Parish fundraising tips from the pros

Mistakes to avoid when making 'the ask'

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Year-end is usually crunch time for rectors and vestries scrambling to raise the needed funds to meet their annual budgets.

The time to make “the ask” is especially ripe this year, as some donors may be feeling more generous given the lingering uncertainty surrounding the tax code. Hurricane Sandy has also brought the idea of giving to the minds of some donors who might otherwise have been sitting on the sidelines.

Whether churches need money to fund that next great program or simply to keep the lights on, there are a few mistakes clergy and church leaders should avoid when making appeals, say fundraising consultants.

Not Asking in Person

Suzanne Culhane of Bob Carter Companies, a fundraising consultation firm in Sarasota, Fla., recalled a small parish she worked with that lost a $15,000 per year pledge. The pledge was lost because the rector and vestry members were afraid to sit down with a parishioner to discuss his discontent and concerns in person, and so they sent him an e-mail instead. As a result, the parish’s music and outreach budgets were “significantly” compromised, said Culhane.

Culhane also worked with a religious community that she said “refused to take collective ownership of fundraising, out of fear of the unknown and asking.” Instead, they placed the entire burden of raising $4 million annually on the one priest in the community who was the perceived extrovert.

“This priest burned out in just a few years and wound up hospitalized,” Culhane remembered.

Too many times clergy and church leaders avoid face-to-face solicitation. Culhane said  several clergy she worked with told her that face-to-face meetings “aren’t necessary,” tried to have her or someone else do the asking, and some even canceled or postponed major fundraising campaigns once they realized they would be required to ask for money directly.

That’s a mistake though, Culhane advised, because face-to-face asking is the most effective method of fundraising and produces the highest response rate and the largest gifts.

And while many clergy think they don’t have any natural ability for fundraising, are uncomfortable because of pastoral relationships, or may feel guilty about raising money for their own salaries, according to Culhane, it’s wise to ask anyway.

According to Culhane, it behooves any parish fundraising effort to have the clergy intimately involved,  because it is the clergy who tend to have the strongest relationships with people, hold respect and credibility in the community, and are knowledgeable about personal circumstances helpful to donor identification and solicitation efforts.

If the right request is being made to the right person at the right time, the donor shouldn’t feel “funny,” Culhane explained, but rather, they will feel honored to be engaged. She also pointed out that it’s helpful for clergy to consider fundraising as ministry.

“It’s more about relationships than dollars.”

The Spaghetti-Dinner Effect

Culhane recently met with a parish that wanted to start a $2 million capital campaign. When she asked what their fundraising program entailed, the senior warden told her about their “famous” spaghetti dinner. The warden then went on in great detail about how many boxes of spaghetti are needed, how the serving is done and her fear of running out of food.

Culhane recalled having to suppress a sigh, especially when the rector later told her the supper barely broke even and required a significant amount of time to organize.

“That’s not fundraising,” stated Culhane.

She explained that while they may be helpful for community building, spaghetti dinners – or whatever iteration they may take – raise very little money. Not to mention, she added, the parish’s financial resources and people get exhausted in the process.

Culhane advised that, instead, parishes should “devote energy to strengthening their annual giving and major gifts efforts.”

They can start by asking questions such as, “When is the last time we sat down and asked someone for a major gift?” And “Is our giving growing?”


Sometimes it’s difficult to tell who dislikes stewardship talks more – the clergy or the congregation. Often, talks begin with fumbling apology and a promise to “keep it short.”

But that’s a mistake, according to Marc Pitman, founder of, based in Waterville, Maine. That kind of apology can put donors in a negative frame of mind about giving, he pointed out, and position giving as drudgery rather than a privilege.

“We never need to apologize for our stewardship talks,” said Pitman.

Pitman explained that, instead, offering people an opportunity to give or “invest” in the work of the Kingdom is an amazing privilege. Giving, he said, helps “sanctify and set apart the fruit of the best part of our lives.”

“Being able to give a portion of that back to God can actually be an act of worship,” Pitman said.

A lighter approach can also help sometimes. On stewardship Sundays, Pitman has told congregations the story about the pastor who stood at the pulpit and said, “I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is we all have all the money we need to do all we sense God is calling us to do. The bad news is that it’s still in your wallets.”

