pastor

I recently posed four questions about organizational theory, leadership—and how those influence church giving—to Mike Bonem, executive pastor at West University Baptist Church in Houston and co-author of Leading from the Second Chair. Here is what he shared with me:

1) What connection exists between organizational theory and funding as it relates to churches?

In the for-profit world, money is the measuring stick of success. Increasing the bottom line by growing revenue is the driving factor behind business decisions, and they have developed sophisticated approaches for doing so, such as new products launches, market segmentation, customer retention initiatives, brand loyalty programs, and more. Businesses are also willing to look at strategic, long-term investments for the future, spending money today on something that might not pay off for two or more years.

For the church, financial resources are not the end but a means. The mistake that some churches make is to take a very simplistic approach to money as if it's a dirty word. For example, we talk about discipleship strategies to move someone from a not-yet-believer to a fully devoted follower of Christ. We assume that their financial giving will grow as they mature, but perhaps we should have more explicit strategies in this regard. Or perhaps we should consider using cash reserves for an "investment" that is likely to bring in new members, people whose giving will "pay back" this investment in future years.

I am not suggesting that a congregation's decisions should be run through the same financial filter as a business. There will be many decisions with no expectation of financial return, such as a low-income medical clinic or a ministry to college students. I am, however, suggesting that we could grow the resource base that is available for ministry if we learned from the corporate world.

2) Would you support a move away from traditional funding methods for churches in exchange for the practice of for-profit enterprises operating for social good (e.g. Tom's Shoes)? What impact would a shift like that have on church culture?

I believe that traditional funding methods should, and will continue to be, central to the financial structure of churches. By traditional funding methods, I am referring to giving by members from their income (and assets) to support the church budget, and the periodic special appeals/campaigns (e.g., missions, building program). There is enormous potential for growth in giving if members get serious about what the Bible teaches on stewardship and generosity. In our materialistic society, this is a vital part of discipleship, and churches should not be fearful about teaching these principles.

At the same time, churches should be creative in the ways they think about potential sources of funds. Many in our society have wealth and "want to do something good." They might be reluctant to give to a church (especially if they're not a member of the church), but they might give generously to a cause. Our churches should be creative and flexible enough to think about how they might tap into this trend. For example, I know of one church that has opened a coffee shop and each month gives the profits to a different cause (such as child immunization, clean water). By promoting this, they are able to tap into a different pool of resources than their membership base.

3) Is it appropriate to treat church members like shareholders and offer them a ministry plan to "invest" in? What are the strengths and unintended consequences of this strategy?

I think it's dangerous to treat church members like shareholders. Shareholders have a singular focus—investing their money wherever they believe they will get the biggest return. If they're not happy with a particular investment, they don't hesitate to move their money elsewhere.

Church members should have a much higher level of connection and commitment than a corporate shareholder, but churches can still learn something from this business concept. They should realize that loyalty (to a denomination or a specific church) is a thing of the past. If congregations expect giving to flow out of loyalty or a sense of obligation, they'll almost certainly have a dwindling stream of resources. They need to offer a compelling, God-ordained vision for the future of the church, and call for members to "invest" in it. Members want to feel that their contributions are earning a return for the Kingdom.

What about the member who wants to contribute to a particular ministry? For me, this is a difficult question that is handled on a case-by-case basis. A couple of questions that I ask in making this decision: Is the ministry in question part of our vision? If not, will our efforts become fragmented if we accept the contribution? Is the donor making a positive or a negative statement? Positive as in "this ministry is a priority and needs more support." Negative as in "I don't agree with the overall budget/direction but I do want to support this ministry." Will accepting this contribution encourage others to direct their giving? And if so, how might the church budget be affected? If too many make gifts to missions, children's and youth ministry, and so on, will there be enough money to pay the maintenance and utility costs?

4) In your opinion, what is the most undervalued leadership or organizational management principle by church leaders today? If this principle were executed well, what change would it have on church funding?

Within churches, we have been talking for years about the importance of vision, but I still see a lack of bold, focused vision as being one of the biggest challenges for congregations today. Many congregations have vision statements but their decisions and resource allocations don't reflect this vision. Or the visions have a nice "motherhood and apple pie" feel that gives little focus for the church.

A second leadership principle that is missing in churches is nimbleness or agility. The best businesses make bold decisions about their priorities, but they have also learned to make adjustments quickly if external conditions change or if they find that a particular initiative isn't working. Churches take a long time to set their direction and even longer to change it.

The impact on funding from both of these principles is obvious. People want to be part of an organization that is "successful" and that is going somewhere. When they sense a bold vision and a willingness to make appropriate changes in their churches, their financial support will follow. But when they sense organizational inertia moving toward mediocrity, they may find other organizations to support.

This article first appeared on Reprinted with permission.

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