We Have Three Years to Figure This Out


That’s what my new friend Charles LaFond told me when we met recently at a retreat outside of Atlanta.

Charles is the Canon for Congregational Life in the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. Charles is also, as I discovered, a master potter and farmer, but in his work with the Episcopal Church he is responsible for planned giving, capital campaigns, membership growth, and many other things dealing with attendance and finances.

The three-year timeframe he was talking about referred to a revelation he had recently in regards to the major generational shifts that are happening in the Church and the radical impacts they will have on faith communities for the future. His calculations are this:

  • The primary years that Episcopalians pledge and give to their church are between the ages of 50 and 70.
  • Around 2015 (three years from now), the oldest Baby Boomers will begin moving out of the 50-70 age range, and the oldest Generation Xers (my generation) will begin moving into that age range.

Of course, there are two huge problems with this generational transition (which I believe will affect most aging mainline Protestant churches, not just Episcopal churches):

  1. There are far fewer Gen Xers than there are Baby Boomers and older, so there’s no way we can “replace” those who will stop giving (based on the population numbers alone).
  2. Generation X is the first generation that will no longer give to support anything based on affiliation (e.g., “I’m an Episcopalian/Disciple/Lutheran/Methodist/[fill in the blank], therefore I’ll give to my local [fill in the blank] church”).

Charles’ conclusion: Churches for the first time ever will need to really earn people’s participation and financial support, rather than simply expecting the “members” to remain engaged and cover all the costs.

According to Charles, “The average small church requires about $220,000 to exist with a clergy person, and I am not sure Generations X and Y are willing to pay the bills required for their wedding photos to be well-staged. I love our churches. … But I think the future of the church will be house-churches which use the church building as a meeting house.”

Charles also shared this amazing story of a new community gathering space being envisioned in his area.

What do you think about these calculations? What should we do in the next three years?


Bonus Points
My friend and pastor Dennis Teall-Fleming has written a scathing, honest, critical but ultimately hopeful article for Dmergent.org called “Let It Die,” which addresses these financial realities, especially as they related to our tribe (Disciples of Christ).

This question of funding our future churches will be the primary focus of the upcoming Funding The Missional Church conference, May 1-3, in Minneapolis. I’m looking forward to being there, and I hope you’ll make plans now to join me and continue this extremely important conversation!



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Posted on 03-07-2012


  1. Rich Nicoloff via Facebook says:

    March 7th, 2012 at 10:14 am

    Think outside the “box”.

  2. Travis Greene says:

    March 7th, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    I think this is probably right, though I also think there’s room in certain contexts for something between meeting in homes and the high-overhead single-use buildings of yore. Partnership with nonprofits, businesses, collectives of congregations who share space, etc. Team up with a Jewish or 7th Day Adventist congregation that gathers on Saturdays, for instance. Build more intentional communities, so it’s unclear if your church meets at a home or if some of you live at church. We’ll all have to be more flexible, creative, entrepreneurial, and neighborly, certainly. That strikes me as a good thing.

  3. Rev. Dennis Teall-Fleming says:

    March 7th, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    Didn’t Phyllis Tickle give us 18 months to turn things around, like, 2 years ago? My take, in the spirit of my Dmergent article, is that we’re way past these Rubicon crossings. It’s time to get rid of these buildings that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and concentrate on people, where they are, which isn’t in the buildings. We don’t have three years, our time is already up. There is no desire to cover costs for things that just don’t matter anymore. No more thinking outside the box. Sell the box, and be the Church.

  4. Steve K. says:

    March 7th, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    Dennis – Phyllis was referring to something else when she made her “18-month window” comments. She was talking about the opportunity that mainline denominations have to embrace what is emerging (or miss the boat). My article is about the trends in financial giving that are currently supporting the existing churches out there — and how that financial support is going away *quickly*. So, in a sense, my article is a compliment to yours (http://dmergent.org/2012/03/07/let-it-die/). My is more informational, yours is more prophetic 😉

  5. Nathan says:

    March 7th, 2012 at 10:53 pm

    Yes – this is such a critical perspective and question and it needs to get passed around.

    For churches who are not in debt and have a relatively small plant and maintainable facilities, this isn’t quite the challenge that other congregations who are still paying off facilities or have a huge plant and shrinking congregation. I’m at a church that has some challenges along these lines, and it’s tough. Space can be a boon, but space can also be the millstone around your neck.

