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0 Comments | Feb 28, 2010

Finances and the Multi-Site Church

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By: Martin Sinderman, Worship Facilities Magazine, Jan/Feb 2010

Going from a single campus to multiple sites is currently one of the biggest trends going in the worship facilities arena. The numbers are growing, the technology is getting better, and there are a number of resources available to help a church use this method to make it easier for members of the community to be touched by its message.

The Big Picture

On any given Sunday, some nine million people—about 10% of all churchgoers—attend services in one of the 3,000-plus multisite churches in North America, according to Jim Tomberlin, former megachurch pastor, pioneer in the multisite movement, and founder, president and senior strategist of Multi-Site Solutions. Based in Scottsdale, Ariz., the company provides customized multisite strategies for churches.

Tomberlin advises that going multisite is not for every church. “It’s not a growth engine, and it is not a turnaround tool for a church in trouble,” says Tomberlin. “But it is a viable tool to help a growing church that wants to reach more people.”

Multiple sites, he adds, can be viewed as “stepping stones to the greater purpose—reaching more people and having more impact on the community, and having many points of entry for people in the community to be touched and reached by a vibrant church.”

From the Lending Perspective …

Today’s church lending community recognizes that the multisite trend is growing—and that from a financial standpoint, multisite facilities are typically good deals for both lender and borrower.

“The days of the 4,000- to 5,000-seat sanctuary are far from over, but the trend now is for churches to try to provide big-church services in more intimate environments that create a more meaningful experience of community,” says Scott Rolfs, managing director of the Church and School Financing Division of Ziegler, a Chicago-based financial services firm that specializes in church lending.

That kind of experience is difficult to achieve for a parishioner sitting in a sanctuary with 4,000 other people—or that has to drive 40 minutes to get to church in the first place, Rolfs notes. “So why not have two smaller, more intimate venues 15 miles apart, managed at a central location, and still be able to offer the top-shelf ministries of a 4,000-member church?”

Real estate lenders are typically very supportive of multisite projects, adds Rolfs.

“What you are basically doing when you go multisite is diversifying your collateral base,” he explains. “As a lender, if you get in a situation where you need to foreclose or sell a church facility, the market is such that it is much better to have two, $10 million assets as opposed to one worth $20 million.” Plus, “If your church experiences a downturn in attendance, you can always consolidate back to one location—and perhaps sell off the other location to another church to pay off the debt on your main facility.”

Facilities Progression

Some 50% of multi-campus churches start out utilizing space in a school building for their first remote sites, according to Tomberlin. Schools, along with theaters, are typically low-risk, low-cost alternatives for a church going multisite.

“A school is typically good for a one-to-three year ‘run’ in terms of energy and volunteer commitment to helping with a portable ‘church on wheels’ that gets torn down every week,” Tomberlin says.

The move to multisite has been an increasing source of business for Portable Church Industries, according to Pete van der Harst, president of the Troy, Mich.-based company. Founded in 1994, the firm specializes in assisting portable churches by supplying them with the entire range of equipment, furnishings and storage necessary to operate a church facility, as well as consultative services that help them get up and running.

In addition to providing an additional venue for spreading its ministry, having a portable, off-site facility helps churches be more flexible, according to van der Harst. “You have one main campus with an address, and then you also have the second, portable facility available for events (such as weddings) when needed.”

The next step for a church in multi-siting program is typically going to a 24/7 facility, often an existing commercial building such as a former grocery store, Tomberlin continues. “It’s more expensive than a part-time location, and you have to do a lot more buildout,” he notes, “but it is a lot less expensive than adding the same number of seats to an existing campus. Tomberlin also reports that there is also an increasing trend where existing churches are absorbed/adopted under the flag of a healthy, growing multi-campus church, often receiving renovations and upgrades in the process.

Delivering the Message

About two thirds of multisite churches use some form of video transmission (as opposed to strictly live, on-site presentation) to deliver their content, according to Tomberlin.

The simplest form of “transmission,” of course, is to record a previously held service onto tape, DVD or computer hard drive and deliver it to the remote location to show on Sunday. Satellite feed is yet another way, he notes, “for those wanting live simultaneous experiences, or that want to cover long distances across states.” And in the past year or so, the technology for streaming video across the Internet and projecting it upon large screens has improved, reports Tomberlin.

Streaming high-definition Internet video onto a large screen is still a costly proposition, notes Barry Brown, director of Fathom Theater Church, a unit of Centennial, Colo.-based National CineMedia LLC, which operates a digital in-theatre network in North America that includes approximately 16,800 screens in more that 1,325 theatres in 46 states.

“Streaming video in high-definition on a large screen requires a lot of bandwidth,” says Brown. There are an increasing number of technology options becoming available, though, “and for churches with multiple locations, this can become a cost-effective approach.”

Fathom Theater Church provides in-theatre worship facilities solutions packages to faith-based organizations. “Theatres are great places for multisite churches to launch,” he notes, “because people are already accustomed to coming to a theatre, sitting in a seat directed at a screen, and anticipating an emotional experience.”

Unforeseen Benefits

“Our main location is on a 3.5-acre site just south of downtown—with 2,500 attendees at six services every Sunday,” recounts Steve Blount, executive pastor of administration for Discovery Church, a non-denominational church in Orlando, Fla., with three campuses.

About four years ago, Discovery realized that it had to move to a new location to keep growing, says Blount. But new, nearby locations were scarce, which meant a long move was in store, “And we couldn’t forget the old rule of thumb that if you move a church more than a few miles, you can anticipate a significant drop-off in membership,” he says.

That’s when the church began researching the multisite approach, according to Blount.

“We did some basic mapping of how our members’ residences were dispersed around the Orlando area, and found several concentrations of members in different parts of town, which gave us a good starting point for figuring out where to put additional campuses.”

Discover launched its second campus in a rented high school facility in an affluent part of town, “so we were operating in the black very quickly, by around month four or five,” says Blount. It later followed up with a third site.

The biggest challenge for Discovery in opening its first multisite unit, according to Blount, “was taking over some of the things we do at our main campus, like nursery programs.” High schools don’t have nurseries, “so we had to retrofit a couple of classrooms to serve that purpose.”

At the same time, there were some aspects of high school facilities that lent themselves to a church operation.

“What we failed to fully consider in our early years was that these high schools have incredible gymnasiums, which we don’t have on our main campus—so for the first couple of years we under-utilized the gymnasium facility we had available to us.” The lessons learned here, according to Blount, are that when a church goes multisite, they must adapt to new locations. “You can’t necessarily take what you do at the main campus without adapting/adjusting to limitations of the new facility, and sometimes the secondary locations have physical elements of their own that are superior,” he closes.

Martin Sinderman is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Worship Facilities Magazine.

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