In their quest for donations during tough economic times, many churches are turning to business consultants who specialize in helping religious institutions. For example, Eagle Brook Church in St. Paul, Minn. used Dallas company RSI Stewardship, which aided the church in raising almost $25 million to help build new campuses. RSI's president, Joel Mikell said, “A capital campaign is a spiritual thing before it is a financial journey.”
There are about 3,000 consultants who deal with churches and the number is growing. Costing up to $2,000 per day, they advise churches on strategic visions, hiring new pastors, maximizing donations and more, and they even help settle internal conflicts.
Atlanta-based Generis is one such firm. Its co-owner, Jim Sheppard, said that people are happy to give to a church when they “see good returns, an effectiveness of ministry.” Generis helped Houston's First Baptist Church collect some $71 million in pledges with the use of Twitter, Facebook, sermons and emails.
But not all are happy with consultants. William Wilson, president of the Center for Congregational Health Inc. in N. Carolina, says, “My fear is that there are people who are seizing the opportunity when churches are especially vulnerable to make a financial windfall off of congregational troubles.”
Q: What's your take on churches hiring business consultants?
Oh, I don't think it's a problem if a church hires a consultant. We haven't done so yet, nor do I think such a thing is in the offing. But if a church does, and if the church feels the hiring was worthwhile, I see no problem. Some churches hire section leaders to sing in their choirs, and those singers aren't usually church members. Some churches hire Sunday School teachers, and I'm not against that, either. Do you know what I think? Whatever works.
Back in the 18th century, John Wesley realized that most of his parishioners couldn't come to church, so he rode on horseback to where they were. Wesley is a hero and he became famous for the line, “The world is my parish.” He is also the founder of what became known as the Methodist Church. Is there a problem? Then look for ways to solve the problem. Is it really so evil to pay somebody to solve the problem? I don't think so.
The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada Flintridge
Time and again, business consultants help churches make sound logistical and financial decisions in their areas of specialty. These practical pieces of advice enable and enhance the proclamation of the good news about salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. “Buy truth, and do not sell it,” says Proverbs 23:23, “get wisdom and instruction and understanding.” We should treat good advice like a “buy and hold” stock investment. And even if it costs money, the Bible says it’s worth it.
Certainly there are consultants who are in it just for the money, whose motives are corrupt and whose methods are questionable or even illegal. And there are those whose advice is unbiblical or simply wrong. As we all must, churches must filter the advice they receive. Proverbs 1:5 says “A man of understanding will acquire wise counsel,” with the emphasis on “wise.” Reverent respect for the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
Colossians 2:3 says that “in [Christ himself] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” So good advice for our churches, and even for our personal lives, is readily available from Jesus Christ and from those who carefully follow him. At the heart of the issue, those who truly seek practical wisdom will find Jesus Christ.
Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church
Churches are not unlike any small, ma-and-pa business that begins modestly, and with good fortune and clientele, evolves into something requiring more oversight. The home baker who gradually morphs into a national cookie chain is much like a home Bible study that develops into a church and then becomes a national denomination. Try running an expanded business like you did at first and it just won’t thrive.
I recall in graduate school and seminary, studying about the Bible, about preaching, about Bible languages and the ancient Mideast. I studied philosophy of religion, logic and apologetics, but never anything on running organizations that kept ledger books, paid bills and ran business meetings. The minute I landed a pastorate, all those were dumped on my plate.
I quickly learned that a church is a business; a spiritual business, but definitely a business. And I’m not being crass; only that once a facility is involved (the visible expression of a church) there are myriad secular considerations. We pay for power, water, phones, etc. We have periodic business meetings to maintain our organizational status, and we deal with employment issues, insurance, copyrights, technical equipment, office supplies, missionary support, ad infinitum.
If my congregation was at the level of one of these mega-churches with multi-million-dollar budgets, you’d better believe we’d be looking for professional help, whether they were spiritually attuned or not — though I’d always prefer a Christian company if available, as I believe Scripture directs in Galatians 6:10.
I despise money-ministries that make everything they preach about people contributing to their organizations, but real ministries do run on the faith of their flocks, and flocks determine finances. Churches should be wise and trustworthy, doing the utmost with their congregations’ heartfelt sacrifices. “Be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church
When I was young and living with my parents, I thought we were unique in not talking about our money. I had very little knowledge of our family income or budget, and it was taboo to talk about personal financial issues in the outside world. But as I grew up, I discovered that our attitudes were pretty common. And since becoming a minister, I have become aware that the same sort of reticence is common in most of the churches I have observed. It seems as though talking about money is not considered “religious” or “spiritual.” But we must have money to pay for the establishment and maintenance of our gathering places and to do the good work we say we want to do in our congregations and the larger world. “Ay, there’s the rub,” as the Bard recognized.
