Episode 50: “Finding New Resources to Support Your Church’s Ministry” featuring Sidney Williams

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 50: "Finding New Resources to Support Your Church's Ministry" featuring Sidney Williams

Is a lack of resources limiting the potential of your ministry? In this episode we speak with Sidney Williams of Crossing Capital about how congregations can develop new sources of capital in the marketplace, engage community partners, and develop unrecognized sources of social, intellectual, and human capital within the pews.

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Is a lack of resources limiting the potential of your ministry? In this episode we speak with Sidney Williams of Crossing Capital about how congregations can develop new sources of capital in the marketplace, engage community partners, and develop unrecognized sources of social, intellectual, and human capital within the pews.

Ann Michel. Hi. I’m Ann Michel. I’m the Associate Director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary and I’m editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. And I’m pleased to be host for this episode of Leading Ideas Talks. I’m talking today with Rev. Dr. Sidney Williams, Jr. who is President and CEO of Crossing Capital Group which works with churches to improve their sustainability. He’s the author of the book Fishing Differently: Ministry Formation in the Marketplace. He’s a graduate of Wesley Seminary, ordained in the AME church, and comes to his current ministry with a background in venture capital. So welcome Sidney.

Sidney Williams. Thank you so much for that wonderful introduction and I’m glad to be in conversation with you today.

Ann Michel. I wondered if you could begin by saying just a few words about the work that you do so that our listeners will know where you’re coming from on this?

Sidney Williams. Sure. So, as you mentioned, I’m a graduate of Wesley Seminary. And when I was a student there, Dr. Weems was very inspirational. I walked away from Wesley with my MDIV wondering what the next faithful step would be as a pastor, as a seminary graduate. But one of the perplexing questions that was gnawing at me was how to we make sense of empowering congregations and communities when congregations are under resourced and the members of those congregations are either unemployed or underemployed, and yet wanting to do the work of God in their community, in their church. And so, I saw there was a gap of a will to work but essentially limited resources to take care of their own families and to do the work assigned to them in their churches. So, this work Fishing Differently comes out of that question of trying to understand how congregations can begin to fish differently — not only have sustainability for their church but more importantly how to do the kingdom building work in the community.

Ann Michel. So, you mentioned the challenge of churches being under resourced. I imagine you work with a range of different kinds of congregations. So, what kinds of challenges and trends you are seeing with regard to congregations and their need to resource their ministry?

Sidney Williams. One of the things that when I was a student of Wesley that I was made aware of in congregations is a gap of ideas. Often times the lay persons within congregations come not always with financial resources but with a wealth of ideas to empower the congregation to do the work of ministry. But sometimes there is an unwillingness or an unprepared to listen to the stories of these persons in these congregations. And so, as Dr. Weems always talks about the next faithful step, I think sometimes pastors are a bit anxious about what that next step is. And rather than listening to the stories and assessing the wealth of ideas within congregations, we tend to rush into projects and programs without sufficient resources and without the engagement of the congregations. And so, it exacerbates an already under resourced congregation. And then it frustrates the pastor. And then there is turnover. And so, I saw there was frustration both from the congregation and the pastor in wanting to do the work and trying to execute the work.

Ann Michel. I read a lot in the area of stewardship and finance, and some of the most provocative writers on the subject of church finance today – yourself included I would say — are saying that we are rapidly approach the day when churches can no longer rely on tithes and offerings – or what you call Faith Capital — to support their ministry. And I guess I wanted to ask the question; how true do you think that is across the board? Because I know there’s a category perhaps of struggling congregations that are really needing to think differently. But looking across the board at congregations more generally, do you think we are coming to a tipping point when tithes and offerings are no longer going to be sufficient to support the ministry of all churches?

Sidney Williams. That’s a great question. And if I could, I’d reframe it. I think the premise that congregations should be exclusively or predominantly supported by tithes and offerings only favors wealthy congregations. I think that there is substantial life and viability in lower-wealth congregations as well. When we contemplate when to close congregations, we often look at their ability to sustain themselves through tithes and offerings and then make the decision whether or not that congregation is viable. But I challenge that thinking. Because often times that congregation has a wealth of ideas and sometimes physical assets — the actual property that church owns is an untapped resource. And so yes, by all means, if the church has individuals who have sufficient disposable income to support the church, by all means, tithes and offerings are sufficient. But in most cases, in some of the most desperate place, where we have churches and congregations, income may not be the resource, but it may be physical asserts and definitely intellectual assets abound within the church and the community.

