What Do Churches Do With Your Money?

 

This past Sunday I had the chance to share a little story with my church about what giving has meant to me. I’d like to share that with you—as well as some insight into church finances.

 

The Differences Between a Church and a Company

If the church were a business, I would never invest in it. It exhibits some of the worst properties of a business.  A good business tries to not only grow its profits, but de-risk itself in the process. If a company can do that, it becomes a great business. I’ll give you an example.

A Great Business

(Disclaimer: I write this without having read McDonald’s financials. I also make no recommendations on this stock. This is for the sole purpose of examining the business model and nothing more. I could’ve chosen any other franchise and written the same thing.)

What does McDonald’s do really well? Sell burgers? Make food quickly?

Nope.

McDonald’s did not really sell you the burger you bought for lunch. The franchisee did. The franchisee takes on the risk of your buying fewer hamburgers than he had planned. His business is a B to C (business to consumer), and if his consumers buy less product, he still has to pay his fixed costs like rent, licenses, and the wages of folks he hired to fill the shift, even if they are standing around since there are no customers… but at least his costs are mostly variable. He can buy fewer patties next week to adjust.

 

The franchisee took on that risk in exchange for using the McDonald’s name to sell more burgers. McDonald’s has de-risked itself by becoming a licensing company, and is a B to B (business to business) company. It can now scale, since it collects licensing fees, and spend money promoting its brand to not only entice you to buy burgers from one of its franchises but also compel people to own a franchise (… to pay it a licensing fee). That’s what good franchisers do well.

  • So McDonald’s is really a B to B licensing business (great business model)
  • The franchisee is a B to C products business (average business model)
  • The church is… a weak model.

The Business of Church

Now we get to the business model of a church. Churches are more like a services business… except, really, they’re worse.

Service businesses are generally hard to scale. For example, a consulting company needs to hire consultants to fill its projects. For every $10 it makes, let’s say it pays $6 in salaries. If it makes $20, it has to hire and pays $12 in salaries. What if it goes to $8? Since consultants are full-time employees of your firm, if sales decline your choice is to either increase the price of your services or fire employees. So to make it worthwhile the best service businesses are B-to-B: selling to businesses means larger projects from a more stable client base.

Since churches don’t have a product, their costs are more fixed (like a consulting business). It has limited scaling by increasing attendance. In addition, it doesn’t offer its services to a business—it offers services directly to people—so churches are a sort of B-to-C service business.

When a services business has lower sales, it has the option to raise the cost of its service if customers will bear it. A church has none of that pricing power. It doesn’t charge for it services.

It relies on giving. And when giving is down, it has to appeal to more giving or reduce its salaries. Grace is free, but a church needs money to provide these services. This is why it’s so important to give to non-profits you believe in. They are horrible business models and your giving is the lifeblood under which they can continue to operate.

How Giving Changed My Life

It was 2000. I had just moved to New York from Los Angeles. I wasn’t sure if I was going to stick around the East Coast for more than a year but figured I should attend a church anyway, so I landed at Redeemer Presbyterian Church and joined a Bible study near me. About a month after I joined the study, in walked someone new… and she was cute. She had a short, pixie haircut, and a smile that warmed your face from across the room. There was just something about the way she carried herself that was unique.

After the study finished for the night, she came over to help me load the dishwasher. As you can imagine, I was nervous and awkward the entire time. Finally, I got up the nerve to ask her what had been on my mind the whole night:

“Are you from California?”

As she was loading the top rack with cups, she turned her head to me and said, “I’m from Jersey.”

Oh.

I tried to recover. “You strike me as a Berkeley girl. Did you go there?”

“Nope. Penn.”

This will never work out.

6 years later, it didYou’re thinking: What does this have to do with church finances and giving?

Well, I didn’t give to the church back then. I didn’t even have a full-time job. I worked at Banana Republic and made just enough to cover my $20 daily fee for the Spanish Harlem hostel where I lived and a lunch and dinner of hot dogs and papaya juice.

If the generous people of Redeemer didn’t support the church, there would have been no church in the first place—so no bible study. The generous giving of others led to some of my best friends, my wife, and my three children.

See, when you walk into church you may think of the services provided as preaching, worship space, childcare, even music. Yes, and all of those cost money to provide. But the real service a church provides is reinvesting your funds back into your spiritual growth and providing a platform for you to experience a community of deep, authentic friendships.

Many of us have met our best friends in church—or will. A church is filled with hundreds of potential best friends. Behind all your memories of these important friendships is the investment of folks who sit around you on Sundays. Their investments in you have compounded in ways seen and unseen.

 


We are in the final weeks of the year. We are all busy—trust me, I can relate. The weeks from late October through the very moment I’m typing these words have been completely overwhelming.

But please take time to consider any year end giving to causes you believe in.  Non-profits may be horrible business models, but you are not investing in them but the beneficiaries of their research and service.  Give: You’ll be happier and your investment is guaranteed to have great returns.


(Want more insight on the power of giving and why I started this website? Go here.)

Next: How Much Should Christians Give?

 

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4 Comments

  • Lauren Fortenberry December 15, 2016 at 11:04 pm

    Excellent perspective. I, too, met my spouse in church (yet ANOTHER connection) but had never considered all the stewardship that supported our meeting. My husband and I committed ourselves to tithing in marriage, and I’ve got to say the church really begins to feel more like a business when you invest your hard-earned dollars. But, as you suggest here, giving to the church requires multiple layers of faith. And, you know, I would rather take my chances where Jesus is the center!

    Reply
    • JT December 16, 2016 at 12:30 pm

      That’s as safe a bet as you can make!

      People often forget that churches aren’t public goods and church employees still need to feed their families. By the same token, I think it’s important to be smart investors in nonprofits as well. If a church is trying to raise money to buy a fancy chandelier, I’m not only not giving but leaving that church.

      Reply
  • Mark December 17, 2016 at 5:40 pm

    Good points all around. Another reason to invest in your church is the outward mission of the church. I appreciate that our church invests a percentage of its funds on missionaries domestic and overseas, and programs like an orphanage and a Christian reforestation program.

    Reply
    • JT December 26, 2016 at 10:27 pm

      Great points, Mark! In the same way that God cares a lot about how we invest His resources given to us, He also cares about how the money we invest is being further invested. Churches aren’t off the hook just because they’re organizations.

      This site could use some of your wisdom. Perhaps a guest post from you?

      P.S. Christian reforestation? That sounds fantastic.

      Reply

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