Dollars and sense: How to do ministry on five loaves and two fish

August 10th, 2015

When I graduated from seminary, I dove into ministry believing I was fully prepared to turn the world upside down for the kingdom. But as I sat around a meeting table at my first official pastoring job with an expense report in my hands, “fully prepared” is the opposite of how I felt. I flipped back and forth through the pages of Excel spreadsheets, but I wasn’t seeing what my colleagues were talking about. I suddenly felt embarrassed and grossly unprepared. Seminary taught me to preach, order the church in polity, serve my community, and share in the sacraments, but nobody ever mentioned I would need to know anything about finances, human resources, building maintenance, and capital campaigns.

Meanwhile, expenses have continued to increase in most churches year after year. Revenue is decreasing as the faithful, giving generations pass away. The future looks grim, but it doesn’t have to be. Turnaround is possible, but it requires clergy who are willing to risk seeking unconventional ways to fund ministry.

Fortunately, what we need most is right in front of us. Church leaders need to seek the “loaves and fish” that God has set before them. The disciples likely felt their resources were inadequate when they faced a hungry crowd of five thousand. However, Andrew saw what was right in front of him: a boy’s lunch of five small barley loaves and two small fish. Andrew mentioned it to Jesus, not knowing the food would be multiplied to feed the crowd but simply as an available asset and opportunity right before his eyes. The miracle was of course in the multiplication, but it was also in Andrew’s willingness to utilize what was in front of him.

The following three loaf-and-fish methods are ways churches can continue impacting the world without draining the bank account.

1. Pastors must be good financial stewards individually

God’s people should set the example in stewarding resources. The problem is clergy come out of seminary and Bible colleges with enormous debt loads. They are thrown into churches with six- or seven-figure budgets, some of them in buildings hundreds of years old with skyrocketing utility bills, without the slightest clue about basic finance principles. Pastors and church leaders need to model generosity and also a personal commitment to fiscal responsibility. Then, they must educate themselves. Start engaging in discussion with colleagues from the business world, read pertinent articles, and pay close attention to what resources are coming and going from your church.

2. Empower laity and bivocational ministers

We can foster growth and health in the church by equipping and empowering our congregants. God works through God’s people when they’re ready and willing; we need to place tools into the open hands of the laity in our pews. Bivocational ministers are another sensible way to foster growth and health. Using a bivocational model, Embrace Church in Lexington, Kentucky, not only made ministry affordable but also experienced growth in worship attendance, baptisms, and professions of faith. Some of the staff raised their own support as urban missionaries, while other lay members of the congregation functioned as staff by filling roles like leading the children’s ministry. The congregation asked, and God answered by providing the people to serve in the roles needed. 

3. Be faithful with little

Start developing creative ways to use the assets God has already given the church. Does the church have a large building? Rent out extra offices or community spaces during off-peak hours to ministries and groups that are symbiotic.
The extra traffic brings people in the doors who may consider coming back to worship. Have old music instruments or rooms full of items the church no longer needs? Consider selling those items online or hosting a community yard sale. A yard sale can be a great way to get to know neighbors and tell them about the church. What’s your equivalent of five loaves of bread and two fish?

My prayer is that you courageously begin to think differently about the “business” side of the local church in order to maximize the resources God has laid in front of you for the mission of making disciples for Jesus Christ. Imagine if Jesus were to look into your eyes today and ask, “How do we meet the needs of our friends in this community?” What would you tell him? The need may seem impossible, but the answers could be right in front of you.

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