Is your congregation too dependent on Sunday morning offerings? Grace Pomroy from Luther Seminary shares research findings on congregations that are developing new and creative funding sources, not only to bolster the bottom line, but to better connect with neighbors and advance their missions.
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Is your congregation too dependent on Sunday morning offerings? Grace Pomroy from Luther Seminary shares research findings on congregations that are developing new and creative funding sources, not only to bolster the bottom line but to better connect with neighbors and advance their missions.
Ann Michel: I’m Ann Michel. I’m a senior consultant with the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. I’m also one of the editors of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. I am so pleased to be the host for this episode of Leading Ideas Talks podcast. My guest today is Grace Pomeroy, who since 2020 has served as the director of the Stewardship Leaders Program at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. In that capacity, she has directed a research initiative called Funding Forward aimed at learning about more sustainable funding models for congregations that move beyond a reliance on Sunday morning offerings. The research team identified about 200 congregations in the U.S. and Canada who were experimenting with more sustainable financial models and then took a look at what they were doing and what we can learn from their experiences. This is such a critical subject, Grace. Thank you for agreeing to share with us and with your listeners.
Grace Pomroy: Absolutely. It’s my pleasure. I listen to this podcast, so it’s a pleasure to be on it, as well.
Ann Michel: Thank you for that. So, the congregations you studied had developed a number of different funding sources. And I think it will help our listeners get a sense of what this is all about if we begin by having you name some of the alternate revenue streams that some of these congregations have developed, and then which are most common and significant.
Grace Pomroy: Absolutely. So, I would think about this as kind of a collage. There were so many different ideas that came to the table. Oftentimes, when I talk to congregations, they want me to give them just one. And, in fact, I feel like I need to give them just one. Instead, I feel like I need to give you the whole Jackson Pollock portrait so you can focus on what seems best for your congregation and where God is leading you.
So, a couple of different pieces of the portrait that I bring to life. One is property. Property is a big component for many congregations. Renting church property was the highest on the list for the congregations that we studied. Sale of church property was also on that list as well. But there were other things like starting a business, like a social enterprise. There were things like securing grants, repurposing endowment funds; maybe joining an impact investment might be part of that puzzle. There are a variety of different ways that congregations engaged in this work, which was really exciting to see.
Ann Michel: Some of the things you just named may not be as familiar as others. For example, when you talk about a social enterprise or a self-sustaining ministry or an impact investment. Could you describe those categories?
Grace Pomroy: Yeah, absolutely. I’ll give a brief definition and then maybe a quick example as well. A social enterprise is a business for good. And this can come in a nonprofit format, and it can come in a for-profit format, oftentimes outside of congregation. Social enterprises are thought about in a for-profit business model format. But this can be something as small as selling products or services in your congregation or it could be something as large as a business that’s separate from a congregation. For instance, one of the congregations we studied started a farm that sells bread and sells produce and gives away some of that bread and produce to the community, as well. So that’s an example of a social enterprise. I know of a campus ministry that started a pay-as-you-go deli on their campus during the pandemic because students needed that resource. So, it really could come in a variety of forms and can be something as small as … even when you think about … things like a church bake sale. That’s kind of a baby form of a social enterprise in that it often has a good at the end of it, but it’s not necessarily a defined business structure. Usually, social enterprises will have their own defined business structure around them, whether for profit or nonprofit.
An impact investment is a way of investing in a specific ministry or project that isn’t a donation. You’re actually putting money, some principal, in with the goal of getting a return, a return that’s not only financial but also is social-impact-oriented. So, for instance, I know of a ministry that happens to be a campus ministry in Madison, Wisconsin, that was trying to build student apartments. They wanted to find a loan that would allow them to do that work and not have to pay back as much interest, so they actually went to their regional church body and asked them to make an impact investment in this property so that they would be able to pay it back on different types of terms. That’s an example of an impact investment.
Ann Michel: And you also mentioned grants. Congregations oftentimes get a grant from their denomination. But you found that there were lots of other kinds of grants that might be accessible to congregations. Could you say a word more about that?