Ann Michel: In your book, you talk about four different sources of capital available to churches. So, can you quickly name those for the benefit our listeners?

Sidney Williams. Nearly all churches rely on the giving by faith of members and visitors. We call that Faith Capital. But then I think the most underutilized, the most unappreciated is the Intellectual Capital that is sitting in the pews of congregations. I recalled in the years I worked on Wall Street I would go to churches. I would join churches. No one ever really asked me what I did or invited me to share my ideas or my creativity and ways in which I could help that congregation. The only message I heard was, “Give ten percent and come to Bible study and go to Sunday school and we’ll see you next Sunday.” But I think there are many people who enter the doors of churches throughout this country and throughout the world and we have to find a better way to tap into the intellectual capital or what Deuteronomy refers to as the “deutomis power” to create wealth. Secondly, Robert Putnam and others talk about Social Capital. Many churches are kind of enclaves or refuges unto themselves, not realizing there’s a wealth of resources in the greater community. And we challenge church leaders to tap into that wealth of resources in the greater community. And we challenge churches to tap into that wealth of resources. They may not share your doctrine. They may not even be Christian. But they may share your heart or your mission for that community. So, we encourage people to build bridges with people outside of their congregation to see what things they can do together, whether it’s feeding the homeless, taking care of the needs of seniors, or meeting educational achievement gaps, there are a host of people that are willing to volunteer, to invest in mission, but not necessarily become members.

Ann Michel. So, this would be engaging community partners to support the missional initiatives of a congregation?

Sidney Williams. Exactly. And then finally, it’s the “H” which stands for Human Capital. We tell people when they join our churches that our church exists to improve the lives of people who worship with us and who are in community with us, but how do we measure that? How do we know we are actually getting the work done? So, I think our challenge to church is, how do you measure human capital? How are people getting better employment opportunities as a result of your ministry? How are people learning how to deal with conflict resolution? How are people just faring better as a result of our ministry and the work we are doing in community?

Ann Michel. I’m still thinking about what you said about the adequacy of tithes and offerings in congregations. We see congregations across the spectrum here in our work at the Lewis Center. And I think what we know from our own work and what we know from research is that just because a congregation isn’t full of struggling people – in fact a congregation may be full of quite affluent people – but that doesn’t mean that they are good givers! There are plenty of congregations even that serve in affluent areas that are concerned about the adequacy of their Faith Capital just because people are far less spiritually prepared and inclined to give in the way that their predecessors in the faith did. And so, I don’t think this is a challenge just for under-resourced, struggling congregations. I think it’s a question for every congregation.

Sidney Williams. And thank you for that. I think it is worth teaching the importance of stewardship. When we do our training with churches, we start with the question, “What does it mean to you to give to God?” And I’m always surprised at the responses we get. Because for some people, we assume giving to the God means giving to the church. For many, giving to God is about charity, not obligation, certainly not about tithes. And so, there really is a diverse understanding of what it means to give to God. And so, I think it’s important to have missional conversations around what pleases God in the way of ministry and mission and not presume that because people are members of the church that they are going to automatically give to the church. I think people need clarity about how their giving has a direct impact on mission and ministry. And then we talk about how that compares to charitable giving for nonprofit organizations. Most successful nonprofits are pretty clear about mission and impact and how every dollar they receive goes toward that. I think churches could do a better job of communicating to its members its mission, its ministry, and its impact, and how giving connects with that.

Ann Michel. Yeah, I couldn’t agree with you more, both on the point that congregations need to be far more intentional about teaching the normative expectations of the faith with regard to giving. I think in congregations across the board we take for granted that people understand why they give to the church and need to do a better job. But I think your point about telling the story about what giving does is a critical piece as well. So, I think what I hear you saying is that we aren’t going to abandon tithes and offerings. We’re going to continue to invite people to give in accordance with the standards of the faith. But we are just also going to be thinking more creatively and holistically about other ways of resourcing ministry.

Sidney Williams. Correct. Yes. You nailed it.

Ann Michel. I’m really intrigued with the subtitle of your book “Ministry Formation in the Market Place.’ What do you mean by that?

