Twice a year the Congregational Development Team has a very busy day. This year one of those days came on November 9. They heard presentations from 20 new church starts, asked them questions, and spent 90 minutes with Missouri Bishop Robert Schnase. To get this done, the team split in two, and had presentations running simultaneously in both conference rooms all day.
Through the years, the way the Missouri Conference funds these new church starts and revitalizations has evolved a lot.
“We used to be a reactionary board, where we would respond to requests, usually from a district, to fund a new church start or church revitalization,” said Director of Congregational Excellence Bob Farr. “Now we are working from a strategic plan of development.”
Farr has been at this a long time. He’s in his ninth year of being on staff at the Missouri Conference, in which a major part of his job is working with new church starts and church revitalization. He has previously served as chair of the Congregational Development Team for four years, and vice chair for another four. Before that he was part of a General Board of Global Ministries sub-team tasked with new church starts.
“There were only eight years, when I was on the Board of Ordained Ministry, when I wasn’t working on new church starts for the Conference,” Farr said.
And as a pastor, he started Grace UMC in Lee’s Summit, and was involved in church revitalization, the most notable being Church of the Shepherd in St. Charles.
Now when the pastors are making their pitches to the Congregational Development Team, Farr isn’t hearing anything new. These are all projects he has been working with year round, helping people analyze their potential, identify barriers and develop plans for the next steps. The District Superintendents and other conference leaders are involved in helping develop the plans.
That doesn’t mean the presentations made to the Congregational Development Team are just a formality or that their funding is a foregone conclusion. They are empowered to take a hard look at everything they are presented, and look at the proposal with fresh eyes.
“They are an outstanding advisory team,” Farr said. “Sometimes they will notice something that will cause us to reconsider an approach that we are taking.” It’s hard work for the team, but it’s also fulfilling.
“Being able to see new churches planted all over Missouri and the potential those ministries have to reach new people for the kingdom of God is something that breathes hope into my soul,” said Robyn Miller, team chair. “I really appreciate the leaders around the table and the hearts of the pastors who are planting new churches.”
The team as picks up some pointers from the planters when they hear what they’ve been up to.
“I had several take-aways from the presentations that I’m going to try at my church,” Miller said.
In round numbers, it costs about $300,000 for the Missouri Conference to start a new church. The first year the church receives $125,000 to cover the pastor’s salary and benefits, rent, marketing and other expenses associated with launching a new church. The second year it receives $100,000, and the third year it receives $75,000.
Benchmarks for growth and future viability are monitored along the way, and if the church appears that it will not reach a self-sustaining size by the end of the process, it may be discontinued at any point during the funding phase.
The actual amount of money being granted varies somewhat from year-to-year as churches are at different phases of development. In 2014 the Congregational Development Team funded churches with $862,000. This year it will grant just under $700,000.
The reason there are often more than three new churches starting at once is that well established local churches are often taking much of the expense of launching a new congregation on themselves. In other cases, a legacy church may have closed and gifted its facility and remaining financial assets to a new church start, reducing the need for Conference funding.
“At this time most of our new church starts are satellite campuses or restarts,” Farr said. “That cuts our costs in half.”
It’s not just less expensive for a new church to be attached to an existing one, it is generally more effective. Previously about one out of three new church starts continued beyond their launch period. Recently that success number has been closer to two out of three.