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."
Church of the Highlands, started in 2001, saves 50 percent of its income to avoid future debt. It paid $7 million in cash for 128 acres to build a $15 million campus that will open next year.
Multimillion-dollar budgets require a high level of professional management. The structure of many churches sometimes mirrors corporate America with financial professionals helping pastors, who themselves sometimes have business experience -- such as the Rev. Danny Wood of Shades Mountain Baptist Church, who used to be a BellSouth executive.
"It's a church, but it's also a business," said the Rev. Michael Moore of the 6,000-member Faith Chapel Christian Center in Wylam, Ala., who has a degree in business administration. "You have to measure your spending, but it's God's business."
In a way, churches have to meet the needs of members just as businesses meet the needs of customers, Moore said. Faith Chapel is spending $15 million to build a series of domes that will house a bowling alley, athletic center, teen disco and adult nightclub.
"If we only meet spiritual needs, where will people go to get the other needs met?" Moore said. "The purpose of money is to meet the needs of the people. We believe the heart of our ministry is meeting spiritual needs. We have other needs, to relate to people, to have fun. You can have fun and love God, too."
But ministers say God's business shouldn't be run like a corporation in all aspects.
"You don't treat church members like you would customers in a business," said Hunter Street Baptist Church administrator Morrell Dodd, a former vice president of the Bruno's supermarket chain. "The business side of what we do -- obviously there is one -- we prefer that be in the background."
Investment in church campuses can sometimes reach staggering amounts.
The 4,100-member Briarwood Presbyterian Church raised eyebrows in 1988 when it opened a $32 million campus. Gardendale's First Baptist Church has bought 145 acres along Interstate 65 for a new campus, and several years ago announced a $53 million building plan. Later, the church decided to build in phases and is working out the details.
Often, megachurch leaders hear criticism about spending so much money on facilities instead of on ministries such as feeding the poor.
Church leaders respond by saying that the reason their congregations -- and their offerings -- are so big is that they are meeting the needs of their members. By doing so with facilities and programs, the churches are able to keep growing and to fund other projects including missions work around the globe.
"Look at Briarwood -- every night, every day, that church is being used," said consultant Berry of the Covenant Group. "It's a big church that can meet needs."
A lack of business savvy and accounting can haunt a church when fraud happens. After a 1988 fire destroyed All Saints' Episcopal Church in Homewood, Ala., the trouble was compounded when a senior warden embezzled and spent $313,000 in insurance funds intended for rebuilding. The church did not press charges against the warden.
In July, the Presbyterian Church (USA) fired its treasurer, who admitted embezzling $102,000 in church funds. In 1995, the Episcopal Church fired treasurer Ellen Cooke, the wife of a priest, and sued her for embezzling $2.2 million in church funds.
Church business administrators warn that safeguards must be in place.
People almost expect a lack of ethics and financial impropriety in business; in church, it's inexcusable, said Gunn, the administrator at Shades Mountain Baptist. "We answer to a higher standard."
Following accounting procedures means nobody is ever alone with money, and different teams check it at different stages, Gunn said. One team counts money, another team makes a second count and still another team makes the deposit. The administrator has accountants backing him up.
"I need somebody behind me, so none of us are in a position to commit fraud and cover it up," Gunn said, adding, "It keeps you from being falsely accused."
When churches run their budgets with integrity and provide facilities that promote spirituality and support for ministry, churches are able to do more of God's work, Gunn said. "Out of that growth, people give," he said.
"We work very carefully to make sure we are in compliance with good management techniques," said the Rev. Gary Fenton of Birmingham's Dawson Memorial Baptist Church, which has a $7.2 million annual budget. "People have a right to expect the money and time they give to the church will be used in a way that glorifies God and helps humanity."