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Paul Nixon’s Fabulous Four

When I work with congregations, I bring with me strong composite trends that have accumulated over time from the many churches I have served as coach and/or consultant. Sound formulas allow me to process a church’s situation and its possibilities faster.  Here are four of my favorites. (DISCLAIMER: there are plenty of contexts that require an adjustment of these ratios a little, this way or that. Like a basic recipe that gets altered to suit particular tastes or geography, these numbers are offered as a good starting point from which you might experiment.)

Budget Formula: 55-15-15-15

In a conventional church budget, expect 55% for payroll costs, no more than 15% for debt service, around 15% for mission and denominational support and 15% for everything else. We generally assume that the debt service is mostly mortgage on facilities. When I see 38% going for payroll, I usually see a grossly understaffed – or underpaid – situation. Or when I see a church with 28% going for debt service – I know they will under-fund just about everything from staff salaries to denominational support.

Administrative Formula: 3:2

This is the appropriate ratio of leader staff to support staff in a conventional local church (based on full-time-equivalents where two half-time people would equal one full time, and so forth). Leader staff would be pastors and ministry directors, people who publicly lead. Support staff are behind the scenes, managing and cleaning facilities, spending money, and providing administrative and communications support. If you have too few support people, you may end up with very expensive secretaries (i.e. the pastor and all the other ministry directors). Herb Miller used to prescribe a 1:1 ratio between leader staff and support staff. Improving technology and the rise of lay-led ministry teams causes me to amend the formula – but kudos to Miller, one of the pioneers in the modern field of church consulting!

Giving Unit Formula: 2 for 1

As a rule, for every older person that leaves a church, the church needs to add two people in order to break even financially. This means that, based on current trends, it may take up to 500 people in the not-so-distant future to collect the same income as a church of 250 today, especially if a whole group of octogenarians pass off the scene, replaced by thirty-somethings. Given the fact that most churches will not double in size, we will see massive restructuring of fixed costs and clergy deployment in order to meet this challenge. I expect coming generations of church-folks to attend fewer Sundays on average, and to allocate more of their charitable giving beyond their local church – unless their congregation can make one heck of a case that it is changing the world in a big way!

Participation Formula: 50-100-200

This is my favorite formula. In speaks to a tsunami-like shift about to hit the American church. In the 1990s, a relatively healthy church of 200 members saw 100 persons in worship on a typical Sunday, with about 50 people doing most of the work. And the lion’s share of volunteering was directed internally toward church maintenance, classes and committees. In the 2020s, we will see just the opposite in a very healthy church. The church of 50 members will have 100 persons in worship and 200 persons engaged in mission work, most of it directed outside the church, focused largely on helping others. This means the majority of our hands-on ministry personnel in the future may not be members, worship attendees or donors… yet.  This formula does not assume a loss of worship attendance, but there will be loss in the majority of places. Add in the expected loss in per capita income: and you can expect big changes coming soon to almost every church near you!

What formulas have you found useful in your ministry setting?

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