Searching for a book to challenge and inspire your favorite social entrepreneur? Want to dream of ways to repurpose your church buildings? Want to rethink what it means to be the church?
Look no further than the new book, We Aren’t Broke: Uncovering Hidden Resources for Mission and Ministry by Mark Elsdon (also available on Amazon).
Mark says that he “lives and works at the intersection of money and meaning as an entrepreneur, pastor, consultant, and speaker.” He is cofounder of RootedGood, which seeks to create more good in the world through social innovation; executive director at Pres House on the University of Wisconsin's Madison campus; and owner of Elsdon Strategic Consulting. He is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, USA, and lives in Madison, WI. Mark holds a BA in Psychology from UC Berkeley, a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and an MBA from the University of Wisconsin School of Business. Pretty darned impressive.
The term “game changer” gets thrown around far too often. However, this is one book (and one person) for whom the term is apropos.
As Mark helpfully summarizes, We Aren’t Broke “is a guide for churches and impact-focused organizations in using hidden assets, such as property and investments, to transform communities and thrive in the face of financial difficulty…it is a book that speaks hope into the financial struggles many churches experience today, especially as they emerge from the COVID-19 crisis.”
After reading his book, I wanted to know more. I had the opportunity to interview Mark Elsdon, via email. Buckle up for some inspiration.
Why call the book We Aren’t Broke?
There is a lot of talk in many church circles about how we don’t have the resources we used to have in the past. We talk about fewer people, fewer churches, fewer dollars. But if we re-examine our perceived limits and our assumptions about how resources are supposed to be used, then something remarkable and beautiful comes into view: we aren’t broke at all but have enormous resources at our disposal.
Church and missional organizations nationwide own trillions of dollars of prime property and investment assets, which, when combined with social enterprise and new expressions of mission, can be put to work for innovation and transformation. The western church collectively owns more wealth than ever in human history. And these resources are available to us right now.
What motivated you to write the book?
Ultimately, I want to see the church use its investment assets and property for new expressions of mission and ministry that transform lives and neighborhoods for good.
Imagine if every church-related organization took just 10% of its endowment out of the stock market and invested it in social entrepreneurs making a difference in the world. That would lead to hundreds of millions of dollars at work directly transforming lives rather than funding the development of the next Amazon Alexa-enabled device or expansion of Facebook.
Or imagine if every church building that will be sold in the next five years (which unfortunately, will be many) is considered as a site for affordable housing, a grocery coop, a community center, or some other social enterprise. That would continue the legacy of churches serving as anchor institutions for good in neighborhoods all over the country.
To me the message of We Aren’t Broke is one of hope, imagination, and promise. Despite decline in some traditional measures of church strength we are not broke. The church owns enormous capital wealth lent to us by God to do God’s work in the world. If even a few institutions, churches, and people do something differently with their resources as a result of reading this book that will give me immense joy.
Your model for resourcing churches depends a lot on external funding – utilizing church buildings in new ways. COVID has been devastating for churches who were doing just that. I have a clergy friend who had a coffee shop, indoor playground, and a pre-school all running out of his church. Within a few months of COVID hitting, all that rental income and revenue was gone and people had to be laid off. Things haven’t returned to “normal” nor is there reason to believe normalcy will be a thing any time soon. Thoughts?
There is no doubt that the pandemic has changed and challenged a lot of the way we do things. That is particularly true for “in person” activities which is the focus of most churches, and the social enterprises you mention. Just as many restaurants and arts organizations have really struggled during the pandemic, so have coffee shops, pre-schools and other enterprises. It is still too early to tell what impacts of the pandemic will linger as it shifts and changes over time (it seems far from “finished”). But there are a couple of principles that I believe will remain and that can shape our thinking about church-based social enterprise.
First, people still want to do things together in person. From my experience as a patron of restaurants, movies, etc. even living in a very cautious part of the country, people want to get together and they are returning to establishments. Unless something new emerges regarding COVID-19 I think we will be back in coffee shops, pre-schools and the like soon, if we aren’t already. The campus ministry where I serve has seen a massive interest in our in-person activities. Our activities are all carried out wearing masks and carefully, but even college students who are well versed in living online desperately want to be together in person.
