Church planter and consultant Paul Nixon responds to the frequently asked question about the cost of new church starts drawing from his own experience and that of numerous judicatories and new congregations.
Recent data in the United Methodist Church show a typical range of between $300,000 and $500,000 in denominational subsidy per new church plant, depending on the region and availability of funds. Roughly two-thirds of the projects survived the first five years. However, this measures only the denominational monetary contribution — typically in the first three years. The real cost of a church plant also includes donations by members and participants, sponsoring churches, and other friends of the church. And it sometimes includes a donated building!
A decade ago, I became a champion for low-budget planting methods for one reason: when you can get something planted and self-sustaining, as fast and cheaply as possible, then money will not block that church from replicating itself quickly. Today, I am torn. On one hand, conventional church planting is more expensive than ever in the United States — driven by soaring costs in theological education, pastoral health insurance, and building construction. But there is no way to do church as we have come to know it and expect it in the U.S. without paying a hefty bill for it. Experimental, low-budget, house-church, and fresh expression kinds of gatherings are great! But seldom do we see them take off and scale up, unless we morph them into a more expensive operational model.
If your judicatory encourages simple, creative, low-cost ventures in people gathering — excellent! Expect around 20 percent of those endeavors to show promise that they could become much more than just a simple experiment. And expect that there will be a hefty price tag for them to move to the next stage.
Add in the fact that church participation is crashing in this country, especially among populations that are younger, more affluent, or more educated. And the decline is not limited to those population sectors. Also, when 21st century folks decide to give church a try, they do not come into the experience with open pocketbooks. It takes years to develop the kind of financial commitments that earlier generations would bring almost to the starting line of their church participation.
Given all the above, I am recommending the following:
1. Mixture of conventional and experimental
A judicatory church-planting program today should include a mix of low-cost experimental projects (relying on borrowed space and donated labor) and more conventional projects (that come with full-time staff and a building). Obviously, we must be careful with the latter because of the price tag.
2. Be cautious of “parachute drops.”
The type of church plant (pastor starting out at full salary in a place where they have little prior experience or relationships) is rarely a good idea anymore. This is about the best way that a judicatory can quickly blow $500,000 and deeply disappoint 100 people when they decide (2-3 years in) to stop their funding.
3. More time to become self-sustaining
The expectation that a typical church plant can be self-sustaining in three years should be adjusted. This means denominations won’t be able to start as many new churches unless they tap into other funding streams. At the very least, judicatories should stretch the three-year funding plan to five years.
4. Bell curve funding
Rather than turning on the funding fire hose full blast in the first year, we should consider a low cost start that gathers a launch team in year one (and maybe into year two), while the planting pastor still has another day job. The resultant external funding pattern is no longer a straight line down from day one but more of a bell curve with a peak in the year that the church launches public worship and/or the year that the pastor goes full-time.
5. Multiple funding sources
New churches need multiple funding sources in the early years! The denominational grant could be matched by local money in most cases (the tithes and offering of the planting team themselves plus investment from a sponsoring church, funds from the sale of an old church property, and other local income, perhaps from shared-building use or income-generating kinds of ministry).
6. Matching funds for capital purposes
If a new church is showing promise and the judicatory has assets from sale of property, it is reasonable to give generously to the first building campaign for the new church, perhaps matching dollar for dollar what the members raise!
Twenty years ago, I was the planting pastor of a faith community in Florida. We launched with almost 600 people on Day One and averaged 300 per week in Year One. The church grew to more than 1,000 weekly worshipers in its first decade and has stayed strong across the years. This happened without a dime of denominational subsidy. From a denominational standpoint, this could be considered a low-cost plant. It was not. The first phase of our building and land cost $6.5 million in today’s dollars, and it was provided for us by the mother church, along with a staff of six persons. We could have delayed the building until Year Three and met in a nearby elementary school, but, ultimately, major capital funding would be required.
But think of it like this: the average church with 1,000 attendees today has a $2.5 million budget and may also see capital campaign income of another $1 million in any given year. $3,500 per attendee! That is the cost of doing church in the United States the way we do it. We don’t fault that church for an expensive operational model, because their members are paying for it themselves. In our (1999) case, there was a start-up cost of about 1.5 to 2 times what would be the annual operational cost for the church planted. In time, the church grew enough to assume full responsibility for its day-to-day costs.
You want to plant a church that will operate on a $500,000 budget? It means you better find $1 million to pump into that church over its first five to seven years, not counting the building! In addition, you had better choose a pastor with the appropriate start-up skills, who is ready to give a decade to the endeavor. No short cuts in the pastoral search! That is my short answer on the cost of planting a new church in the 2020s.
- Two Church Developers’ Experience with Funding New Church Starts by Phil
Schroeder and Dan Jackson
- Learning from the Mistakes of New Church Starts by Lovett H. Weems, Jr.
- Learning from Growing Churches in England by Lovett H. Weems, Jr.
- “The Possibilities of Fresh Expressions” featuring Ken Carter and Audrey Warren, a Leading Ideas Talks podcast episode
- To the Point: Fresh Expressions, a free resource from the Lewis Center