The Math Doesn’t Work: Why the Future of Church Planting is Bi-Vocational
We are experiencing a national, trans-denominational revival of interest in planting new churches that are biblical, gospel-centered, healthy, growing, and reproducing. Our own church, the First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach, is taking part in this movement as we gear up to plant 100 churches in South Florida.
But as we look at the landscape of church planting in North America it is clear that we have a critical problem with our methodology: the math simply doesn’t work.
In order to reach the tens of millions of lost people living outside of Bible-belt suburbs, we need to plant thousands of healthy churches. However, the majority of church plants fail because they run out of startup money before they are financially viable. We are writing to propose a simple, sustainable strategy for church planting in the most un-evangelized and under-churched regions of North America: bi-vocational ministry.
THE MATH DOESN’T WORK
While we applaud the heroic efforts and sacrifices many churches and planters make, we believe that many fail to apply basic, realistic arithmetic. Let’s think through an example.
Step 1: Expenses
First, consider the expenses a church plant will likely encounter.
Rent a school or building $1,200/wk $62,400/yr
Part-time “worship-guy” $300/wk $15,600/yr
Part-time “kids ministry person” $200/wk $10,400/yr
3 small mail outs ($3000/ea) $175/wk $9,100/yr
Misc expenses $250/wk $13,000/yr
Totals $2,125/wk $110,400/yr
Of course, you can play with the numbers, and they may vary according to location and other factors. Some can and do plant churches with less money. Regardless, plug in your own numbers and do the math. In our example we are at well over $100,000 in expenses, and we haven’t included salaries, benefits, or other expenses for the pastor or pastors. So add in $75-$100k in salaries, benefits, and other expenses for one pastor. (It will take every penny of that for a family to live in any urban center like New York, Seattle, Chicago, Miami, and so on.) You are now at around a $200k annual budget. We also are assuming that a sending church or church-planting network covers startup costs such as sound equipment, website, moving expenses for the pastor(s), and so on. If someone else doesn’t cover those expenses, then add them on as well. In our experience, many well-meaning church planters underestimate the actual expenses.
Step 2: Income
Second, what about income? Well-connected, networked church planters can often raise several hundred thousand dollars in initial support, typically pledged over 3 years. At the end of three years, supporting churches normally expect the church plant to be self-supporting or close to it.
Let’s do some more math. Say at the end of year three, the church plant has 150 members, which would be wildly successful in most urban contexts. If each person gives $20 each on a weekly basis, the income would look like this: 150 adults @ $20/wk = $3000/wk = $156,000/yr. If your budget is close to 200k, the numbers still do not add up.
And there is a bigger problem: it is very ambitious to assume that new Christians will give $20 per week. Unless you are reaching a lot of displaced committed Christians, or are starting with a significant core group or church split, it is unlikely they will give anywhere close to that level. In Miami, church planters agree that average giving at new church plants is more like $7-$10 per head per week. These giving patterns are validated every week as we speak with church planters nationally. Again, consider the math:
100 adults $20/ea $2000/wk $104,000/yr
150 adults $20/ea $3000/wk $156,000/yr
200 adults $20/ea $4000/wk $208,000/yr
100 adults $10/ea $1000/wk $52,000/yr
200 adults $10/ea $2000/wk $104,000/yr
300 adults $10/ea $3000/wk $156,000/yr
You get the idea. If the expectation is that a church plant will pay its own expenses within three to five years while supporting the pastor or pastors and their families at a middle-class lifestyle, then most churches need to grow to 200-300 people in just 3 years. The math does not work.
THE HAIL MARY
Here is what frequently happens. On day one the church plant begins receiving funding from a constellation of churches, family, friends, and networks. The planter begins to hear the clock ticking. He knows that in three years or so his funding will run out. So the pastor and his team work like dogs for three years trying to attract enough “giving units” to make the church self-supporting. It is the church-planting equivalent of the Hail Mary pass in football. It rarely works, but when it does it makes SportsCenter—and everyone focuses on the seldom-successful Hail Mary plant as the model to emulate.
About two years into the work a church planter can begin to panic because expenses are higher than he predicted and income is much lower than he had hoped. At the end of year four or five, the church (if he is successful) may be running around 150-200, but it still cannot pay him enough to support his growing family.
At this point the planter declares himself a “catalytic” leader who specializes in “starting new things” and moves on to a different ministry job that can support his middle-class lifestyle. The church is then taken over by someone else, often a bi-vocational pastor. Despite the success of the new church, the pastor had to leave. Why? Because from day one the math didn’t work.
BIVOCATIONAL MUST BE THE FUTURE
When we began to dream about planting dozens of churches in South Florida, we knew that we would not get the job done by throwing hundreds of Hail Marys. It would take too long and cost too much. So we decided to go bi-vocational. We became convinced that church planting with bi-vocational pastors has been effective in a variety of nations and cultures throughout church history. We have concluded that in order to make the math work in South Florida, we must find pastors who are willing and able to support their families without taking a salary from the church—maybe ever.
We recently began to cast this vision of bi-vocational church planting to our church family. This fall, we launched a two-year residency for pastoral ministry with ten men who are committed to bi-vocational church planting. Surprisingly, we found most of these men right here in our own congregation: a couple of financial planners, an IT guy, a pharmaceutical salesmen, a Chick-fil-A owner, a guy who runs a charitable foundation, and so on. All of these men already live in South Florida, and they already love our community and our church.
We believe this strategy of recruiting and training men who already live on our mission field and already have gainful employment is one that could be duplicated in other contexts. In order to reach the millions of lost people in North America, we are going to need thousands of new churches. The old method of displaced, seminary-trained church planters throwing a Hail Mary is proving to be insufficient. We believe that locally identified, locally church-trained bi-vocational pastors provide the best opportunity to make the math work.
For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.” (Luke 14:28-30)