Too Vague

Giving is too often seen as a “vague, nebulous concept,” according to Pitman. But that vagueness can have a negative effect, especially in an age when financial transparency is critical for gaining donors’ trust.

Being specific, instead, can prompt some donors to step up to the plate.

Pitman recently asked a congregation what they thought it would take for their church to do only what they did last year, which included community outreach, minimal building maintenance and snow plowing.

“Guesses were all over the place,” he recalled, “but low.”

The congregants of that small parish were surprised to learn exactly how much the church needed to raise ($250,000). They also appreciated knowing the dollar amount, as it helped them to realize “they were the ones carrying out the work of Christ,” said Pitman.

“All the great ideas they had – many of them truly helpful and within the mission of the congregation – were dependent on their generosity.”


(Veronica Dagher is New York City-based reporter and an Education for Ministry graduate. She is a recipient of a Religion Newswriters Foundation Lilly Scholarship and a parishioner at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City.)

Strategies for congregational growth

Tips from thriving congregations

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With Episcopal churches closing at an alarming rate, attendance in decline and ever-shrinking budgets, being hopeful about the future of the church can be difficult.

But despite these challenges, some congregations are finding ways to grow – and even thrive.

Here are some of the ways they are doing it.

Welcome & Integrate

Since fall 2005 when the Rev. Kara Wagner Sherer arrived at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Chicago, their average Sunday attendance has doubled, to 100. The church recently added a third Sunday service as well.

Wagner Sherer attributes the growth to several factors, including a “radical” welcome for new faces and a desire to integrate the secular with the sacred.

For starters, Wagner Sherer sends new people a handwritten note thanking them for attending a service and invites them to coffee.

“Starbucks is my second office,” she said.

Over coffee, she will ask them about their interests, what motivated them to come to church and invites them to come back.

Wagner Sherer went on to say that even though she tries not to “put anyone in boxes,” when prospective members speak about a hobby, such as gardening, during that meeting, she takes note. Then when they come back to church, she makes an effort to introduce them to members who share the same interest.

“My role is to connect people,” she explained.

She also pointed out that too often churches focus the majority of their efforts on blessing “church things” and “ignoring the secular part” of people’s lives, and warned that this can start to make church seem irrelevant to otherwise faithful Christians.

Wagner Sherer said her congregation tries to counter this way of thinking by, for example, praying for accountants during tax season.

She admited the prayers made some folks chuckle a bit at first, but the congregation was on board.

“People like that we acknowledge that all aspects of life are holy,” she said.

Grab Low-Hanging Fruit & Let Go

Before the Rev. John Mennell arrived at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Montclair, N.J., in November 2006, average Sunday attendance had dropped by more than half, to under 100, leaving an operating deficit of more than $100,000.

“The leadership was exhausted. But the Spirit was alive and well,” Mennell said.

Today, average Sunday attendance is more than 210, and plate and pledge giving has doubled.

Mennell credits the growth to “God’s grace and lots of wonderful parts coming together.” One of those parts is Mennell’s focus on what he calls “low-hanging fruit.”

“There are so many amazing programs out there, but I feel like people long for simplicity and community,” he said.

So after coffee hour one Sunday, he joined some of the kids playing wiffle ball on the parish lawn. Over the course of a few weeks, they came up with some rules for a home-run derby and formed the St. Luke’s Association for Wiffle Ball (SLAWB) and allowed everyone to participate.

They made a web page, tracked the stats and had up-to-date, tongue-in-cheek reporting. The No. 1 league rule was that you had to receive communion that day to participate, Mennell explained.

He knew his idea was a hit when a family who lived two hours away said they drove all the way to St. Luke’s because their sons wanted to participate.

While SLAWB died out after about three years, the impact lingers, he said. “The equipment costs five dollars, but the community building was huge,” he noted. Mennell said it worked because it created an immediate need and excitement in the community.

“Look for what’s right in front of you, and use it,” he said.

A willingness to let a program die once it has run its course is also essential for growth, he added.

Study & Pray

In the spring of 2011, the Rev. Jason Emerson and the vestry of the Church of the Resurrection in Omaha started the Unbinding the Gospel series by Martha Grace Reese.

