The Hidden Costs of Support Raising

money growing on trees

One of the greatest obstacles to the growth and sustainability of college ministry is our over-reliance on support raising (SR). It’s not for everybody, and it may need to be dethroned as the primary engine for funding our ministries in the future.

This is partly because of its hidden costs. For many college ministers, it’s the elephant in the room and the monkey on their back. It’s eating their lunch and sucking the life and energy from their ministry. Through the frequent ups-and-downs of support raising, it remains a huge part of what campus ministers do.

Veteran support raisers, who have a solid base of supporters who have been with them for 10, 20, even 30 years, can sometimes forget what it’s like for the newbies to build their base and to really struggle. They tell people that “it’s just about putting the time in” and “you need to walk by faith.” Which is true. But I believe it deflects the costs of those struggles and how it impacts ministry.

I hardly ever hear people in our field do a cost/benefit analysis of support raising. Perhaps we’re afraid of what we would discover if we did. For many college ministers, the costs are both prohibitively high and somewhat hidden. Here are some of the ways we feel the cost of support raising:

  • Many organizations require their staff to be at 100% before they hit the field. As a result, it’s not uncommon for new staff to languish on the sidelines for an entire year as they raise support, not doing any actual college ministry.
  • For others who hit the campus at less than 100%, it can still consume much of our mental energy and time during the week. When your SR is weak, it will impact your ministry. It often brings up huge heart-issues of faith, fear, and trust. The young campus minister with support raising issues does not just need a coach–he or she needs a counselor.
  • Uncertain & low pay is often the primary reason many young campus ministers leave the field. They get tired of the grind and want the steady paycheck.

When SR is having that kind of impact, what is the net effect on ministry? What is the cost? How many less students are reached? If we have to spend upwards of 10 hours/week on support, that’s a lot of evangelism & discipleship that isn’t happening.

What about the impact on the reputation of our ministries? I might offend some people here, but there are lots of less-than-effective campus ministers out there. Nearly every potential supporter knows (and has likely supported) the campus minister who never made it, or never seemed to accomplish anything to speak of. These stories can have a depressing effect on our entire field. They make it that much harder for us to raise support and to get people excited about our work.

On the flip-side, how many gifted staff are lost because of SR challenges every year? We know that SR privileges the upper-middle-class (because they have money), the churched (because they are networked), and white people (because minorities don’t tend to come from a culture and history where SR is practiced or encouraged). If you’re lower middle-class, a minority, and a new convert? Good luck. Not impossible, but it gets a heck of a lot harder.

I’m sure many organizations like Cru, IVCF, Navs, and others track staff statistics on support raising. But I would love to see them published. How many staff are under-funded? How many departing staff cite SR challenges as their #1 reason for making a change? My suspicion is that we’re perpetuating a system with some huge flaws. I just see too many of my college ministry colleagues languishing and struggling with this issue to think “that’s how it’s always been” and “we just need to try a little harder.”

I also have deep concerns about this model of funding ministry in a post-Christendom world. I think the next 10 years–when many established churches will disappear, when the WWII generation is gone, and Boomers move to reduced incomes–will fundamentally reshape the landscape for support raising.

So where does that leave us? The overall donor base will shrink, and competition for funding–already pretty tight–will increase. Not to get all Darwinian on you, but only the strongest and most adaptable will survive. I’m seeing this now: those who are good communicators, good vision-casters, who are self-disciplined and can put in the work, who can demonstrate why their ministries are good investments, who are clearly entrepreneurial in nature–these people will not only survive but thrive.

But those who lack the ability to communicate why they do what they do beyond platitudes, who don’t have much to show for their time on campus, who are not disciplined and lack the energy and fire to take initiative–these people are already falling by the wayside. I’ve written previously about sustainability issues in our field–this is probably the biggest area of concern that I have. Of course, maybe we need to be pruned a bit.

One solution is to tap into other potential sources of income. The entire field of campus ministry will likely need to become more bivocational in nature. The obstacle is that most campus ministries explicitly forbid holding another job while you’re on staff. There are some good reasons for this: time management, conflicts of interest, PT job income being a crutch when you should be support raising. I get it–not everyone can handle that. But I do think this will have to change. Because the ones who stick around doing campus ministry will need to be more entrepreneurial in nature, and will seek out these opportunities. We’ll need to find those other sources of income.

