The Church's Bottom Line

By Greg Garrison
Religion News Service
Saturday, November 11, 2006

BIRMINGHAM -- Generating as much as $25 million a year through 105 ministries, Briarwood Presbyterian Church touches the world like a multinational corporation.

"Fifty cents of every dollar goes outside the church -- whether it's Campus Outreach or Bangladesh," said the Rev. Bruce Stallings, Briarwood's executive pastor. "We are able to support missions all around the world."

Founded in a storefront in 1960, Briarwood operates what is probably the biggest church budget in Alabama, with ministries such as a ballet, a high school, a seminary and missions to prisoners, students and foreign countries.

Briarwood has an operating budget of $10 million, and collects $2.5 million more -- over and above tithes -- to devote to mission work. When all of its affiliate ministries are combined, the budget rises to about $25 million.

Similar vast corporate church operations are on the rise. The largest congregations -- those with memberships in the thousands and budgets in the millions -- operate like Church Inc.

They embrace the business side of religion, often recruiting staff with corporate experience and adopting business world methods -- hiring consultants, starting endowments and taking tithes electronically -- as they try to meet the challenge of handling God's business with accounting savvy but also spiritual integrity.

"There's a need to step up to a higher level of professionalism and accountability within churches," said former accountant, lawyer and seminary graduate Bryan Gunn, now minister of administration at Shades Mountain Baptist Church in Birmingham.

"A lot of churches operate on the philosophy that if you're not broke, you're not operating on faith," said Paul Berry of the Covenant Group, a Christian consulting group. "That's not good stewardship."

For the Rev. Chris Hodges of Church of the Highlands, also in Birmingham, it means running his congregation's $9.5 million budget like a corporation.

"I use more of my business degree than I do my seminary degree," said Hodges, who preaches to 4,000 people at three campuses on Sunday mornings with help from video feeds. "When you really treat it like a business, it reaches more people."

Churches have been updating their methods to deal with the delicate merger of faith and finance. The offering plate still gets passed, but now churches frequently accept bank transfers, bequests and stock donations. Many issue budgets that look like corporate annual reports -- Church of the Highlands does two a year, one on funding of projects outside the church and one on cash flow.

"I treat it like an annual stockholders' report," Hodges said. "Every person can see how every penny is spent."

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