    I think we’ll see more churches enter the grant field to try to grab what money they can for specific programs and outreach efforts. I think we’ll see more shift to part-time ministers. I think we’ll see more creative funding efforts, like rummage sales, bake sales, or whatever that can support some of the programs of the church in fun, inventive ways.

    The big challenge is that ultimately seminary education will have to change – our professors are going to have to be paid less too. That has lots of implications on the old systems and structures.

  6. Taylor Burton-Edwards says:

    March 9th, 2012 at 8:01 am

    Not quite buying it.

    There’s a rather dramatic statistical leap from “the oldest baby boomers will move out of the 50-70 year range 3 years from now” to “we’ve got three years to figure this out.” Maybe if you want to try to force the conversation in a certain way, you might assert this. But the stats themselves don’t say that.

    What they actually say is that there will be a substantial number of boomers still for at least another 13 years.

    And it’s simply not the case the one can generalize about younger people that “they won’t give to institutions.” Likewise, it was just as true of the boomers that they did NOT give to institutions per se, but in fact to institutions that had earned their trust.

    This has been a pretty common awareness in the non-profit philanthropy world for quite some time– and it’s why you saw United Way, for example, moving away from funding programs toward funding measurable outcomes and positioning itself as a reliable community partner starting well over a decade ago. They weren’t just looking at GenX– they were looking at Boomers!

    But there’s a deeper issue here that is vital to missional Christianity– whether WE are forming people as stewards of all of God’s gifts to us, or whether we are forming them as consumers of their “preferred” goods and services. If we are doing the latter, in fact we missional folk will have much to fear about our own sustainability in this consumerist culture, because our values are not immediately gratifying or preferable relative to the sea of options out there. But if we– and denominations and congregations– do a better job of the former, I think we have every reason to trust God to supply what we actually need to participate as fully as we can in God’s mission.

    No more fear and nearby cataclysm scenarios, please. Pray the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into it…

  7. Steve K. says:

    March 9th, 2012 at 9:19 am

    Great thoughts, Taylor! I really appreciate the thoughtful pushback. Thanks for taking the time to share this here. Very good things for us to consider!

  8. Matybigfro says:

    March 9th, 2012 at 9:47 am

    I think the stat’s point out a three year closing of the door, this isn’t a mayan prophesy, churches aren’t going to implode on this day in three years time but if they haven’t started making changes to track with the culture shift they are unlikly to survive the next 30. The death of churches are usually long ugly things, the opurtunity to reverse the trend is often short.

  9. Randy Siever says:

    March 9th, 2012 at 10:26 am

    The underlying presumption here (which is quite natural given the proponent’s occupation) is that should funding dry up, the church will die. And yes, I know what he means, thanks to his concluding remarks about house churches. But the reality I’m seeing would not suggest that funding has anything to do with staying alive. Some of the wealthiest denominational churches I have spoken in are shrinking and graying, to the point where they have become desperate to save their “church”. Money is not an obstacle for them. These churches are dying primarily, in my opinion, because they have lost any focused mission outside of themselves (desperation will do that for a person or a group). Add to that a nostalgia for what used to be and a stubborn clinging to the past forms (and, in many cases, a bloated, self-serving bureaucracy that is sucking the life out of the local church), and you have a recipe for institutional suicide.

    Money is not the problem. Never really has been. Where there is clear mission/vision, one people are inspired by because it has NOTHING TO DO WITH THEM (aka: sacrificial), there is money. The problem is with priorities, and most mainline churches I’ve seen have long ago lost their first vision (if not their first LOVE).

    I could be wrong. But that’s what it looks like to me.

  10. Taylor Burton-Edwards says:

    March 9th, 2012 at 11:45 am

    I agree money is not the problem– but a symptom. But I wouldn’t leave this with the mainlines, Randy. The ONLY denominations even marginally related to Christianity that are not declining on all metrics are the Roman Catholic Church (immigration as key driver), Seventh Day Adventists, LDS, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

  11. Lazy Post | achurchforstarvingartists says:

    May 2nd, 2012 at 5:01 am

    […] Knight writes about the future of church finances here after spending time with Charles LaFond  –  Canon for Congregational Life in the Episcopal […]

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