Second, social enterprise ventures have to be adaptable and responsive to demand just as for-profit business do. Some ventures will work for a while and then no longer work. New ones will emerge. This is why I argue against simply adopting specific “models.” There is no model that works perfectly in all places across all times. Churches will have to continually evaluate local needs, local demand, and organizational competency in order to be regularly opening, closing, and pivoting the projects we do. The pandemic has highlighted this reality, but it is true even without COVID. My colleagues and I at RootedGood run a social enterprise accelerator for congregations to help equip them for this reality.
If congregations were interested in pursuing new funding strategies as you outline, who should be on the committee/team? What skills sets are most valuable?
This is a really good question and one that a number of people are wondering about and asking. To be honest I’m curious myself about what the right combination of leadership is for this sort of work to happen in a viable and sustainable way. As more congregations try this work, I hope we will learn about what makes effective teams because I suspect it is different from the sorts of teams churches have built in the past for their “traditional” programs and ministries.
There are a few important qualities that I think are needed in key leadership roles. Perhaps most of all, grit is necessary. Entrepreneurship is difficult. It almost never works as expected. Failure is part of the process. So persistence and grit to keep pressing on, pivoting, and trying again is essential. Closely related, an acceptance of risk is also vital. Social enterprise cannot be done without a willingness to risk. If committees are too afraid to fail or try something new they are, ironically, guaranteed to not succeed. Some other important qualities include creativity and curiosity. You’ll notice I haven’t yet named any specific skills like accounting or marketing. That is because those functions can be learned or hired or contracted. Or they may be there in the congregations, but we don’t even know it.
The RootedGood Oikos Accelerator contains a part of the course called the Skills Deck where we help congregations take inventory of what skills members of the congregation have. Church members have many, and varied skills! But often churches have only asked for the same few things of their members such as moving furniture, greeting people at the door, and cooking. Those are wonderful. But there are many other skills within members – the joy is in helping them release those skills in new expressions of mission.
Many congregations are located in small, rural communities. For instance, there are more than thirteen churches in one small rural community – the majority with 20 or fewer people in weekly church attendance. Each congregation is so tied to "our buildings, our church" that the concept of opening their buildings to other uses is often met with great resistance.* Thoughts? How might what you discuss in your book work in rural areas?
There are two good questions in here. First, is the question of how small churches can work together and use their buildings when there are more church buildings in a community than is viable. This is a very common reality. But it is going to change over the next few years. We are about to see a seismic shift in how property is used in towns, villages, and cities all over the country. Church property that was used for community good is going to turn into something else on a scale that is truly monumental over the coming years. Ultimately it will happen whether we want it to or not. The only question is time and what will happen to the properties. I would suggest that for many congregations the most faithful and loving legacy they can leave their communities is not to hang on until it is too late but to actively make the hard decisions about what to do with their properties while they have the chance.
As I write in my book, “Death, and resurrection, is central to the Christian faith. Just as the cycle of death and life turns fallen leaves into spring flowers, the closure of churches provides space and fertilizer for new growth to spring up…Shifting the primary use of a church property from Sunday services to coworking space that creates community is not failure—it is transformation. Supplementing income and mission activity by turning an unused education wing of a church into a grocery co-op that addresses a neighborhood food desert is not failure—it is innovation. Closing a congregation after many years of fruitful ministry, tearing down the church building, and repurposing the property for affordable housing is not failure—it is rebirth. We may grieve the changes. We should celebrate the past. But let us also look forward to new life and what God will do through us next.”