So what do we do? We can try to develop programs to make our members more comfortable with the topic of money. In fact, our denomination is now piloting a program called “The Wi$dom Path” to help people become more comfortable with talking about money and raising more funds for our churches. And in the congregation I served before coming to La Crescenta, we hired a denominational financial consultant to help us with a capital campaign for our own building. With his help, we raised more than we had expected and were able to complete our project.
My concern with hiring business consultants for congregational projects is that the focus could move from one of furthering our congregational mission and vision to a desire for money to support an “edifice complex.” I believe we must develop more confidence in dealing with money for the purpose of fulfilling a greater good in our hearts and the world, not for giving ourselves more ego-satisfaction. If we are able to support that larger objective, our money will be well spent.
The Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
A church serves many functions, all at the same time. It is a family, a community, a house of worship and prayer, a teaching institution, a healing and counseling center, a charitable missions organization, a business with deadlines, goals and payrolls. Every pastor is called to assume multiple roles: spiritual adviser, counselor, mentor, teacher, team leader, staff supervisor, financial adviser, visionary, marketing specialist, etc. We quickly learn that there is no way one human being can fulfill all these demands.
Over the years, I have used a number of business consultants and those experiences have been positive and beneficial. We currently have ongoing guidance from two marketplace chief executives who sit on the board of directors of our international apostolic network, Harvest International Ministries. Their corporate expertise has been invaluable as we have grown and expanded over the last decade.
We have had consultants assist us in reconfiguring our staff responsibilities and lines of authority. Several years ago, on the recommendation of a consultant, we hired a chief operating officer to coordinate activities of our administrative staff. We were very fortunate to acquire a business executive whose organizational and people skills have been invaluable.
We've also used a variety of technical consultants who have assisted us in everything from networking our in-house computers to designing our websites, bringing us up to speed with Facebook and Twitter, and establishing live, online streaming of our Sunday services.
For me, the key to our successful use of business consultants is that we always keep our spiritual DNA in the forefront of everything we do. We know that God has a particular calling for our community expressed in our vision, mission statement and core values. All of our consulting activities are structured to further this calling and evaluated for their effectiveness in doing so.
Pastor Ché Ahn
Sure, corporate-size churches should hire corporate consultants to help with their capital campaigns. There’s no sin in being responsible and professional. But remember that Lenny Bruce quip: If Jesus returned to Earth today and walked into pretty much any gilded cathedral, he’d look around and say, “What the heck did you do with the money?” (Yes, I cleaned that up for religion-column publication.)
The question isn’t which methods churches should use to raise money for their vastly expensive building projects, but whether that money would be better spent on the church’s mission of serving the poor and improving the lot of the oppressed.
And even if your conscience says the project is right, I’d still offer a word of caution. We all know of churches that built their huge buildings at exactly the wrong time, just before the cultural tide turned, and their attendance was decimated. They were left with massive debt and large, empty echo chambers in which to cry about it. Sure, you’re on top of the world now, mega-churches; but we liberals used to be there too, and take it from us, stuff changes.
And in any case, there’s a lot of wisdom in the emergent churches’ intentional renting of space and refusal to saddle themselves with buildings, suspecting that to do so would enslave them to money in a way they don’t want to be enslaved.
My advice: Go slow. Consultants working on a percentage basis of cash raised aren’t going to advise you whether your project is advisable to begin with. Sit for a long time with the question of whether your congregation wouldn’t be more alive, more faithful, more vitalized, worshiping in the rented school gym and working at the soup kitchen, serving the people Jesus said to serve.
The Rev. Amy Pringle
St. George’s Episcopal Church
La Cañada Flintridge
I think that an organization proves worthy of its mission by doing everything possible to succeed at carrying out that mission, and I respect the abilities of skilled professionals.
In fact, for our question, I too sought out consultants — Christian friends and family, and they get full credit for these wise spiritual and practical concerns.
Is the money raised to be used for furthering the Kingdom? If garnered from investments, are these instruments socially and morally responsible? If from fundraising, is it conducted ethically and prayerfully, without manipulation or coercion? Does the consultant charge reasonable professional fees and deliver good value?
