A Chemistry Conversation with Chris Lewis
Matt Steen, Co-Founder of Chemistry Staffing, talks with Chris Lewis, Senior Relationship Manager at Thrivent Church Financing, about what he's seeing in the church as it pertains to finances. Chris has been working with growing ministries for over 15 years providing competitive and intuitive financing solutions.
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Matt Steen: Well hey, this is Matt Steen, Co-Founder of Chemistry Staffing. This is another Chemistry conversation. Today I’m pretty excited because I’m joined by my friend Chris Lewis. Chris has been doing finance work and church loans for approximately forever I think.
Chris Lewis: Yeah.
Matt Steen: Currently you’re working with Thrivent. Coming alongside churches, helping them figure out how do we finance the buildings that we’re in, how do we deal with our money, and all that kind of stuff. Chris, thanks for jumping in.
Chris Lewis: Yeah, this is great. Thanks Matt. Appreciate your time.
Matt Steen: So let’s just go at it. So you’ve been working with churches, kind of helping them figure out their finance stuff for years and years and years.
Chris Lewis: Yes.
Matt Steen: What are you learning about churches now that’s different than what you’ve seen in the past?
Chris Lewis: Well, I never really realized how flexible churches are. If you think about business, in a business context, last year there was a screeching halt to the way churches worked, right? Come Sundays, we’re all gearing towards a Sunday experience. Gone, right. So how do we continue reaching people without our facility? So it has been really a great testimony to the church and leadership, how they’ve been able to just kind of reestablish themselves in these last twelve-month period. It’s really been fascinating to see.
Matt Steen: Yeah. And it’s kind of surprising too because we don’t necessarily think of churches as being super nimble or change-friendly, right?
Chris Lewis: Right. And it’s really been - it’s fun to see that online attendance and other metrics that we measure have continued to be stable and are growing, even though in our minds we’re like, no it’s going to church. But churches have transitioned from measuring online attendance, and of course, engaging people in giving and different ways. Changing the business model in a live-type session. You still had to continue serving people. You still had to continue connecting with people. Bills just didn’t go away. So churches have been really fully utilizing all the technology available. Which has kind of been interesting because years ago when I started in church lending, when we were selling giving kiosks, people laughed us out of churches saying, “What are you talking about? That’s a sin.” And now we’ve come full circle to realize, hey, this is a tool. Technology has really, obviously, played a part in all of this.
Matt Steen: So much of what you do is you’re helping churches get into buildings and all that kind of stuff. I’m sure you’ve been watching churches utilizing their buildings differently here during this season. What are you seeing in those areas that’s kind of exciting you?
Chris Lewis: Yeah, it’s just being able to dream again. The reality is, real estate may look different post-COVID than it did pre-COVID. All these pinch points. You know, sanctuary. The church we attended was packed and you couldn’t even get in. Is that going to be the same pinch point? So churches are going through that process now. I heard it said multiple venues that 20% of the folks are not going to be returning to church. That will allow churches to reimagine their space. So instead of building new sanctuaries, 2000-seaters, churches may be thinking smaller venues within their building that allow more personal connections. I’m not sure what that looks like. The process is still evolving. But facility utilization is changing, right? We can see it based on our own experience. That’s not a definitive statement. We’re still in the thick of things and the rebound effect of what worship is going to look like 6-12 months from now. There’s a lot of energy around this fall. Churches are thinking about, okay, how are we going to utilize our facility in different ways.
Matt Steen: So talking to an executive pastor friend of mine who is in the process of getting ready to build, and they’re leaning into this process and they’re asking all these questions. But one of the things that he’s asking himself is, what are banks going to be looking for going into this. So much of what you do is you’re helping churches with financing this stuff. From the bank perspective, what do church leaders need to know about if they want to lean into a building project in this season?
Chris Lewis: The biggest thing they can do is being able to show us that the need that they’re looking to fill - it’s hard to justify an expansive building project when numbers are going backwards. It’s just leaning into those numbers, showing any lender this is why we need this-and-this square footage. Thrivent has been actively funding construction projects, even through COVID. But we’re getting much more intentional about the church’s preparation. How is the campaign playing a role in that? What cash resources is the church bringing, and how is this going to propel your growth moving forward. State by state, things are different. So in Pennsylvania for instance, things were shut down for a long time. California, same thing. New York, same thing. Florida, as you know, it’s like, “What’s COVID?” Every market is different, but the more the church can prepare. We’re looking at cash resources, filing down payment, is the church well-positioned to maintain their operations after this capital injection. So what I mean is, after your down payment, does the church have 90 days of cash is a good litmus test. Trends. If trends are flat or going up, that’s a great thing. If they’re going backwards, maybe we’ve got to identify why they’re going backwards. I’m not just talking about the inability to worship at your facility because there are other ways now. For instance, giving units has been a new measuring tool. People aren’t coming to your facility, but are they still giving? And if that number’s going down, you want to pause and say why is it going down. In many cases we’ve seen, okay, folks that were giving less than $100 a year, not giving. So theoretically, not a huge impact on the budget. But again, we need to identify those things to make sure, okay, we’re not hanging here, we’re taking off.
Matt Steen: And I heard you say that you’re keeping an eye on is there 90 days buffer that’s built into a budget. Is that what you’re typically recommending to churches as far as cash reserves?
Chris Lewis: Yes. Pre-COVID, we were 30-60 days. We’d like to be closer to 60 days. That number came back to 90. Again, that coupled with the percentage of online giving is an important measurement. Ministries that had no electronic giving ability had to really adjust quickly when the doors closed. So online giving, we’re measuring - I say measuring. We’re looking at that and saying, how much of your giving is online.
Matt Steen: Is there a benchmark that you guys are looking for on that, or is that just…?
Chris Lewis: We’d like it to be north of 50%.
Matt Steen: Really?
Chris Lewis: We’ve closed deals with churches that had 30%, 40%. It really depends on the trends because if the church has provided a way for the gifts to be received, whether it’s electronic or by check. I have churches that have a mailbox that they installed at the end of the drive for convenience. Kind of interesting, people enjoy that. I think the giving trend is more important. Yeah, we’re seeing that conversion rate to electronic being a factor.
Matt Steen: Gotcha, gotcha. So as we look ahead, what encouragement do you have for churches, for pastors and church leaders as we look to this next season in ministry?
Chris Lewis: You know, it’s interesting. I’ve been in the business for a long time, and prior to being in church financing I was a commercial lender. I had to foreclose on some businesses that did not adapt to the current season. NAFTA happened. They’re line of business got off-shored, so they never adjusted. What I’m seeing in the ministry is so surprising that ministries have adjusted to the new season and they’re actually thriving in this environment. So congratulations I think are in order to those leaders. But burn out is happening. Churches have really been burning the candle at both ends. I’ve just been so impressed at how the ministry has been able to adjust. It’s a phenomenal accomplishment because basically business went to zero, so to speak, and had to be reinvented. So my encouragement to those pastors is you’re making a differenc3. Hang in there. We are just on the cusp of normalization. And that normal may look different, just like my business customers who adjusted through NAFTA. There’s nothing wrong with different. I think the encouragement is being able to continue making a difference.
Matt Steen: That’s cool. Very cool, very cool. Well Chris, thank you so much for your time. If you guys want to learn more about what Chris does, thriventchurchloans.com is where to go and you can dig into what they do and they’ve got all sorts of free resources there to help you think through what you’re doing financially in your church. Chris, thank you so much for your time.
Chris Lewis: Matt, thank you.
Matt Steen: And for serving churches.
Chris Lewis: Awesome, talk soon.