Working and praying through the exercises of the first book in the series, Emerson and the vestry members reported growth in their own spiritual lives.

They also noticed growth in the pews as the church’s average Sunday attendance increased from 55 to 75.

This fall, more of the church’s leaders will start the series with the goal of the entire congregation beginning in Lent 2013.

Emerson said the series has not only helped deepen the leaders’ faith, but has provided more tools for them to speak about their faith with others.

“Prayer works,” Emerson concluded.

Social Media & Small Groups

In the sanctuary of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Katy, Texas, two large video screens project song lyrics and the sermon outline during services.

Darrel Proffitt, lead pastor, often uses videos that highlight congregants’ personal testimonies to support points of his sermon.

Sermons are always presented as a series, which allows the church to promote coming attractions to members, regular attendees and guests. The outlines of sermons, or “messages” as they’re called, are included in the bulletins but are also available on smartphone and tablets through the YouVersion live events.

“Social media is part of the way we connect,” Proffitt said.

He went on to explain that an emphasis on small groups is also driving growth at the congregation, which has an average Sunday attendance of 400 to 500. Over 200 church members meet weekly in people’s homes and in the church. There are between 25 and 30 small groups, he said, and that number continues to grow.

“When someone joins us, we hope to help them make nine new friends in six months,” he said. “If this happens, we don’t lose them through the back door, since they’ve developed relationships with others.”

Tap the Youth & Serve the Neighborhood

A Sunday night prayer-book worship service at St. Jude’s Episcopal Church in Phoenix may include a rap or a testimony by a church member, said Celebration Pastor Matt Marino.

This youth-focused church plant, which is growing at a rate of about 10 percent per year, isn’t afraid to try new things to resonate with its multi-ethnic community, whose members are mostly under 35 years old. This fall the church has about 55 members and about 84 people who attend services each week, an increase partly due, Marino explained, to a nearby college that is back in session.

Marino points to an All Saints’ Day liturgy that the congregation wrote, which tells the stories of Christian martyrs through the ages while large altar candles placed around the room are lit – a ceremony that appealed to this group.

St. Jude’s also hosts a family-friendly Cinco de Mayo event where they rent a big bouncy house and pass out postcards inviting the people in the neighborhood to attend.

“Everyone comes,” Marino said, “the families, the homeless guys, the meth heads.”

Events like this help get folks who might not otherwise come to a church-sponsored event in the door, Marino explained.


(Veronica Dagher is New York City-based reporter and an Education for Ministry graduate. She is a recipient of a Religion Newswriters Foundation Lilly Scholarship and a parishioner at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City.)

The business of managing a parish

Why business matters and what priests need to know

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The idea that managing a church is like managing a business may make some of the faithful’s skin crawl.

But with church attendance in a general free fall and budget cuts requiring some pastors to do more with less, business principles put to good use in a church setting could be the answer to prayers.

Educators and priests explain:

Simeon May, chief executive, National Association of Church Business Administration, Richardson, Texas

Why Business Matters: “A church isn’t out to make a profit like a business, but that doesn’t mean it can lose money,” said May. He suggests that having good business practices in place, such as internal financial controls, budgeting and a social-media marketing plan can mean the difference between a congregation expanding its membership or shutting it doors.

What Priests Need to Know: “If you want to spread the gospel of Jesus, you need to market your church,” said May. He went on to explain that at the very minimum, it means having a website that’s attractive and easy to use. It also means embracing free social media such as Facebook and Twitter to spread the news of your congregation’s events and connect with potential members. “Like it or not, people are using those mediums, and you may miss them if you don’t,” advised May.

The Rev. Buddy Stallings, priest-in-charge, St. Bartholomew’s Church, New York City

Why Business Matters: “The notion that ‘God will provide’ is a spiritual truth, for me, but not a very good business plan,” said Stallings, who was previously the executive vice president of a management company that owned and operated a chain of more than 50 nursing homes. Stallings believes this kind of thinking is a result of viewing religion as something that’s different from the rest of life, rarified somehow, not subject to business principles. “The result is that religion isn’t subject to the demands of real life, such as paying the bills and living within a budget,” he said. Ignoring these financial realities can have serious negative financial consequences for a congregation, he cautioned.