Going forward,  I don’t want to see SR go away entirely. But I’d like to see us put our eggs in baskets other than SR. Let’s diversify our funding sources. And while we’re looking to fund people to get on campus, let’s not forget those who are already there: faculty and staff whom God has already burdened for lost students, and who are uniquely positioned to reach them.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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7 thoughts on “The Hidden Costs of Support Raising

      • Well, we would certainly agree that support raising comes with significant costs. And you mention a number of points well worth considering.

        In addition, though, there are quite a few benefits to support raising you didn’t elaborate on. And the benefits so far outweigh the costs that I doubt we’ll ever discard the practice in DM.

        In particular, you touched on it when you wrote, “the strongest and most adaptable will survive. I’m seeing this now: those who are good communicators, good vision-casters, who are self-disciplined and can put in the work, who can demonstrate why their ministries are good investments, who are clearly entrepreneurial in nature–these people will not only survive but thrive.” In short, not just anyone will succeed in campus ministry!

        We have found that support raising is a crucial training venue for new staff. The skills required for success in support raising are the very same skills required for success in ministry on campus. Initiative, discipline, communication, networking, casting a big vision, adapting to unexpected circumstances, loving people, building strong relationships quickly, captivating people’s hearts, asking big, and winning friends and co-laborers for the long haul, for starters. In addition, there is the need for relational maintenance over time, persevering through setbacks, engaging critics, and resting in Christ and drawing strength from the gospel daily. And to top it all off, there is the immeasurable value of learning to repent of fear, think strategically, act in faith, and love others more than ourselves. We have found nothing to be as effective as support raising to build these skills and character traits in our staff, both deeply and in a reasonably short period of time.

        By the time staff complete their initial fundraising, they are ready to hit the campus hard. And they’ve already received extensive training for the work. We encourage our staff to avoid the false conclusion that ministry begins when you get on campus. No, ministry begins as soon as you begin fundrasing.

        And so, I could revise your paragraph quoted above to describe not just fundraisers but also campus ministers: “The strongest and most adaptable will survive. I’m seeing this now: those who are good communicators, good vision-casters, who are self-disciplined and can put in the work, who can demonstrate why the gospel is a good investment, who are clearly and creatively evangelistic in nature–these people will not only survive but thrive on campus.”

        I’d love to comment more on biblical guidance for fundraising (especially in Romans & Philippians), the hidden costs of bivocational ministry, the fact that I doubt the overall donor base will shrink (I have yet to see any evidence of it), the fact that not only our field staff but also our office staff raise full support for their positions, and our (admittedly limited) experience seeing minorities and new converts thrive right alongside their “better positioned” counterparts. But my comment has practically become a post of its own. 🙂

        And please hear these things simply as further things to consider. I agree with much of what you’ve written, and I appreciate your insight in considering these many real challenges!

  1. Steve,

    Great article and I fear you are right in many ways. I think the next 10 years will be an entirely new ball game for all the reasons you mentioned. Say…could I have a copy of this? You can send it to my email. For some reason it wouldn’t let me send it directly from the article.

    • John–thanks for weighing in! I know you folks at Harvest USA have worked long and hard at support raising and will be interested to see what you figure out going forward. I’ll email this to you, not sure why it didn’t work…

  2. Steve, I have some very similar thoughts to yours. I too often see SR as THE vetting process for campus ministers. There are some people who are great fundraisers and terrible campus ministers. And there are some people who are terrible at support raising (or new christians without the church networks, or from a minority group that doesn’t have the same kind of resources a privileged white person has) who are great campus ministers (or would be great if there were able to get on the field).

    I think SR is an important, soul shaping work, but it shouldn’t be the criteria for being in the game: character, calling, competency, all that good stuff should determine who is in the game!

    • Well said Steve B! Why should SR be THE vetting process? I see too many quality people being left behind, or opting out, because they can’t reach the SR goal, and that’s terrible. Right on about character, calling, and competency!