Sidney Williams. Sure. So, often times we think about, we formulate ministries within church councils or church meetings. But we really don’t give thought to what’s already happening in the marketplace. For example, some years ago we started a — well, I’ll give the context, and we mention this in the book — our church flooded in 2011 and we had no flood insurance. And we needed to think through how we would get out church renovated in a way that would allow us to continue doing ministry, but more than that, how we could achieve our goals to have an impact on the community. As we researched the needs of the marketplace, or of the larger community, we realized the homeless, those who were asset-limited or income-limited needed a place to have dinner on a regular basis. Because so many people in our community, although they work fulltime, food insecurity is a significant problem in our community. And so rather than simply saying “let’s see who could donate food so we can provide a meal once a month or once a week,” we put a plan together that said “if we could raise $1.5 million from the marketplace, we would provide dinners Monday through Friday, 52 weeks out of the year.” And within about six to eight months, we were able to achieve our fundraising goal of $1.5 million dollars. We completed the renovations within two years. And for the last seven years, we have now operated our community soup kitchen we call Table of Hope 52 weeks a year, five days a week. We’ve never missed a day. And that’s because we engaged – we continue to engage the marketplace in this ministry. So, it’s not limited to the resource of the congregation. It’s not limited to the resources of members who give food, but rather we engage the larger community. And so, it’s been a great ministry. Very impactful. But that ministry was formed within the context of the marketplace, not within the meeting hall of the church. 

Ann Michel. I’m so glad you shared that example because what I think what it points to is that these types of strategies, while successful in attracting the revenue your church needed, it was also a way to expand your ministry footprint, create new partnerships, be more present in your community, meet needs. And so, it really wasn’t just a financial strategy. It was something more than that, right?

Sidney Williams. And that’s why we say it’s ministry formation. It’s not just how do we have another fundraiser. But how do we think about ministry in a broader context.

Ann Michel. Do you have some other examples from congregations that you’ve work with? How they’ve learned to fish differently? And what kind of results you’ve seen.?

Sidney Williams. I would argue that our best hope in many cases is to get congregations to want to begin to fish differently. This process is not something that happens overnight. It’s a five- to seven-year process in many cases because people are generally resistant to fish differently. They want to do things differently. But to actually do it is a real challenge. And so we thus far have spent most of our energy getting churches to realize that they have to do something differently and then giving them a pathway to do it. We are now in the process at Crossing Capital of putting together a capacity building grant so that we can go beyond a one or two-day training session, to a multi-year training session. And so, hopefully with our partners we can fund a multi-year capacity-building effort for churches and congregations to really begin to learn to fish differently.

Ann Michel. Well, I’m not surprised that it’s a long process to get a congregation to begin to think outside the box, if you will, about this. But what are some of the different attitudes and competencies that a congregation needs to develop if it is going to learn to swim in this bigger ocean, if you will?

Sidney Williams. The late Bill Andrews talks about the “refuge paradigm” or what I think Lovett Weems calls “social clubs” where churches tend to be more inwardly focused. So, I think one of the first hurdles is for congregations to become outwardly focused, which can be a disruptive and discomforting for some. And then I think among leaders, it requires a level of emotional intelligence because churches not only are inwardly focused often times, but they also tend to want people to conform to a certain ethos or pathos in how they think about the faith. And I think we have to be more accepting and embracing of different truths, different ways of thinking. And so, we need to engage multiple generations, and really begin to open up the windows, if you will, for diverse thinking and creativity. And this is the real work because churches are still splitting and dividing because we don’t want to accept difference. We don’t want to accept different worldviews within the life of the congregation. And yet I think that is so fundamental to the work of fishing differently.

Ann Michel. It seems to me like one of the first things congregations need to do it they are going to walk down this road is enlarge their imagination. I think congregations are so used to a certain way of doing things and a certain way of thinking about things, a certain way of thinking about how they are going to operate and engage. This is really an invitation to think very differently about how the church is going to exist in relation to the world. And so, it seems like it’s a mindset shift where they almost have to be introduced to some of the possibilities in order to develop the creative imagination to think differently about how they could be. I’m thinking there’s kind of a vision casting piece in this.

Sidney Williams: Yeah. And we begin the journey with storytelling. It’s a timeless tradition, but it’s also probably the least practiced in our society today. There was a time when we would gather at the dinner table and share stories of the day. I remember growing up just spending time with my grandparents listening to their stories of their childhood and their family journey, and then sharing that with my children. I think we’ve lost some of that in our churches today. And so, we begin that journey with the power of storytelling. And I love it when those who have been in the church 30, 40, 50 years share the story of how they got to where they are today. And in those stories we find what Walter Brueggemann calls a “prophetic imagination.” We rediscover wellsprings of hope – that if God has done this for this congregation before, God can do it again. And I think sometimes even our Seniors forget those stories. And so, inviting them to share those stories, of maybe how they move from one location to another, of how they found the resources to build the current edifice. Those stories empower future generations to do likewise. And it begins to build bridges. And then we do something else and we encourage pastors to do this, to celebrate the faithful members who have been on this journey. Because sometimes those seniors don’t feel celebrated. They feel pushed aside. Their stories are forgotten. Those things they might have done 50 years ago to help the church over troubled waters, those stories have been forgotten. And so, we invite them into reflection, so that as they begin to reflect, they can now have that prophetic imagination of what could be.