What Priests Need to Know: “Entrepreneurialism always involves risk and is a requirement for innovative church management, but it only works if it’s rooted in good, reasonable planning,” said Stallings.

Charles Zech, director, Villanova University’s Center for the Study of Church Management, Villanova, Penn.

Why Business Matters: “No church has enough resources, and we can’t afford to waste any,” said Zech. He pointed out that rectors who don’t understand finance will waste financial resources. Similarly, pastors who don’t understand marketing or evangelization will not only have difficulty in growing their congregations, they will be unsuccessful in understanding the various segments of their congregations and meeting their differing needs. He warned that not having an understanding of human resources could also put a rector and a congregation at risk.

What Priests Need to Know: Zech said the most telling “aha” moment in a civil-law course for church management comes when students learn that practices they had taken for granted were in fact illegal. For example, churches may hire only members of their faith, but they can’t discriminate on the basis of age. “They’re subject to the same laws governing negligence that everyone else is,” Zech warned.


(Veronica Dagher is New York City-based reporter and an Education for Ministry graduate. She is a recipient of a Religion Newswriters Foundation Lilly Scholarship and a parishioner at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City.)

The Episcopal Church welcomes you. Sort of.

Pitfalls to avoid when welcoming newcomers

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The Episcopal Church welcomes you.

But does it really?

Church consultants say that despite what are often good intentions, some congregations are making basic mistakes that can scare away new faces.

Two professional congregational development consultants weigh in on a few of these mistakes and what churches might do to avoid them.

Like a Foreign Language

Tracey Herzer, the Atlanta-based executive director of LeaderResources, once worked with a church that was hoping to grow its membership by inviting new folks in town for mass and coffee.

It seemed like a good idea until Herzer heard what the senior warden said during announcements.

With great warmth and obvious enthusiasm, he said, “We’re so glad you are here with us today! If you would like to learn more about becoming a communicant of this parish, please see the rector in the narthex after Eucharist.”

Herzer explained, “A visitor who isn’t familiar with our church could probably figure out ‘parish’ means ‘church,’ but everything else is practically a foreign language to some.”

While the senior warden meant well, his welcome may have not had the effect he intended, and likely alienating and confusing visitors with too much church jargon, Herzer said.

And it’s not just our words that can be confusing. Herzer pointed out that a newcomer can also feel overwhelmed and embarrassed if they don’t know where or when to sit, stand or kneel, or which book to use when.

Herzer believes that churches can become more welcoming by making sure greeters are trained to give plain-English information to newcomers about what to expect in the service, who they can to speak to afterward if they have questions, and volunteer basic information such as the location of the bathroom or children’s Sunday school rooms.

Churches might also consider writing “stage directions” for the service in their bulletin or service leaflet so newcomers can feel more confident about what to do during the service.

For example, one congregation Herzer worked with wrote in their bulletin, “We sit to listen, stand to sing and kneel to pray.” And “Sitting, kneeling and standing are all appropriate postures for prayer; please use what is most comfortable for you.”

“It was simple and welcoming, and not intimidating,” she said.

We Welcome Young Families, Sort Of 

Despite many churches’ desire to attract new young families, congregations are sometimes making mistakes that can drive families away, said Michelle Heyne, a founder and trainer with Shaping the Parish, a program to develop and nurture healthier congregations.

At one church Heyne worked with, the rector designated the last pews in the church as the “family section,” complete with signage.

The rector had reserved the section for families with babies and young children, many of whom were new to the church, as he wanted them to feel comfortable with plenty of space to move around during the service, explained Heyne.

As it turns out, he also really wanted to shield them from some of the members of the church who sat in the front and would give dirty looks to families when their children made noise.

While the rector had been well meaning, “It definitely wasn’t welcoming,” Heyne said. The signs made may of the families feel as though they were being penalized.

As this wasn’t his intention, the rector quickly took the signs down.

Instead, to foster a greater sense of welcome, Heyne recommends churches invite new and existing members to explore together the spiritual practices of the church, such as the Daily Office or Centering Prayer, for example.

Heyne suggests that to “build competence for Christian life in a critical mass of members … is the single most important thing a parish can do to be ‘welcoming.’”