Grace Pomroy: Absolutely. I often find that congregations assume that because they are religious entities there are no outside grants available to them. And I have to admit I went into this work thinking the same thing — that they would really be limited to faith-based granting bodies, faith-based foundations, regional church bodies, and denominations. In fact, what we found is that there were other bodies beyond these that really valued the church.
For instance, a church that’s doing affordable housing, a church that’s starting a business that meets a need in the community, these granting bodies wanted to be a business that meets need in the community. Sometimes to be eligible for these grants, they did need to separate out that part of the church’s life into its own business entity. But I found it is more and more the case that they didn’t need to make that separation as long as they could make a business case for why what they are doing matters to the individual granting organization.
Ann Michel: That’s really good to hear. Because I think a lot of people assume that unless you create a separate 501(c)3 there aren’t going to be that many available sources of grant funds. So that’s really encouraging. In addition to learning about the different kinds of revenue sources that congregations have availed themselves of, you also learned a great deal about what makes these different approaches successful. Could you share some of the key practices and perspectives that are important when congregations are moving into this kind of funding forward approach?
Grace Pomroy: Absolutely. A lot of congregations that I interact with on a daily or weekly basis often come to me because, let’s be honest, they are running low on funds. Necessity is the reason they need to get involved in this conversation, and I understand that. But what we found is that most of the congregations who had success in this area didn’t just come to this journey for financial reasons. They actually used their financial circumstances as a catalyst to begin a larger conversation about what God might be calling them to do, so this was never solely financially motivated. There was usually a biblical, theological, missional motivation that came behind it.
Looking at the 12 congregations we sat down with and interviewed, we found a couple of things coming together that really sparked their success in financial as well as missional-impact terms. One component was having a clear sense of what God was calling them to do and to be. What was God’s mission for their particular congregation? How were they invited to join God’s mission in their community? The other clear component was community need. What were the needs in their community? What were the hopes in their community? And what assets did their community have that made it unique?
Then the last piece of the puzzle that really motivated them to be able to spring forward was having an underutilized asset. Now I realize the first thing people may think about when they hear this is property. And for many congregations, the underutilized asset was property. However, for some, it was something a little different. In one particular congregation, it was some untapped gifts and skills of their staff. For example, a staff member who was a baker, a staff member who was a farmer. That was something they could use. Or they had people in their community who were really handy with tools. So, they knew that they could do something with the building because they had a whole group of people who could make that building rentable. So, it’s not just property. But property could certainly be a piece of that puzzle. And those three things coming together really allowed congregations to make a broader impact in their community and to deepen their faith through this process as well. It was not just a financial journey.
Ann Michel: That really relates to my next question. I think in addition to the financial advantages of this, you also found that there were some other advantages to congregations that took these initiatives. I wondered if you could name some of those.
Grace Pomroy: Absolutely. This was the most eye-opening and fun part of the study for me. Honestly, I’m a financial girl. I do financial wellness. I like a church budget. That’s where I live. I have a seminary education, but I know there are better people out there to do theology. But I was amazed at how much this came up in our work.
One area where we saw this was on the survey. We invited everyone who talked about a new income source to let us know if they had any evidence that this particular income source allowed them to create meaningful relationships with people outside of the congregation that they might not be able to meet otherwise. And to be honest, when we included this, we had no idea what type of data we would get from the question. But it became one of the most prominent pieces of survey data. We found that across all of the different income sources, in almost every case but one, over 50 percent of the congregations who had used that income source said they were creating relationships. And this was not just a one-off or a two-off situation. In most cases, this was opening a whole ‘nother door to people in their community that they would not meet otherwise.
I think about one of the congregations that has a farmers market stand where they sell soup. This has been an amazing outlet for relationships for them because they see the same people coming back every week to the farmers market. And they’ve created relationships with the farmers in their community who have helped them to form this soup stand. And then there are customers; they are also getting to know about their lives and create relationships with them at the stand. And their goal is that you not only take the soup for yourself, but you give it away to someone else. So, the relationships just keep rippling out from there.
