As Sunday offerings go down because of the recession, church leaders are looking for creative ways to replace that funding. I find many congregations think of grants as a way to fill the gap.

After more than 20 years in this field -- working in nonprofits, as a consultant and writing a book “Winning Grants to Strengthen Your Ministry” -- I can say that grants can be a great resource. But congregations shouldn’t think of grants as the cure to their money troubles. Instead, they need to consider what aspect of their ministry might be appropriate for outside funding, and what compromises they might have to make to take advantage of the money.

When I served as the executive director of a church-based nonprofit in the 1990s, I was involved in securing grants for community ministry programs. Over the years, we built relationships with local foundations that supported our summer youth program, a computer learning center and a health clinic, among other initiatives.

The money was great, but I often found myself struggling with the dilemma it posed. We wanted to serve the community. But our goal also was to serve people spiritually.

I spent a lot of time looking out the window of my office wondering: Should we take money from groups that don’t share our spiritual goals?

Roadblocks to funding

One of the main concerns of the foundation staff I interviewed for my book was whether programs seeking funding would serve only the people in the church. Many funders have a communitywide focus, and foundation and corporate staff are constantly gauging community needs, looking at trends and issues and sometimes doing their own research. They want to support efforts that serve the broader community and are accessible to as many people as possible, regardless of religious beliefs. So if your proposal is focused only on people in your congregation or denomination, you may not get grants.

The issue of spiritual content in programs also is a challenge for funders. If you apply for grant funding, expect to be asked whether clients are required to participate in religious activities such as Bible study or worship services. If the answer is yes, many grant funders won't support the program.

In addition, many funders think church members ought to pay for the services they receive at church. So congregations are unlikely to get grants for core internal ministry programs of the church, such as worship, pastoral care or Sunday School.

(There are some exceptions to this general rule: Groups such as Lilly Endowment Inc. are focused on strengthening clergy and the work of the church. Some denominational grant programs are designed to strengthen internal programs, and Christian families who own businesses or have foundations may be willing to give to faith-oriented programs.)

If you think your program would be attractive to a funder, pursuing grants may force your congregation to get more organized and results-oriented. On the face of it, that sounds good. But there are implications: Foundations and corporations want concrete results, so you will need to develop evaluation processes and collect data, a time-consuming process.

You may also have less flexibility than you’d like in changing the program or adjusting to your clients. To get grant funding, your programs also may need to become less relational and more structured. I recently interviewed the director of a church-based nonprofit in San Francisco who turned down a grant for this reason. He said: “We don’t want the heart of our tutoring program to be driven by results. We want to focus more on loving children and embracing them as family, not being results-driven.”

How can grants be used in ministry?

Community outreach programs often are the area in which funders’ and congregations’ interests overlap. Congregations can be a hub for organizing people around community needs. And, in my experience, funders respond favorably to congregations serving this kind of organizing role.

If your organization offers -- or wants to offer -- services such as job training and placement, affordable housing, prison re-entry and teaching English as a second language, you may find grant funding.

One congregation I work with saw that seniors and their caregivers needed help. The congregation then developed a center with exercise classes, health education and family support for seniors and their families, working with partners including a large healthcare provider, a senior living residence and another congregation.

Remember that most foundations and corporations focus on program grants, not unrestricted operating support or capital grants. So ask for help covering the costs of a program, underwriting staff positions, supplies, facility costs, event fees, curriculum and other expenses directly related to the program.

You might also consider whether to change your organization’s structure. Some congregations have established separate 501(c)3 nonprofits in order to attract different kinds of funding, volunteers and partners. Foundations and corporations may find it easier to support the work of your congregation if grant funding goes to a church-based nonprofit rather than to the church itself. I describe the process of planning and starting a church-based nonprofit in my book, “Starting A Nonprofit At Your Church.”

Pursuing grant funding is challenging, and you may find it doesn't fit your congregation’s needs and goals. But if you do find the right fit, grant dollars can be a great addition to the time and money that the people in your congregation are already investing.