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Being better at church business

Business plan for ministry

Glenn Wagner offers ideas from scripture and from experience about how to help churches with the business details of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Michigan Conference Communications

It did not take me long to learn that there are many things in ministry that seminary did not teach me, but I still needed to know to function competently as a congregational leader. 

My academic training was solid in theology, preaching, counseling, pastoral care, the sacraments, leading worship, social justice, church history, and doctrine. I learned New Testament Greek, church polity, and the United Methodist Book of Discipline. I had absorbed the life and teachings of John Wesley and knew about our Jewish roots and other world religions. 

Business was a major blank spot in my pastoral training. I had a clear sense of calling to serve God, a willingness to go wherever the bishop would appoint me in ministry, and a deep desire to be a positive witness for Jesus. So it came as a surprise that leading a congregation also requires expertise in personnel, long-range planning, public relations, crisis management, stewardship, fundraising, budgets and bookkeeping, accounts payable and receivable, investments, endowments, and debt management.

I am grateful for the important lessons in the Bible that still shape my personal response to business issues in the church.

Jesus’ parables praise the wise steward (Luke 12:35-48) and the poor but generous widow (Mark 12:41-44). Scripture warns us against indifference to the needs of the poor (Luke 16:19-31), and against the usurious practices of the money changers who turned the temple into a den of thieves (Luke 19:46). Jesus urges us to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s (Matthew 22:15-22).  The Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians 4:1-2, praises responsible stewardship. “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.”

Church is serious business
~ graphic courtesy Glenn Wagner

I am also grateful to many helpful parishioners, more experienced colleagues in ministry, exceptional seminar leaders, and experts in the field of business and finance for helping me to fill significant gaps in my learning about the business side of the church.

Here are 14 helpful ideas from my four decades of church leadership regarding the ministry of church administration. I know that many of our churches are facing extreme stress from the pandemic, changing demographics, and cultural divides. I pray that some of these ideas will prove helpful in your setting.