Ann Michel. So, the seeds of this new imagination, this new vision, are deeply rooted in the collective memories of the church. I so much appreciate you sharing that, because I wasn’t necessarily thinking of that as a first step in this direction. But what other steps are typical as a congregation begins to think about this? Is there an assessment stage where you take stock of what’s present in the congregation and the community?

Sidney Williams: Yeah. We have a leadership assessment we have developed to really get a sense of the orientation. There are some leaders who are very autocratic, top down and it would take an act of God to change them. They are probably not suitable candidates for fishing differently. There are some congregations who are in the midst of a very toxic battle and are just trying to reconcile past hurts. They may be great candidates for fishing differently, but the problems may be too acute, or too near to begin the healing process. So, we do assess kind of where the congregation is. Where the leaders are. Are they ready to begin the journey? We named our company Crossing Capital based on the experience of the Hebrews when they left Egypt. You’ll remember that shortly after they left Egypt, they desired to go back to Egypt. And so, they weren’t ready to cross over because they were still traumatized from the journey, traumatized from the Red Sea experience. And they just wanted to go back to safety, at least their perceived safety in Egypt. And sometimes congregations have been through too much trauma to even begin to hope. It hurts to hope. And so, we assess where that congregation is in the journey. We really like to find congregations who have been through that wilderness journey and are now contemplating what the future looks like. And then we help them. If you’ll remember as they get to the Promised Land, they still see themselves as grasshoppers. But they are at the precipice. And so, it’s how do we get those congregations that see themselves as grasshoppers to imagine what God has instore for them if they would only take the next step.

Ann Michel. So, there are some readiness factors including really what I think you are describing is spiritual readiness to see a new way, see new possibilities.

Sidney Williams. If I could add, it’s spiritual, emotional, and intellectual. It’s heart, mind, and spirit journey. Because it’s hard for people to imagine what they’ve never seen. So, people have to get pretty close before they can cross over. I’ve met some pastors who are close to retirement. And fishing differently is not something they want to do. I’ve met pastors who are literally at the brink of burnout and are contemplating if they even want to be in ministry going forward. So, assessing where the leadership is, what the congregation has been through recently, I think those are important first steps before we start talking about engaging the marketplace for social impact. If people are hurting, we’ve got to deal with that first.

Ann Michel. Thank you, that’s extremely helpful. As we begin to draw this to a close, I wonder if you can share a word of hope, really. Because I think so many congregations do feel in a place of limitation and constraint. They know that the way they’ve always done things isn’t necessarily sufficient anymore. And yet they’re not sure. They may not see all these new possibilities. What word of hope would you offer to congregations that maybe are just beginning to perceive the need to fish differently?

Sidney Williams. I’m reminded of my time at Wesley when we went on our first mission trip to Uganda. And at the conclusion of our time in Uganda, which is where I got the idea of fishing differently, I was overwhelmed with sadness. Because I thought we needed more time in Uganda. There was just so much more work to do. And I remember Professor Fred Smith, who was our leaders on that trip, said that “We have done our part, but God will send others.” And so, he reminded us that “one plants, another waters, and God gives the increase.” For so many of our congregations, the anxiety comes because we want to take it to the next step. But maybe our journey simply is to hand it off to the next generation, or the next leaders to come. And so I think trusting God, that if God has started it, God will finish it. It’s God that does the work, not us, and trusting in God’s providence to lead our congregations to the next level.

Ann Michel. Well thank you. That’s a very good word. Very true, but very important I think for everybody to keep in mind. Because so often, I think, particularly In this area finances where we tend to bring the world’s logic into the way we think about church, it’s very easy for us to lose track of the fact that we need to “let go and let God.” Sidney, I want to thank you for the work that you’re doing, for the resources you’ve provided through your book. And thank you for talking with us today.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks we discuss discipleship and developing disciples with Kay Kotan, Director for the Center for Multiplying Disciples in the Arkansas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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Related Resources


About Author

Rev. Dr. Sidney Williams

Sidney S. Williams is President/CEO of Crossing Capital Group, Inc., a consulting firm that assists for-profit social enterprises, seminaries and colleges, and communities of faith to re-imagine their existing facilities, or land, to include mixed-used and mixed-income development projects.

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.