Formerly, they felt like they were a black box in their neighborhood, that no one knew who they were. And yet starting these different revenue sources actually opened the door to creating relationships in ways that they had never considered before, so much so that the community now sees them as an essential part of the fabric of that neighborhood. In short, they just have to look outside themselves and think about making connections. The evangelism opportunities, the outreach opportunities, the relational things that can come about as a result of this are really significant.
Ann Michel: I think you also found that there was a spiritual dimension to this work. You already mentioned the deep connection to mission. One of my mantras is that stewardship ministry really is about mission. But where else do you see God in this?
Grace Pomroy: Absolutely. I just want to tag on to one piece and then I will get to where I see God in this because it’s so great. I often find that congregations at the beginning of this process will say to me, “Grace, will this guarantee that I get more butts in seats and more money through the offering plate? I love that it’s creating relationships. But I want it to create transactional relationships. We’re going to put a fine point on it where people are coming to my congregation.” And what we found particularly from the interview sites — just wanted to clarify this for folks — was that often the people they were serving through these other income source outlets — whether they were renting out space in their building, participating in a social enterprise, or were a granter or a grantee in a program — those were generally not the people who were coming to the congregation.
However, as word has gotten out in the community about what this church is doing, that has attracted people who may not have gone to church otherwise who say, “Wow, I want to be a part of a church where that is seen as part of our ministry.” So, that’s where people have seen some of the expansiveness of those relationships blossoming and leading to evangelism moments in their community. But it’s not usually a one-for-one transaction.
I see God in so many places in this work. But I have to say, it is the congregations that have taught me where God is in this work. We put a question at the very end of a very long survey: Where do you see God in this process, whether you are adding an income source, reducing your congregation’s budget, or creating a self-sustaining ministry? This survey could have taken you 20 or 30 minutes to complete, depending on how many income sources your congregation had. We were really worried that survey fatigue would get in the way. But I was amazed that of the 101 people who participated in this survey, we had over 90 viable responses to this last question.
I sat down on Christmas of 2022 to read through this data, and I wept at the stories that I saw. This was not just, “Oh, God is everywhere. We see God in all places.” I think we have one of those answers. But for the most part it was deep experiences of where God was showing up for them in big miracles and small miracles that they were finding but also in the peace and the resilience that they were experiencing through this work that they knew was only the Holy Spirit at work. I was amazed and honestly it has transformed my faith journey to see the ways that faith and finances are coming together through the Funding Forward process that people were participating in.
Ann Michel: Thank you for sharing that testimony. I do often see testimony to faith come through as people talk about this journey they take that you think is about dollars and cents but it’s really, as you said, so much about the mission of the church and where God is leading us. So, thank you for that.
Build a better annual budget for your church with Developing Your Operating Budget. This video tool kit helps you understand what an operating budget is, different ways that churches create their annual operating budgets, and five common budgeting models. No matter your church size, this resource will provide clues and wisdom to help your budget advance your mission and accomplish God’s vision for your congregation. Learn more and watch introductory videos now.
Ann Michel: I wanted to ask you a question that’s not in your research. I wondered whether you have a sense of how significant some of these trends are, churchwide. The churches you studied were admittedly trailblazers. Those of us who follow developments in church stewardship and finance have all been paying attention to certain leading churches working in this space and, I think, became so captivated with this that I was frankly surprised a couple of years ago when the Lake Institute’s Study of Congregations’ Economic Practices came out. At that time (it was 4 years ago), they found that 40 percent of congregations didn’t have any source of revenue beyond contributions. And, looking in aggregate, almost 90 percent of revenue coming into churches is coming from donations or more standard fundraising practices. From rentals and other property was only like about 6 percent. So, I wondered whether you think this trend toward alternate funding sources is accelerating and what that growth might look like.
Grace Pomroy: Absolutely. I would definitely say that it’s accelerating. I also lean into that Lake Institute Study. It’s amazing to me, particularly prior to the pandemic when that study was done, how much revenue was coming in from the offering plate and most of that happening on Sunday morning through physical transactions. I mean, it was quite shocking. And yet, even though we know online giving has exploded because of the pandemic (most congregations who were reticent took that up pretty quickly once the pandemic set in), in many, many congregations (not all), as the trends in attendance have gone down, that also has led to a decline in revenue. It’s not necessarily a one-for-one, but it’s important to note that. Even for those congregations that have not seen a decline in revenue but are seeing a decline in attendance, I think it’s often because they’ve got some older donors who are going to be soon, sadly, aging out of the congregation. And when they pass away it could be a real wake-up call for those congregations.
