Pastor of multiracial church: Churches must earn green to stay out of red

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 1,772 views 

Mark DeYmaz started a multiracial church in Little Rock for white, black and brown people to worship together because, he says, “the kingdom of heaven isn’t segregated.” Now he says churches must rethink their attitudes about a different color – green.

“Most pastors right now, in terms of money, they’re only managing decline, and they don’t even know it,” he said.

DeYmaz said the decline is happening because of several societal trends, including a younger generation that’s less inclined to donate to churches than older Americans have been. That means churches must think beyond the offering plate and seek funding through three other streams: “benevolent ownership,” or renting space at affordable rates; monetizing existing services; and starting new businesses.

DeYmaz started Mosaic Church in Little Rock in 2001 after deciding God was calling him to plant a multiethnic congregation in a city with a segregationist history, and where most churches still have predominantly single race memberships. His spiritual awakening occurred during a conversation about the need for a multiracial church with his African-American hair stylist. At the time, he was working for a mostly white megachurch.

Mosaic is now a thriving urban church in southwest Little Rock on Colonel Glenn Road just off University Avenue. Its ministry arm, Vine and Village, provides three or four days’ worth of groceries each month to residents of one of the city’s neediest areas. Last year, it fed 20,000 unique individuals in a zip code with 32,000 people. Operating as a nonprofit, Vine and Village manages about a dozen ministries with help from grants and partnerships with Arkansas Food Bank, Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, and Baptist Health. The nonprofit status is critical for the church to do its social justice and compassion work, DeYmaz said.

But it was at its previous location in a nearby empty Walmart in a long-empty shopping center where DeYmaz began thinking about “The Coming Revolution in Church Economics,” the title of his new book.

As the church was growing, DeYmaz realized Mosaic couldn’t rely on the typical church’s financial approach of gaining new members who then donate more money. Too many of his people are too poor.

“In theory, the more people that come, the more butts in the seat, the more bucks in the offering plate,” he said. “That’s kind of been the model, right? But when you’re working in the inner city, urban space, you know, you’ve got homeless people … They need your resources more than they have resources to put in.”

Because of Mosaic’s presence, the center began filling up with new businesses that encroached upon its space. The shopping center’s reawakening was a metaphor for the new life created by the Gospel, he said. But it meant the church could no longer stay in the old Walmart.

When a nearby 100,000-square-foot empty Kmart became available, DeYmaz realized the church could buy the property if it leveraged its assets by renting part of it out, which it did to a fitness center. Pulaski County approved the relationship after researching the issue and finding no other churches with such an arrangement. That rent check pays a big chunk of the mortgage, and the church pays taxes on the rental income. Mosaic also rents space for community events and to a business group that meets monthly there. A security firm rents office space. A massage therapist is opening a practice in an unused nook. The church also rents its parking lot to a carnival twice a year.

“That’s just smart business,” he said. “But pastors aren’t taught to think this way. Churches don’t think this way, by and large, and if they get a little revenue from something, (it’s) like, ‘Hey, this is really great.’ But it’s not a strategy.”

DeYmaz says “explanation” was enough to spread the Christian message in the 20th century – for example, through a Billy Graham crusade. The 21st century will require “demonstration” of redemption and what he called “just economics.” But those demonstrative acts cost money and have to be funded somehow.

He first started writing and speaking about this new financial model in 2012. His 2017 book, “Disruption,” included a chapter on economics. Then a year-and-a-half ago, he was approached about expanding that idea into its own book. This October, he published “The Coming Revolution in Church Economics.”

DeYmaz said churches across the country are sitting on billions of dollars’ worth of property and endowments without doing anything with them. Instead, churches have not only a need to leverage their assets, but also a biblical duty to do so. He points to the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25, where the wise servants invest their resources while the foolish one buries his. In Jesus’ telling in the King James Version, the master calls him “a wicked and slothful servant.”

