Monday, March 16, 2009

At $347,000 Per Baptism Maybe It’s Time To Rethink Church

(heads up since this is a religious post... a snarky religious post)

The absence of trust today is palpable. We don’t need to hear leaders, pundits and ordinary Joes talking about the breakdown of trust as the reality of the financial meltdown touches our lives—so many stories, of credit denied, of honest families victimized in financial scandals, of hardworking people losing their nest eggs in the stock market, of faithful employees laid off by companies they devoted themselves to for years… We can feel the distrust growing—in our banking system, government, corporations, even religious organizations.

How do we stop this? What treatment can heal these deep wounds? Wide sweeping federal policy? Complete reform of our banking system? State and local initiatives? Independent corporate reform through industry associations? Spiritual reformation?

There is also denial in the air. Last week in a board meeting of a nonprofit I am committed to the executive director stated that their umbrella association told them that even during downturns giving remains consistent. I silently shook my head but didn’t get a chance to remind them this isn’t just any downturn. When some of their wealthiest donors lose 50% of their wealth and 18% of overall American wealth disappears, it will affect their giving.

While contemplating on these larger scale issues, I narrowed my thinking to Christendom because I wanted to revisit a number that kept bothering me after reading Al Lunsford’s piece, Business is Our Mission. Al referred to research that indicated a global cost of $347,000 per baptism. What?? I had to do a double take. Of course you cannot put price a soul, and no one knows what the Spirt of God is doing or how long that work will take in a person’s life (or how long it has gone on already), but that’s not what this is about. When Nike states their customer acquisition costs are $100 per person against a lifetime customer value of x, are they placing a value on human life? Of course not. They are using financial tools to pursue efficiency and improve their understanding and intelligently utilize resources. And that, we have to assume, is what that $347,000 per baptism number is all about as well.

As I’ve been thinking about this, it was interesting to learn from a friend that a large parachurch organization ran a similar analysis and found their cost of conversion to be approximately $300,000. Whether cost per baptism or cost per conversion, these financial exercises bring important questions to the forefront.

“$347,000” bothered me so much that I contacted the International Bulletin of Missionary Research who put together the insightful study that produced this number. I haven’t heard back after my initial inquiry, so I decided to do my own back-of-the-envelope calculations.

The International Bulletin of Missionary Research estimated $410 billion/year in giving to “Christian” causes worldwide over the recent years. This was broken down to $160 billion to churches and $250 billion to parachurch organizations every year. Let’s assume that $347,000 per baptism is simply the total giving of $410 billion divided by the number of baptisms tracked. If this simple method was used, then the cost per baptism is tremendously overstated since we would have to assume a large portion is allocated to the operations of those churches and parachurch organizations.

I am assuming the primary mission of these organizations has something to do with making followers of Christ. The question is how much is being spent on the core mission of these organizations and how effective are they? A comparable question in the business world is asking how much do we spend on marketing and how effective is our program? For many companies, the benchmark is approximately ten percent of budget. Ten percent of $410 billion is $41 billion, which would make the figure $34,700 per baptism.

I would assume though that a church and parachurch organizations should be more focused to their mission than a companies, and, one could argue, their core mission should be their only focus. If a church were a business, would it really only devote 10% of the budget to getting out their message? Eyeballing, 30% or higher seems more appropriate. If this really is the case, I think $104,000 per baptism—or higher—is flabbergasting. And I suppose if one went with the argument that the only mission of a church or parachurch is making new Christians—a premise I don’t think stands up to biblical scrutiny—then the simple arithmetic of total expenditures ÷ number of new converts = cost/baptism, more or less. $347,000.

$347,000, $104,000, even $34,700…all seem ridiculously high. It screams waste to me. How much is being spent on non-core programs or questionable activities? There are easy targets like some mega-church pastors who have private jets and chauffeur-driven limousines. I wonder if some of them have Ferris wheels in their backyards, rent out Disneyland for their children, or bought gold plated driveway gates with God’s money…

Most systemic problems are hidden and not so overt as that, so I don’t believe the bling bling pastors should carry the whole burden of waste. Over the past decades I’ve heard or read about pastors of small and medium size churches retaining secret slush funds or making questionable purchases for their families. But does this add up to billions in waste? Probably not.

I’m guessing most of these non-core expenditures are for ethical but non-essential purposes, so how do you make a judgment call on such things and who is held accountable? There is pressure to grow, to buy bigger buildings, build bigger parking lots, or to have a summer retreat lodge. Nowadays churches have to provide social services as much as delivering God’s word. Golf groups, open gym, counseling and so on. Nothing is wrong with these services but what do they have to do with extending the kingdom of God—especially if they pull followers of Christ out of the world to the supposed safety of Christian ghettos?

If churches were to model themselves after a business organization, I would say an ideal example is the advertising firm. Think Crispin Porter + Bogusky—a lean and mean organization with a team obsessed on their client’s ad campaign. Their creatives are up day and night sweating to develop the best methods of reaching into their client’s customer base. As in any great firm, they are conscience of their client’s dollar and how best to spend it.

Reality is different. Most churches wouldn’t be compared to an advertising firm. Maybe an auto manufacturer? Steel company? I’m thinking country club. High operational costs, high touch, and high service. Also they might be characterized as insular, having rigid semantic biases, and of course a snotty attitude towards non-members.

Maybe today’s financial crisis is a blessing for “Christian” organizations across the globe, but especially in the most developed nations. The larger scale issues point to systemic deficiencies across a our society that is crying for change. What are some of these changes?

Openness!

There needs to be a willingness to open up and reassess where these organizations stand. Leaders needs to ask hard questions and then to create change. This process takes wisdom, courage and humility. I was encouraged when I saw Bill Hybels’ 2008 leadership presentation on “the wake-up call of his life” when he and the Willow Creek Community Church staff discovered their programs were not effective in creating sustainable growth for believers. He asked the hard question: “Do you ever wonder if we’re using God’s money and God’s resources in ways that are really achieving the mission of our church?” Every church and parachurch organization should ask this question every month.

Transparency!
There should be transparency of organizational budgets. Technology allows for this, so why not put up detailed budgets on Google docs or a wiki for everyone to see? This transparency creates accountability beyond the pastor or executive director and maybe a board made up of long-time friends.

Focus!
It’s time to rethink the assumption that, if we build it—church campuses, religious non-profits, alternative communities within communities—they will come. Does God dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands? Do we really expect religious professionals, who are outsiders in the places we work, to communicate the good news of the kingdom of God to our colleagues, while we—the insiders—stand passively by, wishing we could contribute more?

Action!
It’s easy to criticize organizations in their inefficiencies, but I believe at least half of the problem rests in the people who fill up pews and fellowship meetings. Believers have become old country club members who love to lounge on the greens and talk shop with their buddies. Maybe some of us have had too many manicures and hate to dirty our fingers. Believers need to step out of the comfort zone and engage the world —not be afraid, not separate from the world, not arrogantly defying, but engaging the world as it is, not as it is supposed to be.

The tail is wagging the dog. Proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor does not require a 501(C)(3) corporation. The kingdom of God is not infrastructure dependent. New converts shouldn’t cost a nickel as they have already been paid for. At $347,000 per baptism, maybe it’s time to rethink Church.


Originally posted at InsideWork.

(HatTip to Al, Sam, Hamon, and Jim for insights, info and edits)

UPDATE: Good discussion going on over at InsideWork.

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