So, I often encourage congregations to get into the conversation sooner. There’s nothing wrong with adding an additional source of income that allows you that buffer if you run into this situation, because the reason that we should be doing this work is not just because of finances but because of God. But will it be more necessary? Absolutely. As many congregations grow smaller, it will be necessary to think about the way we manage our money differently. Instead of doing the “death by a thousand cuts” and trimming little things off programs bit by bit, how can we be more proactive in starting earlier to create some of these programs that might need some startup funds? So, we need a little bit of a runway to make this happen.
Ann Michel: In Lovett Weems’s and my book, Generosity, Stewardship and Abundance, we talk about this under the theological umbrella of abundance, that this is one way a congregation can creatively tap into all the possibilities that God has put before us. There are a lot of possibilities, and when we’re only thinking about Sunday morning offerings, we’re really limiting our church.
Related to the last question, I did notice that among the congregations that were part of your research, half of them were urban and another quarter are suburban. I think it’s probably true in your denomination, as it is in mine, that the vast majority of our congregations are small rural congregations, and I think urban churches tend to have more options, particularly with regard to their property because of the value of the real estate. So, I’m wondering whether you could share a story, perhaps from a smaller church in your study, a rural church, of the possibilities that might exist in that context.
Grace Pomroy: Absolutely. I’d be really happy to. I will just say that, as we were putting together that original list of 200, we wanted to have more rural and small congregations. For some reason, the list just didn’t lead us in that direction. When we got our responses, we just had fewer responses from small and rural congregations, so we decided to overrepresent them in our interview series by including even more small and rural churches.
So, I can share two stories from these churches which I think are really beautiful. One of the stories is from a small congregation in Gulf Shores, Alabama. They actually got to a point that was really pretty scary. The person who had come in as their pastor during the pandemic realized about six months after arrival that this congregation had only two years’ worth of salary for that pastor. She was never told about this during the interview process. I’m sure many clergy are shaking their heads as you hear this story. You’ve heard urban legends like this before or maybe you’ve experienced this.
She was a finance person, and she actually has some finance background. And she said, “We need to make a change here. We need to make a big change. It can’t just be a small thing. We’re not going to be here if we don’t make a shift.” So, they decided to take a look at all of the different assets that had been entrusted to them and really to brainstorm and think creatively about that. And the pastor, at the same time, decided to have some conversations with people in the community to see what the needs were, and they found two different needs.
One was childcare. There was a distinct need for childcare in the community. And the other was a need for affordable rentable office space. As they were looking at the numbers, they realized that childcare was not necessarily going to be able to help them fill in their finance gap. We did have another church in our interview series who did a daycare and it’s been financially viable for them, so don’t rule that out entirely. It just wasn’t viable for this church.
However, they looked into affordable office space and found that there was a lot of viability there. So, they decided to shift most of their building into affordable office space. They rent out one of the staff spaces in their church office. They rent out most of their education wing, their church library, and parts of their fellowship hall to be used as a conference space. Amazingly, they were able to get, I believe, seven different spaces rented within a year. They were able to do this so quickly because there was a gentleman in the community who was very handy who was able to bring those spaces up to date, bring them alive.
It’s been so exciting to hear their story, to hear how this has really changed the perception of that church in the community, that this is a place people see as a place where they can work but also a place where they can worship. It has transformed the space because they have an artist who’s renting one of their spaces who asked to put art up on the walls. Also, in talking to the church musician, hearing how it really enlivens her when she goes to get coffee when she’s going to practice her music for Sunday. The conversations that happen around the coffee station are so different now that they’ve got those renters there. And it really has allowed the church to come alive.
