I hope I can talk about this without sounding like I have an ax to grind. Fortunately, our organization is in the coaching business, not the funding business, when it comes to church plants. In my previous position, I worked at a seminary. Again, we did a lot to train church planters, but seminaries do not provide a stipend for planting. So, I’m really talking about what I witness as church plants deal with other organizations. This is not personal in that sense… but it is personal.
Planting a church is expensive. We need money, and if we just follow the usual patterns of church planting (which we do not necessarily have to do), we need a good bit of money. That money has to come from somewhere, and this realization hits every church planter. And soon, they are receiving advice from everyone about where to get their money.
Fundraising is hard work, and very few people enjoy it. For many church plants funding comes from several different sources, but the primary two are usually denominational agencies and partnering churches. In the case of us Southern Baptists, that means North American church planters will often turn to the North American Mission Board or any number of state conventions to receive a small stipend the help cover the essential costs of starting a church.
This money usually comes with coaching and a relationship with these denominational agencies, and it is has a specific time frame of a few years. The goal is to provide enough financial assistance to help the church become self-sufficient, and that is precisely how it should be done. A church that cannot exist long-term without some other agency paying its bills is doing it wrong. In order to receive these denominational funds, church planters and plants are assessed. The process differs from agency to agency, but anyone who walks up and asks for money and coaching does not necessarily get it.
The other primary source of funds for a church plant come from partner churches. At best (and I believe this is how it should work), a church planter is actually sent out of another church who has helped them identify their calling to plant and equipped them to do so. These sending churches are often a main source of early support for the plant. Usually, though, a church planter has to enlist a number of church partners. So, the planter finds himself bouncing from meeting to meeting and pulpit to pulpit requesting support for the plant.
Let me be quick to say that there is nothing wrong with asking churches to financially support your church plant. In fact, I believe it is a good thing. Furthermore, state conventions and missions agencies that provide financial support and coaching are merely living out their mission when they come alongside church plants and help them get off the ground through coaching and assistance. There is something good and healthy about this. Church planting is an excellent way for local churches to cooperate together on a kingdom mission.
That said, few areas provide a temptation to compromise integrity like fundraising. When it comes to money, people will unfortunately say things they do not mean in order to receive it.
Often, young church planters will hear this admonition above and link it to theological purity. They conger up some scenario where a partner church or some agency is going to ask them to stand off their view of soteriology or inerrancy, or something like that. Could this happen? I guess so, but that is not what I have in mind. Far more often, I watch church planters be dishonest about their commitment and cooperation to partners in order to receive their money, and that is where I want to camp.
Here are two areas where I regularly see church planters compromise their integrity in fundraising:
Let me put it simply: It is not okay to affiliate with an organization just for their money, knowing you are going to bail on them when it runs out. I could relate stories to you of young seminary students desiring to plant who would actually state their intentions to do this. Knowing full and well that they did not want to affiliate or cooperate with a particular agency, they planned to request the money anyway and act as though they did in order to receive it. The end of the financial agreement signaled for them the end of their commitment to the agency.
This is obviously an integrity issue in cooperation, but it is more common than anyone would like to admit. Church planters who are willing to take cooperative money, given by others for missions, without becoming part of that cooperative effort fail to see the stewardship issue at play. They are willing to receive, but they are not willing to give.
There is also an identity issue at stake here. Whether it is theological conviction or just the “cool factor” of not being attached to a denomination, it is disingenuous to act as though you are when you never intend to be. Personally, I have no problem with independent churches, and I pray I do not get caught up in labels. However, our yes should be our yes, and our no should be our no. When we willingly deceive an agency in order to receive a benefit, we also teach our congregation something in the process. It is never acceptable to say you are something you are not simply for the benefit.
Concerning Other Churches:
This compromise is admittedly more subtle than the one above; however, it is even more significant. If integrity is compromised above in identity and cooperation, then it is compromised in method among other partner churches.
When church planters go on their fundraising tour from church to church enlisting partners, they inevitably have to communicate the need for a church where they desire to plant. Good church planters are first information gatherers, and they spend a lot of time learning about the city where they hope to plant. They look at population numbers, ethnic makeup, income levels, and religious affiliations. In fact, it may be one of these statistics that first pricked the heart of the planter for a particular city. They develop (and hope to communicate) a sense of need for the gospel in that area.
However, it is not okay to fundraise in churches (asking for tens of thousands of dollars) and sales pitch them on lostness if your plant will not be equipped to engage that lostness. If you say the reason you need that church’s money is the overwhelming lostness in the city, then plant where the lostness is and use a method that engages lost people, not Christians.
Let me explain. The city of Houston is a very large place. It is possible for me to pull together a shocking demographic presentation on this area as a whole. We can talk about millions of people needing the gospel. We can talk about dozens of different ethnic groups with a Muslim or Hindu background. I could share staggering numbers of potential lostness and tell you about rapid changes in the urban core. But those numbers actually mean very little for any one church, because a church lands in a neighborhood. And if that neighborhood is an hour away from the Muslim community on the other side of the metro, then I am compromising my integrity by using them as a fundraising hook.
On more than one occasion, I have watched a young planter talk about the extreme lostness that exists in a city center when raising funds to plant at the very edge of a metro area. Planting in the suburbs is fine and even needed in many places, but paint an accurate picture for people you are asking to partner.
The other issue is one of method. If you pitch a partnership on the basis of lostness, do not use methods that only grow your church through transfer growth. There are only three types of church growth: biological, transfer, and conversion. Transfer growth occurs when people who are already Christians move from another church to yours. If you are raising money on the back of “impacting lostness,” then it compromises your integrity to settle for growth that comes through transfer from another congregation.
Many traditional churches have been burned by church planters. This is often the reason it is hard to find church partnerships. When a well established church decides church planting needs to be part of its mission, it takes hard work to spread that vision in the congregation. It is a chance, perhaps a big financial one, that does not bear fruit inside the congregation itself. So, it is a church realizing that it has a mission outside of itself. That is all good. But, a failed church plant experience can wound a congregation and keep them from wanting to participate in this vital process. If the way you plant steals members from other churches, promises to do one thing and does another, or flakes out halfway through the process, then integrity is lost and partnerships are severed.
If I can encourage potential planters in anything when it comes to fundraising, it would be these few things. First, do it. You bring others together in cooperation over mission. But do it well. Second, maintain your integrity. Maintain your integrity in your identity, your partnerships, and your methods. Do not say you are committing to something bigger if you are not, and tell an accurate story about what you intend to do. This is an issue of character, not strategy, and it will forge deep partnerships and teach your congregation more about the gospel.