The Very Personal Life of a Church Planter: Personal Money

The Very Personal Financial Life of a Church Planter is based on a series of short letters about money and sex that I sent to planters and visionary leaders at RENEW South Florida after I had the privilege to speak at their network meeting and spend some time with them. Love those guys.

The Two are Tied Together. One of the most common very personal concerns people have about planting a church is this: money. My money. Not so much how will the church start and survive. More, how will we survive. Good question. Important issue!

I’ve coached and advised more than one church planter who jumped in and started a church without a financial plan. All they needed were a few promises and a huge leap of faith. Some have since left the church plant. Lest you think planning solves all issues, let me say there are others who raise a lot of money but have little impact. There is no magic pill or short cuts. But God’s given us some wisdom and experience that I hope will help you thrive while you plant.

Financial issues are hard on all planters and their families. How you start a church impacts your family and what you do as a family impacts your plant. I hope this advice helps you live well in a sustainable reproducing church.

Consider your wife. As with sex and intimacy (future post), finances can be a significant but relatively hidden point of contention between planters and their wives (or if you’re not yet married, your future wife). You will face temptation to consider short-cuts or cheats that will provide the money for plans you just ‘have to have’ and gratification you think need. Like past sexual conduct, financial decisions made prior to starting a church plant or during a start-up can hinder intimacy, cut into resources for rest and limit flexibility to live and give generously. 

Consider your context and public persona. Financial decisions impact public opinion of you and your church. Whether we like it or not, most people outside the church form their initial opinion of every pastor through the lens of what they see with TV preachers, remember from past bad experiences or hear by way of gossip. The public persona of all clergy isn’t pretty. You are guilty by association until proven innocent by your faithfulness over time. So does the car you drive matter? Yes. What about your clothes? Yes. Vacations? And yes. Your values are exhibited by the spending choices you make.

One financial adviser told my wife and I, ‘Every spending decision is a spiritual decision.’ And if you recognize that it is all God’s money, then you see the point. So is that meant to scare you? To load up some guilt or manipulate? No. Well, only if it’s real guilt. And if you are guilty, then let me encourage you to repent to the Lord and humble yourself. 

Take pains to set up your family finances and church financial practices to be dependent on the Lord, above reproach, trustworthy and able to withstand scrutiny. Here are some specifics

Ask Jesus about spending. Is it too much to ask the Lord about your spending decisions? I don’t know what you should buy or not buy. I don’t know what would be wise in New York compared to Atlanta compared to a small town. But the Lord does. And you have access to Him all the time. Ask Him. Teach your family to ask Him too.

Avoid debt. It’d be wise to have a rigorous plan to pay off all consumer debt before hitting the field. There is a moral question about raising money to start a church plant that will be used to pay off your personal debts. You may need to wait to start and work longer.

If you are thinking about planting in the future, curtail student loan debt. The crisis of student loan debt may be the next systemic road block we face to getting church planters on the field. (See ‘I Owe U’ by Krstina Bell, TIME October 31, 2011) Church planting assessment centers factor in debt load when they considering readiness for planting.

If your wife will be required to work to make debt payments that will add stress to the work of planting a church. It will limit time and energy for your marriage, family and church priorities.

Budget within your family and church context. Live on a written budget. Depending on where God calls you to plant, you will likely need to alter your lifestyles. But remember He supplies all your needs (Philippians 4:19). Some planters have larger reserves and family resources than others. Be aware you can over-adjust to the expectations of your culture too.

When we moved to plant a church, we did adjust to fit in. I hate TV but we got cable. I tossed my youth pastor duds and bought different clothes. Even learned to play golf. (Not well, but I can play.) The temptation to get an upgraded car did pass through my mind, but I settled on a used Accord. It is wise to live on the humble side of your context.

Always tithe and give. Lead by example. If you don’t tithe, you lack moral authority to ask others to tithe. Key people will see how much you give. When my integrity was questioned, those people stood up for us. 

Save. You’ll need margin in your life and the flexibility to give to important projects. Can’t do that if you are scraping by month to month. Current wisdom is have three to six months expenses in reserve. 

Contributing to your retirement is important too. The church should consult standards to determine the contribution. Believe it or not, one day you will retire…

Raise your support before you move or start public worship. Experienced fund-raisers agree: people give to ‘anticipated vision.’ So your urgent need to get support in place goes away after you move to the field. Once you start public worship, it’s exponentially more difficult to raise funds. Until all support is pledged, it is your part-time job. Raise at least 80% prior to moving to the field. If you are stuck here, I’m a coach who can help you.

Who Bears Your Burdens? One temptation is to put your faith in your finances. But that won’t save you. Finances are a terrible savior, whether you have a lot or too little for your comfort. Christ Jesus has taken the full weight of all your debts on Himself on the cross and knowing everything about your finances, God the Father punished Christ in your place. Trust Him, not your financial support. Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness bought for you on the cross and he will provide everything you and your family need.

In the next post, we’ll look at corporate best practices for church plants.

If you need more information about the very personal life of a church planter, seek out a gospel coach. Contact me if I can be of help.