A second story that I would share is from a congregation in New Hampshire that’s very small, very rural. They have decided to move to a part-time ministry model, and it has been an incredibly viable experience for them to shift down to 50 percent. But it’s their part of the journey — still trying to figure out what does this mean if we only have a 50 percent pastor: What else do we need to pick up? What exactly does this look like? Getting to talk to the congregation in the midst of this transition to really focus more on lay leadership and see what lay folks in the congregation are willing to pick up and what might need to be left behind moving to 50 percent — really exciting to see.
I would definitely say that rural congregations can use their building space in different ways. It’s just a different experience. For instance, I’ve seen many rural congregations we interviewed who have started to open up their space to medical professionals because that means people won’t have to drive as far of a distance. There are different types of opportunities. But I agree. It’s very different from an urban and suburban environment.
Ann Michel: Not too many years ago, I worked with a seminary doctoral student from a congregation that had historically relied on one fundraiser after another to support its ministry. And having to run all these fundraisers just sucked up all their energy. And his goal was to try to get the congregation to really embrace biblical giving so that they wouldn’t have to spend so much of their time doing fundraising. And my question is, for congregations that are moving toward more creative funding sources, how can they still stay focused on what I think is a really core aspect of the church’s mission, which is to help congregants learn how to give generously?
Grace Pomroy: Oh, I’m so glad you asked this because this is a passion of mine, as well. A couple of things that I would say about that. If you go down the path of pursuing different income sources (and I hope you’ll at least consider it or open your mind to that idea), it’s really important that you’re incredibly transparent with the congregation. For instance, I know a congregation in a downtown area that rents out its parking lot during the week for downtown commuters. And people assumed for a long time that they were making exceptional amounts of income from that parking lot and that all of that income would be able to fund the church.
People have legitimate questions about this, and I think it’s really important to know that people will overestimate how much you’re making through those income sources. If the [funds]don’t go to a specific area, that can be really tricky. Now I realize everybody’s budget is different. But if you have a way to direct those funds toward a specific purpose, I encourage you to do so. For instance, this urban congregation renting its parking lot — I think that revenue should be generated towards the church property. How can we put that towards any renovations that need to happen on that church property? Don’t put it towards the most exciting program on your budge, for instance, if you’ve got ministries that people are excited about. Don’t use those funds to fund the youth ministry. You’re already going to have enough people who want to fund that.
That aside, I think the offering plate is so important. And this frees us to think about the offering in really generative ways. We can think about generosity on more wavelengths than just financial. I think about a congregation that I was a part of where we had many entrepreneurs, people who were just starting out in their careers, college students. When the offering was just one note of “give money,” it really didn’t resonate with them. So, we had different offering stations where people could give money. We had places where people could offer prayers. We had places where people could volunteer. And we had an area where people could interact with the sermon and put that into practice in any way. I love Mark Allen Powell’s book Giving to God, where he really focuses on how the offering is an act of worship. And financial giving is a piece of that. But there are also other things that we are called to give from what God has entrusted to our care.
I think putting these other income sources in place gives us a little bit more freedom to not feel like we are begging for money but to really help people understand generosity as a spiritual practice and grow into that practice, not out of scarcity or necessity, not just seeing church giving as a way to pay the church’s bills but as truly a form of congregational generosity that might be used to benefit others as well.
Ann Michel: The advice that you’re giving is similar to what I often hear with regard to the use of endowments. Some churches are afraid that if they have an endowment, it’s going to depress their giving. And that does happen sometimes. I didn’t think that it happened until it happened in my own church. So, I think your advice there is very sound. For churches that wanted to start thinking about pursuing some of these more creative and sustainable funding sources, how would you recommend that they get started?
Grace Pomroy: I recommend that you start in two ways. First, really take the time to inventory the assets that God has entrusted to your congregation’s care. I often encourage congregations to start here, which feels a little odd to those of us who are theologically trained, because I think most times, when people come to this conversation, they’re feeling that resources are really tight and things are really scarce. They’re assuming that they have nothing that’s been entrusted to their care.
So, take that time to step back. I encourage people to think about a couple of categories. Certainly, you can think about financial or physical assets. I encourage you also to think about skill assets. What are some of the skills in your community? What about time assets? Who in your community and congregation might have some time that they can give that may not come with a specific skill, but they have time that they can share?