Meanwhile, DeYmaz said churches can create another revenue stream by monetizing existing services. For a while, Mosaic was spending $3,000 annually on free Sunday morning coffee – a significant bite of the budget that could be used for ministry instead. DeYmaz bought microwaved sausage biscuits at Sam’s Club that the church sold for about $1 above cost. If it could make a $3,000 profit off the biscuits, it would offset the cost of the coffee and free up that money. Then Mosaic invested $25,000 to start its own coffee shop – the first in that part of town – that’s open Thursday and Sunday mornings. The church no longer provides free coffee unless congregants can’t afford it.

DeYmaz said churches often give away services – like free coffee on Sunday mornings or free pizza to youth groups – thinking it will encourage people to become members or stay members. But that’s merely a hope. He said business owners don’t give away anything without a plan, and neither should churches.

DeYmaz said there are many ways churches can make money off their current activities. For example, a large church will have its own print shop that could sell its services on the side and reduce its costs.

DeYmaz says churches of all types – not just ones with lower-income memberships – must adopt this model to deal with changing times. He said younger generations don’t give as much as previous ones, so churches lose money when an older member dies or leaves and is replaced by someone younger.

“If your model is butts in the seat going back to attendance and attracting attendance thinking that the more people I get, the more money I’ll get, that’s erroneous. … If a 65-year-old person dies or moves and leaves the church and moves to a different city, how many millennials does it take to replace their giving?” he said. “It’s not a one-to-one transfer. But see, the whole American church, right now, they’re not thinking about this.”

Other reasons for the model include the struggles of two-paycheck families who are trying to make ends meet and don’t have extra money to give, DeYmaz said. Automation will make it even harder for some to make a living. He said churches could lose their tax-exempt status, as former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke recently suggested.

“The fact that it was even mentioned on the table ought to scare every pastor in America because that’s not a birthright for the church,” he said.

DeYmaz said the model he’s advocating has an added advantage of engaging businessmen who heretofore have been asked to use their gifts as Sunday morning greeters or to tinker with a program – in other words, become an employee or a manager rather than the entrepreneur they actually are. DeYmaz said pastors often see businessmen as a “mark for money,” or they are intimidated by them. But when he talks to them about how the church can, for example, stop losing $3,000 on coffee, he sees them sit up straighter.

“They are just hungry for pastors to partner with them and to allow them to use their passions, their life experience, their gifting in significant ways to bless the community, bless the church, build the church, as opposed to being seen as employees and managers,” he said.

Asked if his financial philosophy conflicts with the biblical story of Jesus throwing the moneychangers out of the temple, DeYmaz said the merchants there were ripping off poor people who were on a pilgrimage and were a captive audience. The merchants were charging exorbitant prices for animals required for sacrifice. The moneychangers, meanwhile, were cheating people as they converted Roman money to Jewish money. The practices prevented poor people from worshipping, while the religious leaders profited.

This new model of church economics will involve challenges, including liability and tax issues, so churches should talk to their attorneys and accountants, DeYmaz said. Net profits must be returned to the nonprofit’s budget without enriching board members, and then nonprofits must pay taxes on those profits. The IRS says the profits can’t be a “substantial” percentage of the nonprofit’s budget, but it hasn’t defined the term. If necessary, DeYmaz said churches can spin off their profit-making enterprises so they can donate back to the church. As for liability issues, DeYmaz believes that as more churches adopt this model, more insurance products will become available.

Churches will have to find moneymaking opportunities that don’t violate their doctrines, and then they’ll have to set policies and then be willing to adjust them. As an example of that learning process, DeYmaz pointed to a charitable “fashion show” event that turned out to be a risque affair conducted as the church’s Hispanic worship team was rehearsing. After that happened, the church changed its rental policies.

Asked about business-operating churches facing employment and discrimination lawsuits over LGBT issues, DeYmaz said he doesn’t have an easy answer. Conservative, moderate and progressive churches will approach such questions differently. With those and other issues, it’s early in the movement, testing will have to occur, churches will make mistakes, and then they’ll adjust. Someday, this will be normal, he said.

DeYmaz is not afraid of this process. The pastor who started a church for white, black and brown people to worship together is confident it can make a little green and stay out of the red.

“Fear, fear of failure, fear of risk or making a mistake and having to adjust, none of that stuff in my opinion should keep pastors from leaning into this,” he said.