Survey Explores Churches with Lean Staff Costs

One in seven U.S. churches spend 35 percent or less of their total budget on staff costs, a new survey shows.

With churches looking for ways to cut back on certain expenses, Leadership Network partnered with Your Church magazine and Leadership Journal to find out whether it's possible to do ministry with "lean staffing."

The good news: it is possible, said Warren Bird, research director at Leadership Network.

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Churches, on average, spend nearly half their budget on staffing.

The survey is intended to help churches determine ways to move toward a leaner staffing approach.

"We know churches right now are thinking a lot about the economy and taking a hard look at their budgets," said Matt Branaugh, editor of Your Church magazine. "Personnel costs obviously being such a big expenditure and most likely the biggest, it seemed like this would be a good time for them to assess what their spending and assess those staffing strategies."

Though the survey, released Wednesday, did not go into depth on how churches actually are able to work with a lean staff, the researchers sought to provide an initial picture and possibly a conversation starter for churches reevaluating their budgets.

The total 2009 church income of surveyed churches was roughly the same between lean staff churches and other churches that apportion a larger part (more than 35 percent) of the budget to staff costs. Both lean staff churches and other churches had budgets ranging from $75,000 to over $10 million.

According to the survey, churches with larger attendance numbers were more likely to spend less of the total budget on staff costs. While churches with 100 attenders spent half of their budget on staffing, churches with 6,000 or more apportioned around 42 percent of their budget to staff costs.

Lean staff churches averaged one paid staff per 86 attenders compared to the other churches which averaged one paid staff per 70 attenders.

Notably, multi-sites had the same staff-cost ratio as single-site churches. A quarter of both lean staff churches and other churches were multi-site.

Churches with leaner staffing costs had a larger percentage of their budget directed toward "ministry beyond one's own congregation" such as missions and community outreach.

Overall, churches with lean staff budgets do more with volunteers and lay leadership development, outsource certain staff jobs, tend to have poorer congregations and have extra income sources beyond donations from members. And, to a lesser extent, lean staff churches are larger in size (attendance), growing, younger in average attender age, younger in age as a church, located in an older residential area and using at least three part-time staff for each full-time staff.

Though researchers suggest churches to consider lean staffing, Bird noted that they are not encouraging "unhealthy situations of overworked staff or unreasonable work conditions."

They are simply asking, "Are you happy with where you are, knowing that other churches have figured out some ways to do it differently. [Are] there ways you might want to explore moving that way (lean staff approach)?"

The survey was conducted in January 2010 on Protestant churches with attendances ranging from 52 to 28,000. Findings are based on 735 responses.

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