Structured, well-facilitated community meetings two to three times a year that allow the parish to surface concerns, hopes and idea for improvement, can also help foster welcome, Heyne added. “This provides practice in listening, respectful influence and not getting everything you want.”


(Veronica Dagher is New York City-based reporter and an Education for Ministry graduate. She is a recipient of a Religion Newswriters Foundation Lilly Scholarship.)

EXCLUSIVE: Three Episcopal seminaries offer new programs to address grim financial realities facing seminarians

The General Theological Seminary (GTS), in New York City, is responding to its students’ increasing financial stress by actively raising more scholarship funds and by developing a Financial Literacy certificate program, which will provide students with skills to manage both their own finances and the finances of their parishes.

Lowrey also indicated that GTS plans to increase its distance-learning program, which will help reduce student debt. While it’s still in the very early planning stages, Lowrey hopes that through this program, students will be able to attend seminary full time for two years and then spend their third year working in a parish, gaining practical experience and attending courses online to complete their degree. Lowrey believes the program could save students up to a third of the costs they are paying today.

“If a student sells his house to come here, that’s when I start to worry,” said the Rev. Dr. Susanna Singer, director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP), Berkeley, Calif.

Singer said CDSP has noted an increase in commuter students as seminarians look to cut costs, and that the board has recently voted to begin a partnership program with Episcopal bishops across the country. This program will offer a limited number of full-tuition scholarships to qualified students who are nominated by their bishops and who have demonstrated outstanding community leadership. In return, the seminary will be asking the bishops to pledge to hire these graduates whom they nominated for a period of two years after successful completion of their studies at CDSP at the standard clerical pay scale. “It’s expected the new program will be ready for fall 2013,” Singer said.

Episcopal Divinity School (EDS), Cambridge, Mass., recognizing the financially infeasibility for some of its students of leaving their jobs and moving across the country to attend seminary full time for three years, is continuing to enhance its hybrid learning option. This program allows students to attend classes online in the fall and spring, then meet in person for two intensive 10-day terms in January and June. According to the Very Rev. Dr. Katherine Ragsdale, president and dean of EDS, this hybrid option is garnering increasing interest from bishops who realize the need to ease the debt burden on seminarians whose job prospects may be limited in their dioceses.

EDS is also launching a pilot program this fall for seminarians working in select underserved communities in exchange for repayment of their student debt during their service. Ragsdale explained EDS will be choosing the dioceses to work with during the pilot program over the summer. The first sponsored student participants are expected to begin their studies in fall 2012 and complete the Masters of Divinity program in May 2015.

(Veronica Dagher is New York City-based reporter and an Education for Ministry graduate. She is a recipient of a Religion Newswriters Foundation Lilly Scholarship.)

Increasing financial stress hits clergy as well as students

It’s not always smooth financial sailing after graduation – especially for priests who are trying to provide for their families.

Before landing positions as full-time hospital chaplains in Connecticut, the Rev. Eric Jeuland and his wife, the Rev. Jane Jeuland, worked multiple jobs to piece together a ministry and an income.

At one point, Eric worked in two different parishes as a youth minster and as a campus minister 70 miles away, and Jane founded an urban after-school teen program while working as a parish assistant.

But long commutes and shrinking church budgets made it difficult for them to plan for a family and once their son arrived, the need was urgent to gain financial stability for their young family.

Because of their love of chaplaincy and their financial need, they both decided to find employment outside the church.  “We feel so blessed to be working as chaplains,” said Jane. “God really opened doors for us to carry our call to ministry in hospital settings.”

Landing full-time posts in hospitals was well timed, the couple said. “It became very difficult to piece together part-time parish work that, for budget reasons, in this down economy and shrinking church, was always too expensive for our employers to guarantee,” Eric added.

The Revs. Jeuland aren’t alone in the challenges of piecing together work while managing family financial responsibilities.

The Rev. Stephen Harding, who works as a chaplain for the New York City Fire Department and is a hospital and hospice chaplain, is afraid he may have to leave the church to find secular employment if he can’t afford to educate his 5-year-old son and save enough for retirement.

Harding, who would like to land a full-time parish job, expects more priests will need to cobble together part-time work in order to provide for their families if a full-time job isn’t available. Until the church figures out a sustainable compensation model, he fears more clergy will find themselves under similar financial stress.

