I spent the summer teaching seven students in an independent study called “Funding Forward: Leading Organizations to Financial Sustainability.” One of the first questions my students asked me was: “What does funding forward mean?” Funding forward is about finding more sustainable economic models for ministry that emerge organically from the organization’s mission.
We spent much of the summer looking at innovative examples of funding forward. We read about a Washington youth leader’s lawn care social enterprise that employs, trains, and creates opportunities for meaningful relationships with teens. We heard from leaders at Luther Seminary who radically shifted their financial model so they could offer free tuition to students. We learned about a congregation in Arkansas who intentionally purchased an abandoned building in a struggling neighborhood, renting much of the space to local business, renovating the building, and making the surrounding community safer. We enjoyed looking at so many bright shining examples of innovation, but we also took time to investigate the challenging process that lies behind this innovative change.
Funding forward springs from a need to create more sustainable financial models for ministry as church attendance continues to decline and most congregations are solely dependent on the offering plate for their income. However, funding forward isn’t about desperately finding money to extend the life cycle of a dying institution or finding the next flashy new way to invite people to give. Instead, it’s an innovative and missional approach to funding that connects money and mission in new ways for the sake of God’s work in the neighborhood. It’s a discernment process that requires a deep investment of time and energy.
The journey of funding forward should begin not inside the church, but outside in the neighborhood. When money and resources are tight, it’s easy for scarcity thinking to creep in. We tend to focus inward on the people, money, and assets we do have, rather than looking outward to the community we are called to serve. We need to reconnect with the neighborhood to understand: Who is in our community? What are their needs and dreams? Where is God already present and active in the neighborhood? How might we follow God into mission?
I get it—talking to strangers can feel like a scary and daunting task, particularly in the midst of a pandemic. Start by listening to the congregation members and friends who live in the neighborhood. Ask them the questions listed above; then, ask who you should speak to next. The process begins to unfold as a series of warm introductions, rather than cold calls.
Too often, congregations are too eager to decide their own mission without input from the neighborhood. Funding forward’s approach privileges the neighborhood’s needs over the church’s ambitions allowing partnerships to arise organically as the mission begins to take shape.
What is the living, breathing mission of your congregation? I’m not talking about the one woven on a tapestry that hangs in your fellowship hall or the one that graces the top of the page at the annual congregational meeting but one that all (or at least most) of your congregation members can articulate. What is your congregation’s role in meeting your community’s needs? How are you following God into mission in your neighborhood?
It is possible that the best way to serve your community’s needs is to close the doors, sell the property, and get out of the way, but in most cases I believe the Spirit has a way of weaving together the community and the congregation into a new partnership for the sake of God’s mission in your neighborhood. Take the time to pray, discuss, and discern God’s mission for your community. Resist the urge to rush the process and to only involve church leadership. Bring the larger neighborhood and church community into the discernment process.
Funding forward is about God’s mission for the church and the neighborhood before money even enters the conversation. You can’t begin to structure a more sustainable model for ministry unless you have a deep understanding of your mission and your context. The money portion of this approach has two moves: inward and outward.
First, before you begin looking for opportunities to generate additional revenue, look inward at your finances as they currently stand. How does the way you are using your assets and your money reflect the mission you have discerned? What changes need to be made? What things might you need to release or reduce to better align your finances with your mission?
Once you’ve looked inward, you’re ready to look outward for ways to bring in additional funds to create a more sustainable ministry that aligns with your mission in service to your neighborhood. This sustainable model will likely draw on a variety of different income streams with tithes and offerings being just one component. The possibilities are endless. You might solicit grants, sell church assets, create a crowdfunding campaign, repurpose your building for community use, start a social enterprise, monetize an existing service your church offers, or do something else entirely. These imaginative possibilities should emerge organically from your conversations in the neighborhood during the mission discernment process.
Funding Forward Invitation
For most congregations, funding forward is a process of death and resurrection. Death to a community center-esque, institutional model of church and rebirth into a congregation who exists to serve its community. Death to the rose-colored glasses of the “good old days” and rebirth into a more sustainable, innovative future.
Would you like to join us on this resurrection journey? We’d love to have you join us in the Funding Forward Learning Community starting in January 2021. My team and I will guide you through the funding forward process from start to finish. We’ll help you enhance your financial leadership skills, understand your congregation’s finances, connect more deeply with your neighbors, discern your mission, and begin to experiment with new ways of funding your work. You’ll hear from leaders who have put these ideas into practice in their own contexts learning not only about the flashy end result but the long and winding journey it took to get there. You’ll have the privilege of walking beside eleven other congregations who are embarking on the same journey—who will challenge, encourage, and hold you accountable.
Ready to get started? Apply today!
Funding forward isn’t about finding new tools for congregational stewardship, but rather a transformative journey seeking to connect money and mission in your neighborhood. Over the next year, I look forward to sharing more stories about what funding forward looks like in context from our learning community and beyond. As you hear these stories, I encourage you to resist the urge to grab the specific innovations from these faith communities and try to apply them without the necessary reflection. Instead, look at the tools they used in their process: What new ways did they find to connect with neighbors? How did they bring the congregation together for discernment? Why did they choose those particular funding sources? How did they measure their success? We hope to equip you with the necessary tools to put funding forward into practice in your specific context.
Photo by deagreez.