At Last – Not Free

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Listen to “At Last – Not Free” by Fred Smith


Max Pennywise, a local small business owner and new Chair of the Long-Range Planning committee at First Church had just finished reading the latest book on making churches sustainable – “Five Steps to Freedom: An Innovative Business Model for Congregations.” In it, he discovered how the leadership of First Church could move from dependency on donors to creating a business approach that was not only responsive to the customers but would guarantee a future based on effectiveness and efficiency. After all, with the number of people attending weekly services on the decline, an aging population of loyal donors, an increase in staff expenses for mandated benefits, and changes in tax laws that would make funding fluctuate even more, there was clearly a need and opportunity for something innovative and fresh.

Max began by telling us, “All the studies have shown that people are only committed when they have skin in the game and there is high commitment. People do not value what they receive for free.”

He then led the committee in a rousing new chorus sung to the tune of “Why Can’t A Woman Be Like A Man” from “My Fair Lady”:

“Why can’t our First Church be more like my store?
Expenses are measured, from ceiling to floor.
Our income sustaining, our staff growth flat.
Why can’t our First Church be like that?”

The energy in the room was infectious and ideas easily flowed after Max’s assuring them there were no stupid suggestions. Small groups formed, Post-It notes soon covered every wall, while newsprint and easels were arranged according to topics and areas of interest. It was going to be a new day and First Church would soon be a model for congregations around the country.

“We need to analyze all our activities and create profit centers that will maximize our investment in overhead.”

“We need to adopt Charles Handy’s Shamrock model that reduces our staffing to a small core of full-time people with benefits and the rest being either contract labor or part-time. Every full-time position (pastor included) will be scrutinized from a cost-benefit perspective. What tangible and measurable benefit does that position add to the bottom line?”

”Everything we do now for free needs to be questioned and reduced or eliminated unless it leads to another purchase of a service or product.”

“Increase initiatives expanding net revenue – like bookstores, coffee bars, pay-per-view worship, publishing, daycare, valet parking, and boost rental income for unused space during the week.”

“No more free pizza for youth groups.”

“No more free parking.”

“No more subsidies for mission trips and leadership will pay their own expenses.”

“Spin off our low-performance Sunday School classes and charge membership dues for those remaining. Use the cable television plan – basic (Bible study), premium (class parties) and third tier (personal at-home instruction by the teacher).”

”Orchestra, mezzanine, and balcony seating tickets for the worship services.”

“Reduce staffing by 80% and replace them with high-capacity volunteers or interns.”

“All remaining staff professional development will be done online with no more conventions, conferences, or travel and lodging.”

“Increase hospital visits and attention to elderly members with estate planning seminars.”

“By 2030 reduce our dependence on tithes and offerings by 80%. Ultimately, our goal is being a congregation totally sustainable with no need for customers to pay for more than value received. We will be financially independent and, likely, operating at a profit. Freeloaders will go elsewhere. Our paying members will have more options to give to other non-profits and ministries that are still, regrettably, dependent on donations.”

I don’t have space enough to include all the flurry of suggestions that came out of the group. I likely missed some of the best as one led so rapidly to another. Once they got going they could not write them down fast enough. As well, it is too soon to tell how many of them will be implemented. The list still needs to be approved by several more committees, a task force and then a congregational vote. After that, their recommendations will be sent to denominational headquarters and be evaluated. That could happen by December of 2029 and then we’ll see what the net effect is. I’ll keep you in the loop.

Yes, I know this is a fiction and you saw right away that it was tongue-in-cheek and not to be taken seriously. Except, I do believe there is a genuine danger in the current fascination with “sustainability” and working to create less reliance on donors. Dependence on giving is not an obstacle to be overcome. It is a gift for both parties.

The story goes that Thomas Aquinas during a visit to the Vatican was shown the Treasury. “See, Thomas, no longer can the Church say silver and gold have I none.” Thomas replied, “That’s true, but neither can it be said, “In the name of Jesus, rise and walk.”


*”The Payment of the Tithe” by Pieter Brueghel the Younger.


Fred Smith
Fred Smith is a graduate of Denver University and Harvard Divinity School. He spent several years as teacher and administrator at Charlotte Christian School and The Stony Brook School before co-founding Leadership Network with Bob Buford and serving as President for 12 years. Fred is the Founder of The Gathering, an international association of individuals, families and private foundations giving to Christian ministries. Fred will tell you his true vocation is that of a Sunday School teacher and it is this role for which he would most like to be remembered. Fred and his wife, Carol, have two grown daughters and a son-in-law. They also have three well-loved grandchildren.
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Showing 10 comments
  • Steve Perry

    Dependency on giving also affirms our dependency upon God for our provisions.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith

      I agree – but I think we are in the minority. We don’t like to recognize dependency as a rule.

  • Joe Wu

    Hi Fred:

    Your tongue-in-cheek story reminds me of the statement by the Rich Fool: “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take it easy. Eat, drink, and be merry!” (Lk. 12:19.) We all know how that turned out!

    Thank you for reminding us again that in God’s upside-down kingdom, a self-sustaining, perpetual existence is never the goal when we are called to live with a kingdom mindset in full dependence on Him who promised to care for and sustain us much more than the ravens in the air and the lilies of the field. (Lk. 12:22-31.) Amen.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith

      Thank you, Joe. Everything in us argues for self-sustainability – even with the church. I like that “upside-down Kingdom” image!

  • Tony

    Careful Fred. All the folks whose job it is to build endowments will have a contract out on you! Very contrarian line of thinking. Like it.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith

      You know how I hate to be contrarian. “Endowed cats don’t catch mice.”

  • Jeff

    Amen. Thanks, Fred.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith

      Thank you, Jeff. Keep writing. The world is changing.

  • Alyson Hinkie

    Scary – and well done.

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