In Theory alumna Pastor Paige Eaves eloquently explained to me why businesses like RSI and Generis exist: “Telling a compelling narrative — even to your own people living that narrative — is an art form. Sometimes you need a more experienced artist.”
I would like to make an additional comment because I now see the entire world through the lens of the movie “Inequality for All.” A church hiring a business consultant seems to be sustaining a good middle-class job with the money staying in the U.S., which benefits our economy overall. So I say go for it. And go see “Inequality for All.”
Christianity has always had a “business sense.” Among the Jesus’ followers, Judas had the responsibility of the Disciples’ finances (John 13:29).
As the established church grew, it was always closely associated with business, and big business at that. Churches were the center of the town square. For instance, around the magnificent St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague, the Hapsburg rulers built their royal palace, castle and fortress. The church was the center of all activity, sacred and otherwise. In a time when there was only one form of Christianity, the church was firmly ensconced within the business of the society.
In the land of the free and the home of the brave, as the church becomes more and more of a distant and unsophisticated relative to science and the state, churches have to rely on more than just voluntary gifts to do their still-vital ministry. The poor and disenfranchised still have to be ministered to, Scout groups still need a place to gather, and AA groups are always looking for space for their meetings. A business consultant can help a struggling church with its life-affirming message learn how to market its greatest strengths.
Church leaders are usually well-meaning but not always media-savvy. People don’t just attend a church because it is nearby. People seem to be drawn to a church because of the work that they perceive the church is doing. What kinds of people are welcome or not welcome? What is the difference between contributing $20 a year to the life of a church and making a personally sacrificial pledge to the future of God’s realm? In fact, in a time where money is so dear, and there are so many secular charities also asking for money, why would anyone want to do such a thing?
In our increasingly technological postmodern age, ethical, sensitive consultants that can help a church more effectively communicate its message are definitely a positive commodity. Consultants are not cheap, but they may help the church reach the community, and they can help the church reassess its own methodology.
The Rev. Dr. William Thomas Jr.
Little White Chapel
There is no surprise in the fact that churches, like so many individuals and families, are experiencing financial pressure in our uncertain economy.
In a way, the question about business consultants doesn't apply to the LDS church because of its structure. On a local level, bishops, unpaid lay clergymen who shepherd local congregations, collect tithes and other offerings and send the funds to the church's headquarters in Salt Lake City. From there, the money is distributed worldwide according to need.
Tithing is the largest source of revenue for the church. We do have business investments as well, which are supervised by day-to-day by employees who have training and experience in finance and management. They, in turn, work under the close direction of the church's priesthood leaders, including the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve.
Professionals who work for the church are chosen carefully to ensure that their goals are in harmony with the spiritual mission of the church. This dedication is reinforced by the fact that many make the personal sacrifice of working at below-market salaries.
Likewise, this issue of dedication and purpose, I think, would be the key concern for any minister who contemplates the use of outside professional help. The decision to do so should be made carefully and prayerfully. Money donated for the Lord's purposes is sacred, so fundraising and the use of church funds should be a spiritual matter.
I would be especially concerned about hiring consultants to craft the strategic direction of a church or resolve internal conflicts, as some apparently do. Such matters also are spiritual and, I would think, are best left to clergy who sincerely seek to know the Lord's will.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Everyone would consider it prudent for a religious organization to hire a CPA to handle its taxes, or a plumber to take care of its plumbing needs. And if a rabbi, priest or minister were to roll up his sleeves and begin to do the wiring in a house of worship, the congregation would rightfully demand that he call a licensed electrician. In the same vein, I feel that it’s sensible to hire the right consultants when the moment arrives for a capital campaign or other fundraising effort.
Tough economic times or not, the reality is that most clergy members and their support staff are better suited for matters of spirituality than fundraising campaigns. Hiring an outside company to assist in this difficult but essential task not only makes sense, but is often a necessity. Fundraising has become an increasingly specialized and sophisticated field, and professional input can certainly boost the chances of success.
At the same time, we should remember that raising funds requires a personal touch and cannot become a heartless endeavor. I would counsel religious organizations that hire business consultants to beware of the pitfalls of becoming too impersonal and too corporate. It would behoove the leaders of a church, synagogue, or other house of worship to remain closely involved in the consultant’s efforts and not let someone outside the organization simply grab the reins and take off on their own.
Ultimately, generating charitable contributions is all about heart. Donors like to contribute to organizations that have a discernible heartbeat and are administered by people who care. Putting forth a professional face that lacks all humanity can lead to decreased engagement and diminishing support.
Rabbi Simcha Backman
Chabad Jewish Center