The Looming Danger of Unsustainable, Staff-Heavy Churches

Two current statistical realities are pushing back against the perception that church growth leads to financial stability.

Church finances are not what they used to be.

In almost every conversation I have with small-church pastors I hear some version of, “I love the idea of being okay with doing small church well, but if I embrace that how can I pay the bills?”

This is a legitimate question.

The drive to get bigger sometimes feels like a matter of survival. But it’s not. Here are two current realities that push back against the perception that growth equals financial stability.

Reality 1: Debt Follows Church Growth

For most of my forty-plus years in pastoral ministry, the rule of thumb was that money follows church growth by six to twelve months. When new believers first start coming to church they cost you financially. It takes up to one year for them to start giving regularly.

According to Kent E. Fillinger of 3:STRANDS Consulting, and Christian Financial Resources, this is less true in recent years.

“Money follows vision” is an old adage. Here is a newer one: “Debt follows church growth.” Our annual surveys consistently show that larger churches are more likely to have debt. For example, in 2018, 92 percent of megachurches had debt compared with only 11 percent of very small churches.

Kent E. Fillinger, The Debt Debate (Christian Standard, July 22, 2019)

Church size is not the problem. But most of our traditional church structures are becoming far less affordable, so it’s reasonable to see how the larger structures required by bigger churches will be even less affordable.

As I wrote in Small Church Essentials, and have repeated in more worskshops than I can count, “bigger fixes nothing.” This includes church finances. Not only will getting bigger not fix a church’s financial problems, it may make them worse.

As counterintuitive as it feels, bigger churches are less affordable than smaller ones. (There are some exceptions to this rule, as Fillinger notes, so I encourage you to check out his article, The Debt Debate, for details.)

Getting bigger is not the answer for a church that’s struggling with financial viability. If we have a poor financial model, increasing our size will only increase our financial troubles.

De-sizing the Church - Available Now!

Here’s another new reality about church size and finances:

Reality 2: Big Churches Are Top-heavy

So, why do big churches tend to have such high debt? One reason could be some top-heavy hiring practices.

The Unstuck Church Report for the first quarter of 2024 showed that the average American church has one Full Time Equivalent pastor (FTE) for every 54 attendees. That seems to match previous eras in which a church of 50 could afford a full time pastor.

But let’s look deeper. Here’s how Unstuck summarized their findings in their newsletter:

We received survey responses from 355 churches, ranging from under 100 to over 10,000 in physical attendance for worship gatherings. The average in-person attendance of churches that participated was 870 people. This provides a very current snapshot of ministries of all shapes and sizes.

Here are a few highlights from the data:

  • The average in-person attendance over the previous 12 months increased by 18%.
  • The number of people who went public with their faith by being baptized was 14% of this year’s average in-person attendance.
  • Staffing levels remain high compared to attendance. The average church employs one full-time equivalent (FTE) staff person for every 54 attendees.
— (Words in bold as they were in the newsletter)

So, The Unstuck Group surveyed 355 churches (a solid sample size) that ranged “from under 100 to over 10,000” (a solid range of sizes). But here’s the kicker. “The average in-person attendance of churches that participated was 870 people.”

That’s way above the typical church size of under 65! So, this survey, while broad, is not representative of the typical American church, but of the large American church.

What this actually shows is that big churches become very administratively top-heavy. It’s almost certainly why most large churches carry so much debt.

The typical very small church (89 percent of which are debt-free) is not putting themselves at financial risk. The megachurch with massive staff numbers and debt (92 percent of them) is. So, a small church that’s trying to follow the megachurch standard is not helping themselves. They’re putting themselves at greater risk because they have so few people to bear the burden of top-heavy structures.

Beyond Extra-Biblical Structures

Life is not easy for the typical small church. Today’s basic costs of living make it much harder for us to have a permanent building and full time clergy.

And if you’re trying to plant a new church in a large, expensive city? The challenges may seem insurmountable.

But there’s nothing in the Bible that requires a church to have a permanent building, a full time pastor, a sound system, or office space in order to be a strong and healthy congregation.

We are now in an era when we need to consider some radical new ways (and some radical old ways) of being the church.

We must start seeing beyond, then stepping outside the extra-biblical structures and the extra-biblical drive for “bigger” that we have trapped ourselves in. Those structures have created a top-heavy bureaucracy that we can no longer afford financially, structurally, or missionally.

For instance, I’ve talked with several pastors who have told me about their denominational polity (not their theology, mind you) which requires pastors to have an advanced degree (a masters or a doctorate) before they’re allowed to perform most of the pastoral functions that could easily be done by any committed believer. Their structure is making the pastorate too expensive to pursue.

In other church traditions, it’s a commitment to a historic building that’s draining the funds. Still others are pursuing every new, expensive trend and gimmick, putting themselves in debt and calling it faith.

The problem isn’t inflation, lack of generosity, or even a lack of spiritual hunger (which most stats show is strong and rising), it’s an adherence to old, extra-biblical formats and structures that are so ensconced we hardly see them anymore.

Our commitment to the church’s mission must be bigger than our adherence to old church structures.

(Photo by Shelley Vaters)


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