“I believe the parish paradigm, overall, is a failing business model, and that the church hasn’t figured out the new model yet,” said Harding.

(Veronica Dagher is New York City-based reporter and an Education for Ministry graduate. She is a recipient of a Religion Newswriters Foundation Lilly Scholarship.)

Called to seminary but saddled with debt, ‘Church should help,’ say seminary deans

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When the Rev. Shelley McDade left a career as an advertising executive to follow her call to become a priest and attend the General Theological Seminary, she knew her financial situation would change drastically.

Once accustomed to a six-figure salary and expense account, McDade liquidated a portion of her retirement savings and took out roughly $70,000 in loans to help fund her seminary education.

Now, two years out of seminary at age 50, she’s chipping away at her debt through her work as an associate rector at the Church of the Ascension in New York City. In order to make the roughly $700 in monthly loan payments, she takes on extra work whenever possible.

“Without working lots of weddings and funerals, it would be extremely difficult to meet the debt payments every month,” McDade said.

Read More: Increasing Financial Stress Hits Clergy as Well as Students

Although she has no regrets about taking on the debt, she said she feels fortunate for the extra work and for the fact she doesn’t have $120,000 in loans to pay back while supporting a family, like some of her former classmates. She also feels lucky to have a job.

Because the financial stress on seminarians graduating with massive amounts of debt appears to be increasing at the same time that many full-time job prospects are diminishing, seminaries are taking steps to ease the debt burden on students and graduates. And some bishops are re-evaluating the role of a traditional seminary education in their priests’ formation.

Many students who take out educational loans to attend seminary are still paying off their undergraduate loans, and so they enter the seminary with a median debt load of $29,000, according to a 2010 limited sample study by the Church Pension Group for the Society for the Increase of the Ministry (SIM). That study also indicated an alarming trend of students liquidating their retirement accounts and selling their homes to finance their seminary education.

To make matters worse, Executive Council’s Draft Budget 2013-2015 eliminates the scholarship support of $195,200 provided through SIM in the Episcopal Church’s current triennial budget. These funds help an average of 100 seminarians each year, according to Thomas Moore, SIM’s executive director. And in July, when subsidized Stafford loans will no longer be available to graduate students, it will become even more expensive for students to enter the seminary.

Like many Americans, seminarians may be left with crushing debt, underfunded retirement accounts and a frail financial safety net amid limited job prospects.

Read More: Three Episcopal seminaries offer new programs to address financial realities facing seminarians (**EXCLUSIVE**)

Because seminarians are following a strong call to serve God, some may minimize the impact debt will have on their future financial security; but that’s all the more reason the church should help them with that debt, said several seminary deans.

“We have even more of a responsibility [to help them] as they follow this call,” commented the Rev. Lang Lowrey, president of the General Theological Seminary (GTS).

Increasingly, some bishops agree that the traditional seminary experience isn’t the only way to get the education necessary to become an effective pastor. “We treat each person as a unique case and don’t make everyone jump through the same hoops,” said the Right Rev. Kirk Smith, Bishop of the Diocese of Arizona.

Smith explained that a full-time, three-year seminary program may not be the right fit for someone, for example, in his or her late 30s who has started an urban monastic community and is trying to reach un-churched youth. Smith indicated that in some cases, classes at a nearby seminary may be more appropriate, or a certificate in Anglican studies may make more sense.

To be sure, there are seminarians today who can complete the traditional three-year programs and graduate without debt – usually thanks to working partners or spouses, significant personal resources, scholarships or diocesan support. And full-time job prospects are indeed available – some states such as Texas or Kansas may have more opportunities than others.

But those instances are becoming the exceptions instead of the norm for seminarians.

“The church needs to think creatively in order to grow and follow the Spirit,” said Smith. “We can’t leave people with a giant albatross of debt around their neck.”

(Veronica Dagher is New York City-based reporter and an Education for Ministry graduate. She is a recipient of a Religion Newswriters Foundation Lilly Scholarship.)






Transforming Churches: Thad’s Santa Monica

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Meet this start-up congregation pitching the gospel to “studio heads, script writers and actors.”