I know, I know. I don’t like talking about it either. But maybe you can learn from some of our missteps.

When we first planted The Restoration Project, we were idealistic. We wanted to do things differently, in a lot of ways, and money was certainly one of them.

Doug (TRP’s co-pastor) and I both came from contexts where it was not uncommon for the senior pastor to make a lot of money, and we were also well aware of churches that had huge notes on their buildings. Now, I don’t want to incite discussions on the “monetary value” of a pastor (I firmly believe they should be paid; it’s incredibly hard work), nor do I want to engage the pro’s and con’s of having a big building (I’m sure there are both). For us, the numbers we saw were unsettling – from inflated staff salaries to budgets that were building-centric out of sheer necessity. This led us, initially, to commit ourselves to bi-vocational ministry. The downside was we worked two jobs. The upside was we didn’t have to take a salary from the church for the first year.

Also, when TRP first launched, we were meeting in a home. So we didn’t have a rent payment. We eventually outgrew our first space, but we moved down the street to a local Lutheran church where they graciously charged us $25/week.

With no salaries and a rent payment that didn’t even cover the electric we were using, we were able to devote a large portion of our budget to “missional spending” (supporting other ministries and non-profits) and benevolence. We still do. And we are committed to it. We believe that this is the work of the church. Since we began in 2013, we have committed anywhere from 18%-35% of the budget to these categories during a given six-month budget cycle.

35% is insane. We know that. Sadly, our percentage has steadily declined as we have added “staff” members and as we have had to cut the budget due to diminished giving. We are hopeful to keep the number around 20%, if possible. I read a study recently that claimed the national average for church benevolence is 1%. That is also insane. I think that’s what we shirked when we first started TRP. We didn’t want to have a budget that was so demanding with regard to internal spending that it left no room for giving. Instead, we wanted to have the freedom to meet some practical needs outside of the doors of the church and to partner financially with some great ministries, both of which we have done.

Here’s the problem.

We rarely talk about this in our services.

We don’t really hold our members accountable with regard to finances.

We don’t present opportunities for people to give beyond setting up a box in the back of the building and reminding people that said box is, in fact, “back there,” as they gather their things to leave.

Worse yet, we don’t celebrate the awesome stuff that their giving enables us to do.

Part of our issue is, we are scared to play into the whole “church and money” ideology that dominates our culture. It is a preconception of many that the church just wants your money, and as a result, we have struggled to ask members and attenders to partner with us financially for fear that it would come off as too “expected.”

Due to our hesitation, we also haven’t moved towards financial sustainability in our almost four years as a church start. We haven’t been able to establish livable salaries for pastors and staff, and we haven’t been able to save enough money to cover ourselves for too long if we are forced to move from our current space.

I’ve said the following line a lot in casual conversation recently, too much probably: “If I were to die or if something were to take me away, I’m not sure is anyone would pastor this church on my salary.” Sometimes I say it tongue in cheek, but honestly, it’s one of my biggest fears for the longevity of TRP.

NT Wright has a throwaway line about the messiness of Paul’s Greek syntax in 2 Corinthians 8-9 (the bit about giving). He says something to the effect that Paul’s uncharacteristically sloppy grammar suggests that he’s uncomfortable talking about money too!

Whether or not that is true (I doubt it… Paul doesn’t mince words too often), to the young church starter reading this, talking about money and presenting opportunities for people to give to the local church is not wrong…especially when you are being prayerful in how you spend and where you spend. Rather, to avoid it is just bad discipleship. And for a church starter struggling to move a young church toward sustainability, it’s also bad leadership.

So this is what we are doing for the sake of our community and our continued growth… we are learning to encourage people to trust God with their finances, to live simply, to avoid consumerism, to be generous, and to partner with us financially. And we are committing ourselves to celebrate the wins.

All of this means, we have to talk about money from time to time.

As a church starter, you have, no doubt, made some bold financial decisions, both personally and with your church’s finances. Let’s invite our communities into those stories with us. Let’s set budgets that are radical. Let’s model what it looks like to give. Let’s be creative (and honest) with how we communicate our needs. Let’s be bold with the opportunities we have to help others. And as cliched as it sounds, let’s trust God to provide the means.

Josh James
pastor, The Restoration Project
Salisbury, MD