A volunteer physician conducts a medical examination at Providence Medical Clinic in Kingsport, Tenn. The clinic is a 501(3)c founded by First Baptist Church (Photo provided by First Baptist Church Kingsport).
A volunteer physician conducts a medical examination at Providence Medical Clinic in Kingsport, Tenn. The clinic is a 501(3)c founded by First Baptist Church (Photo provided by First Baptist Church Kingsport).

Churches spin off ministry nonprofits

501(c)3 ministries are gaining in popularity as pastor and congregations seek to impact entire communities.

By Jeff Brumley

Travis Collins doesn’t need church health experts to know ego and fear can kill creativity and risk-taking in ministry. Collins, senior pastor at Bon Air Baptist Church in Richmond, Va., said he had a “big time” gut reaction this spring to a plan to formally distinguish the congregation from a city-wide recovery ministry that began as a recovery group.

“I resisted and I was completely upfront about it,” he said of the move involving what is now Northstar Community, a program with multiple meetings getting national attention. “I said, if we separate organizationally ... we will see a gradual pulling apart of our church from that ministry.”

But Collins jumped aboard nevertheless – it became official in April -- and in doing so, he and Bon Air joined a small but growing movement of churches to become what experts are calling “ministry incubators.”

Bill Wilson, president of the Center for Congregational Health, said he’s noticed a jump in Cooperative Baptist churches following the practice, inspiring him to begin researching the trend.

The term includes churches that create nonprofit organizations that are then partially or fully spun off as their own agencies. In some cases, the 501(c)3 is created after a smaller ministry grows so much a congregation can no longer handle it alone. In other cases, a ministry begins as a separate nonprofit.

There are a number of other dynamics pushing the movement, Wilson said, but what they share is a missional attitude toward ministry.

“It’s using a community model versus just being a church model,” Wilson said. “What if you thought of yourself more as a missions incubator than as a do-it-all operation?”

‘A kingdom thing’

Community is what Walter Draughon III, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, Fla. had in mind less than two years ago when he conceived of Rise Up, St. Pete!

The 501(c)3 was designed as a ministry that could be shared by all of the churches after a wave of violence that deepened racial divisions in the city.

Draughon said the old model – churches briefly coming together for symbolic shows of unity, then returning to their corners of town – didn’t work.

He also knew that a campaign led by First Baptist would turn off some people.

“For 130 years we have tried to do social action, but it didn’t work,” Draughon said. “We still have a part of town that feels ostracized and is ostracized.”

But a nonprofit group dedicated to racial and economic healing by offering mentoring and fellowship programs, Draughon added, has so far been a plan that’s gained traction in white and African-American churches. Even some Muslims and Jews are getting involved.

“This is a kingdom thing,” Draughon said. “In order for us to involve all churches, it has to be distinct from any one church.”

Creating connections    

There can also be legal benefits to establishing a ministry as a separate 501(c)3, said Marvin Cameron, pastor of First Baptist Church in Kingsport, Tenn.

nonprofitpic3The congregation, led by members who work in health care, launched Providence Medical Center in Kingsport more than two years ago. It’s a separate 501(c)3, in part, “because it protects the church from liability,” Cameron said.

There are other advantages, he added, including nurturing interdenominational relationships through a board of directors made up of Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and First Baptist members.

“We have a connection with other churches and much closer relationship,” he said.

Volunteer opportunities

Financial benefits are another draw to going the nonprofit route, said Cathy Owen, president of the board of the Winston-Salem Center for Education and the Arts and a member of First Baptist Church Winston-Salem, N.C.

The center was launched as a 501(c)3 and given a building the church acquired across the street. Its mission is to renovate the building and then allow other nonprofit groups to use it to further education and arts projects, Owen said.

A private school for at-risk students is now using the renovated half of the structure while fundraising is underway to finance the remainder of the restoration.

Nonprofit status allowed First Baptist to see the building renovated and used for a public good – and without having to put the building or the center in its budget, Owen said.

The center raises its own money and is in the process of applying for education- and arts-related grants, she said. “And it’s a great place for our church members to volunteer their time and services.” 

‘New way of doing church’

Still, even with obvious benefits, it can be hard to let go, Collins said.

nonprofit9Northstar Community had always had its own budget and staff separate from Bon Air Baptist. But its huge success in Virginia and nationally made the tag line “a ministry of Bon Air Baptist Church” something to be proud of, he said.

“That felt pretty cool,” Collins said.

But Collins said he could see the clear benefits from removing that overt connection. It will help Northstar in its fundraising, which in turn will help addicts and their families.

Growing a ministry then spinning it off, he said, is just another way of being a missional church.

“We are going to have to find new ways of doing church, even if they don’t fit our present categories and definitions.”