  1. Prioritize prayer and making disciples. Since the church’s primary business is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, prayer is essential for growing our personal relationship with God and helping to keep life and ministry in proper focus. I can recommend prayer groups, prayer walks in the neighborhood, internet prayer chains, and time spent alone and with others praying for ministry needs. If you desire God’s business to flourish, regularly seeking God’s wisdom and support for plans in prayer is an excellent place to begin. I also value the advice of a retired pastor who introduced me to our denomination’s Disciple Bible Study curriculum and convinced me to make continuous use of this high commitment study as a priority for my ministry. I soon learned that though the commitment required discouraged many from participating, those who made an effort grew in faith and effectiveness as leaders in ministry and witness.
  2. Know your context. Each ministry setting I served was unique, prompting me to believe that there is no such thing as a one size fits all business plan for ministry. Instead, it makes ministry sense to figure out with your congregation how to best be in ministry for Christ to meet the particular and oft-changing local circumstances you face with the spiritual gifts, personal, material, community, and financial resources available. Consult missioninsite and or websites like Zipskinny.com or others linked here to learn more about your specific context for ministry.
  3. Pay attention to current events. A wise mentor once shared the following insight. He had me participate in a simulation game that showed how events happening in the world could have a far greater impact on the life and ministry of the church than anything happening inside the church. Neighborhood demographics can change. A major local employer can go out of business, and suddenly hundreds, including parishioners, are put out of work and adversely affected financially. This local financial stress can affect church finances as well. Similarly, a new developer may come to town, open a new factory, and suddenly new prosperity spills into the church too. One respected clergy colleague was struggling to understand a steep fall in attendance at his church. He learned from census data that his local church attendance decline coincided with a steady surge in the local immigrant population, which meant that half of his community’s local population no longer spoke English as their primary language. With that new knowledge, his church added bilingual staff, started cross-cultural programming, classes to teach English as a second language, and began to reach new lives through their ministry.
  4. Your example matters. It is crucial for church leaders to set a positive example for the church in their own stewardship. Churches largely depend on the faithful giving of many. One can’t expect others to practice faithful stewardship if you, as a congregational leader, are not managing your own personal finances well. Dave Ramsey’s “Financial Peace University” has proven to be helpful to my family and many in the congregations we have served in Michigan for practical training in basic personal financial management skills.
  5. Know your costs. A family friend shared this valuable piece of business advice when I asked about the key to his success in running his restaurant, “Know your costs.” He continued, “I know my costs. I know exactly what it costs to put a free glass of water on the table for my customers and how much time it should take for my staff to provide quality service for a table of four patrons.” Paying attention to even the smallest details of running his restaurant helped my friend offer great food and service for a reasonable price and enabled him to stay in business for many years until his retirement. The late church consultant, author, and pastor Lyle Schaller introduced me to the concept of “per-person costs for ministry.” The per-person cost is your total annual church budget divided by the number of church members. Schaller noted that given the yearly expenses of personnel, building, program, mission, utilities, insurance, etc., it takes an average worship attendance of 150 persons each week to support a full-time pastor, parsonage, building, program, and missions. Megachurches can offer more options for spiritual growth and mission at a lower per-person cost because they are spreading those expenses over a larger group of people just as big-box stores lower costs with increased volume.  I asked Schaller, “What happens if your church has fewer than 150 in average worship attendance?” He indicated that a smaller membership church might be OK with the help of incredibly generous donors to make up the shortfall. Schaller suggested the church might need to find other ways to live on a lot less, such as utilizing a part-time or retired pastor. One of my congregations had far fewer than 150 persons in average worship attendance. Key strategies for church growth in that circumstance included growing trusting relationships, starting new small groups, and being in ministry in ways that met identified needs.
  6. Save money on utilities. Significant savings in utility expense can be realized with steps including an energy audit, adding insulation, and investing in LED lighting. For example, one church I served saved a considerable sum by replacing a rarely used commercial 200-gallon water heater located a great distance from hot water taps in restrooms and kitchen with smaller on-demand heaters closer to the sinks that used the water. Another congregation realized savings by utilizing volunteers and the skills of a licensed electrician to make church lighting more energy efficient and to add an extra layer of insulation beneath the new church roof shingles. A visit to the website of Michigan Interfaith Power & Light is worth the trip.
  7. Budget for the unexpected. Reserve from 3% to 10% of your annual budget for emergencies and depreciation. A wise business executive shared with me that buildings depreciate, things wear out, and emergencies happen. He said when they do happen to have a cash reserve that carries over into succeeding budgets, if it isn’t spent will help your congregation manage the unexpected and keep an emergency from becoming an insurmountable crisis.
  8. Insurance. Maintain full replacement cost insurance and adequate liability coverage on your church and ministry. Maintain this insurance coverage for the same reason you keep a church emergency fund because things happen. Over the course of my ministry I was grateful we had insurance when a church member fell and broke her hip on the ice in the church parking lot, and when a toilet bowl in a third-floor restroom burst on a Friday night and the ensuing flooding wasn’t discovered until mid-morning on Saturday.  Storm damage to the church roof, a fire causing significant damage, and a pastoral fall during a continuing education event resulting in a broken leg and surgeries were also reminders of the importance of insurance. I have known other churches that have had to weather lawsuits for clergy misconduct and issues relating to financial embezzlement of resources. Believe that insurance is important for the business of Christian ministry.
  9. Love Jesus. In a crisis, maintain your focus on the mission and ministry of the church and not the anxiety of the emergency. Keep sharing positive testimony about the ways your church is changing lives for Jesus Christ. People are reluctant to support a church that is perpetually sounding financial alarms.
  10. Personnel matters. The right people serving in church leadership can make all the difference. When recruiting and training persons for leadership positions select those who can use their identified skills and gifts in the church. Managing church finances can be helped by persons with demonstrated expertise from life for this work. Similarly, it helps if you have members of the church Board of Trustees who have demonstrated abilities to care for and maintain buildings. My first ministry mentor shared the necessity that everyone tasked with making financial and personnel decisions for the church already be a committed disciple of Christ with a personal commitment to support the church. It has been useful to me and nominating committees to ask new and existing members to take a short online spiritual gifts assessment offered by our denomination. That information is kept in the church database so that volunteers are invited to serve in ministry in areas of their perceived giftedness. Encourage and offer opportunities for church leaders to receive additional training for their tasks. Volunteers are regularly more enthusiastic and committed when they feel more equipped to do their work well.  When the church needs to make difficult decisions on complex matters, it is worthwhile to seek the advice of persons with proven expertise in the area of concern.
  11. Parking is important. Contiguous, accessible, adequate parking is necessary for the ministry of the church and can be an impediment to growth if the parking is inadequate. Experts have shared the formula of 1.65 persons per space x 80% of the total number of available parking spaces when calculating average lot capacity. In many of the churches, I have consulted this formula and it is consistent with the average worship attendance at the main service of worship. Adding additional parking when there is more seating capacity inside the church than outside in the lot can be a sound financial investment.
  12. Online ministry is worth the investment. Does your church have an attractive website? Facebook page? Is worship live-streamed and shared in a recorded form online? Do you allow for different forms of electronic giving? Do you have a developed app for your church so that followers can access your church information from their cell phones? If you want to reach new people today it is worth the effort to consider internet presence as the new front door to your ministry. United Methodist Communications has excellent resources in all of these areas.
  13. Have a PR Plan. Public relations is important. The head of public relations for a Fortune 500 company was honest when he addressed a room full of local leaders of non-profits eager to learn. He shared his conviction that 95% of the people who live nearby don’t even know you exist and most don’t care. He urged us to consider it a significant part of our jobs to use every means at our disposal to let the world around us know who we are and why they should care. He went on to talk about the value of strategic advertising and the use of things such as press releases, newsletters, radio, TV, and the internet to continually let others know what we are about and how they can get involved. Maintaining and using a media contacts list is an important tool for helping to get the word out to others about your church and ministry.
  14. Endowments. If you don’t have a church endowment fund, contact David Bell, director of the United Methodist Foundation of Michigan for help in establishing one. These funds, if properly managed, can help a local church seed new ministry initiatives. In one church I served, a local attorney offered a free, one evening, wills and estate-planning seminar for members and friends at the church. We added a line to our monthly newsletter that read, “Have you considered giving to the church endowment in your will?” In twelve months, the church received $400,000 in estate gifts to its endowment that provided important seed money for a new mission and ministry outreach. In another church, a family set up a $30,000 endowed scholarship fund more than 30 years ago for church youth attending college, and over the years that fund has been able to help 100 youth from that congregation.

Prayer: God, help us with all the details of loving you and serving as disciples of Jesus. Govern our church business so we are faithful witnesses for your amazing grace in all that we do for you. Amen.

Last Updated on January 30, 2024

The Michigan Conference