Then also having network assets I would say is probably one of the most underutilized assets. Who is in your congregation’s network? Who might you partner with? Because none of these congregations did this work alone. Partnerships were a key piece of the puzzle and often congregations are reluctant to greet those relationships with other partnering organizations, which does them a real disservice.
I’d encourage you to think about what those assets are and really inventory them and begin to think about what’s unique about your particular context in comparison to maybe some other contexts around us or other stories that you’re hearing. If you happen to read through my research, you might say, “Oh, well, that’s a little different for us.” For instance, a congregation who was a part of our survey in Detroit has a lot of young men who are previously incarcerated who were not able to get traditional jobs. But they had a lot of ideas for how they might be entrepreneurial and serve their community. That was a unique asset, but it doesn’t fall on paper in a church’s budget. So how might you use that not only to generate income but also to really meet a need in the community and serve these young men who were in need? So, that’s a key piece of the puzzle.
The other piece which I really encourage congregations not to skip past is doing the discernment work. How are you called to participate in what God is up to in your community? Next year, we will have a book coming out, and I offer some steps for how you might do that. But for now, some things I would share are taking time to really listen to community members — not just asking them what they need but listening to their hopes and their dreams for the community, asking who else you should talk to.
I know that Leading Ideas has offered so many great resources on that and I would encourage them to check those out. Also, taking that time to cultivate God language in your community. I would say for the people that I serve, particularly in mainline denominations like the ELCA, we’re not used to talking about what God is up to in our community. And it takes time to learn that language and to take those steps. This is often more about listening and then beginning to put our arms around what God is calling us to do. What is our piece of that unique mission? Creating a mission statement is not the end of the story. It’s just one thing that propels this journey of listening and discernment forward.
Ann Michel: I think many church leaders come into the ministry without the skill set needed to think and act in more entrepreneurial ways. So, what are some things that leaders can do to prepare themselves to be a bit more entrepreneurial and manage some of these kinds of things?
Grace Pomroy: The good news for you leaders is that you already have the skill sets in place to do this work. The best things that you can bring is your vision for what God is up to in the community and coaching and encouraging those in your community who’d want to participate in this work. No matter how small your congregation is, you likely have people who have never volunteered in your congregation’s ministry because they never felt they were the fit to be a greeter or a Sunday school teacher or a reader on Sunday morning. But they would love to pick up their hammer and tools and be a handyman. My dad is one of those. He does not want to stand up in front of people and lead this way. But he would love to be put to work. There might also be entrepreneurs in your congregation who say, “Hey, I get all the business stuff. I can do that. But I need to know how this relates to ministry.” So, your job is to be that translator. And this can be really challenging for leaders because we’re used to being the ones who lead the way and others follow us. And in this case, it’s going to be a more collaborative work where we each bring our gifts.
Ann Michel: That’s a really helpful perspective. You mentioned this work is going to be published. Can you tell us a bit about what’s coming in that regard?
Grace Pomroy: We’ve got a lot of great work that we will be disseminating through Luther’s [Seminary] Faith+Lead site [faithlead.org]. Soon, we will be publishing an e-book on these research findings, which I hope you all will have a chance to check out. We’ll be talking about our interviews as well as our survey data there. We also hope to roll this into an online course. If this is something that sounds interesting to you, we hope you’ll join us for one of those. After that, sometime in 2024, there will be a book coming out through Fortress Press. I’d love to have you all learn more about what we’ve studied. Most of all, I’d love to hear your stories as you’re engaging in this work.
Ann Michel: Thank you so much, Grace. This is such an important area. It’s wonderful that you’ve really devoted some sustained attention to it. I’m also really grateful for your enthusiasm. I hope that it will inspire others who are listening to begin to think about how this might apply in their situation as well.
Grace Pomroy: Thank you, Ann. It was a pleasure to be with you.
Announcer: Thank you for joining us for Leading Ideas Talks.
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- Developing Your Operating Budget, a Lewis Center video tool kit resource
- Adding New Income Lines to Your Church Budget by Grace Pomroy
- Leveraging Church Property Can Sustain Your Mission by Lovett H. Weems Jr. and Ann A. Michel
- When Churches Engage the World of Business by Audrey Warren