As for the second part of question about how this applies to rural churches, that is something I’m interested in exploring further. There is no question that re-purposing property is in some ways easier where property has high real estate value, such as in cities. And social enterprise, like business, thrives where there is market and demand which is also more readily available where there are higher concentrations of people. I think we can learn a lot from rural communities who are figuring out creative ways to operate schools, hospitals, post offices, and local businesses even as their local populations shrink. The core principle for social enterprise is the same in the city or in a rural area – identifying the connection between a real need in the community and the resources of a congregation (property, money, and people). I’d love to hear more from pastors and leaders in rural areas about how they think these ideas apply (or don’t!) in their context.
What is missing in seminary when the very people who should be going out and changing the world (within and outside the walls of the church) are often ill-equipped to do so? Should clergy be required to get an MDiv/MBA?
The role of the pastor is changing enormously, again exacerbated by the pandemic. Pastors are now asked to be preachers, scholars, counselors, fundraisers, CEOs, entrepreneurs, managers, marketing gurus, video editors, and much more. No one person has all those skills nor can they learn it all through one standard degree at seminary.
Furthermore, leadership needs are very different depending on the context of call. Some churches still need a traditional preaching pastor. Others need a community organizer. Others require a gritty entrepreneur. And so on. We wouldn’t expect every doctor in a hospital to be able to carry out every type of procedure, surgery or diagnosis that is needed. Just as medical doctors specialize, I think clergy need forms of training that help them specialize for specific contexts and calls.
So, to answer your question, should clergy get an M.Div/MBA like I did? Maybe some of them. I’d love to see seminaries expand their training to include entrepreneurship, nonprofit management, and business practice (or partner with business schools for this). Certainly, having a good understanding of how “business practices” and innovation can support effective ministry helps in some contexts. But it really depends on where a pastor is serving and what the shape of their ministry looks like. We have five staff members engaged in pastoral ministry at Pres House. One of us needs the skills of a CEO. Two of us engage in regular fundraising. Two preach weekly. Three specialize in pastoral care and developing innovative programming. Not all of us need an MBA. It really depends on the call and the role.
Carey Nieuwhof’s Leadership podcast recently hosted a fascinating conversation with Jaqueline Novogratz, a well-known social entrepreneur/social impact investor and founder and CEO of Acumen. Are there blogs, books, or podcasts (like the one mentioned above) that you might suggest if people want to dig deeper into this topic?
While somewhat new, there is a rapidly growing body of resources related to faith-based impact investing, property development, and social enterprise. Here are a few suggestions for where to start. And there is plenty of good material from outside the church worth exploring as well. For a fuller list, see the bibliography in my book, We Aren’t Broke or visit my website for more resources.
RootedGood’s Good Stuff blog. Also consider joining the Mycelium Network which provides access to an extensive list of practical resources as well as a network of catalytic leaders around the country creating change in their communities.
Faith and Leadership: Newsletter, stories of innovation, and connections to a wide array of useful resources.
Faith + Finance: A network and event series addressing questions about the economy, faith, and finance.
Fishing Differently: A book and network of resources by Sidney Williams on social innovation and entrepreneurship.
Jesus on Main Street: A book and YouTube resources by David Kresta on church-based economic development.
My RootedGood co-founder Mark Sampson has a book coming out in 2022 about social enterprise and the theology of reciprocity. Keep an eye out for that!
Closing Costs by Dominic Dutra: A book about options for churches who are facing closure. Coming in February 2022.
You have one foot in the traditional church and one foot in the world of social enterprise. What do you see as the future of the mainline church? Are there signs of hope?
Yes, there is always hope! As I write at the end of my book, “Membership and giving may have declined, but God has not declined. God’s love, God’s justice, God’s care for all of creation is as strong as it has always been. God is at work in the world right now with all of what we have and despite all of what we perceive to be missing. Sand God invites us to join in planting and cultivating God’s garden. There is no better time for us to dream big and take some risks. The needs are great, the opportunities, even greater. And the resources are there. We are at a moment when the church can sit on the sidelines and watch this work happening around us as we fade into the background. Or we can jump in and lead with all the theological, human, and capital resources at our disposal. Let us imagine a different future and get to work.” (emphasis added)
* Thanks to Becky Carey from John Day United Methodist Church for this question.