Kimberly R. Daniel: Christian innovation must change the status quo to help the marginalized

Photo courtesy of Kimberly Daniel

Innovation isn’t Christian if it doesn’t focus on God’s priorities, says the co-author of a book from the Forum for Theological Exploration.

Some modes of innovation focus more on helping existing institutions survive changes in the world rather than changing the world into a more equitable place.

Such innovation, argues Kimberly R. Daniel, isn’t Christian innovation.

“Christian innovation is a type of innovation that advances life,” Daniel says. “It results in healing of the world.”

Daniel and her co-author, Stephen Lewis, have written a resource titled “A Way out of No Way: An Approach to Christian Innovation” with this in mind.

In the book, they offer steps, lessons and examples from the many Christian social entrepreneurs they have met and trained over the past five years to show a mode of Christian innovation that does bring change.

Lewis is the president of the Forum for Theological Exploration, and Daniel is the senior director of communications at FTE and co-founder of an Atlanta-based startup accelerator.

Daniel spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about the resource and how readers can use it to identify what next steps might be for their ideas for Christian innovation. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: How did this book come about, and what inspired you to publish it?

Kimberly R. Daniel: Back in 2017, we began to host some small gatherings, which were really sparked by some questions that Stephen and I had. Questions like, “What do Christians from diverse communities think about Christian innovation?” or, “How have they been innovating?” or even, “What innovation have we and our ancestors experienced in our communities before this term was even coined?”

So at FTE, the Forum for Theological Exploration, where both of us are leaders, we hosted these small gatherings of entrepreneurs and asked them those questions — entrepreneurs, pastors, community leaders who were and still are designing and imagining new ways to help their particular communities, versed in their specific contexts.

By launching this five-city listening tour and launching a startup accelerator for early-stage, underrepresented entrepreneurs in 2017, we connected with more than 200 folks — innovators and leaders working at the intersections of faith, church community and business. In this, we learned that not all innovation done by Christians can legitimately claim to be Christian innovation.

Stephen and I both come from the Black community, which has lived on the underside of imperial progress and is well acquainted with frugal innovation, which we commonly call “making a way out of no way” — hence the title of the book.

So from these questions that we had to the small gatherings that we had to the accelerator program and our own lived experiences, we were inspired to write “A Way out of No Way,” because we don’t need any more innovation that gives economic opportunities that benefit just an elite minority.

We want this book to be pretty much a blueprint and a guide to practicing the type of innovation that addresses individual and systemic inequalities that fit the plight of everyday people, not the elite few.

F&L: In your view, what disqualifies something from actually being Christian innovation?

KRD: There are innovative and entrepreneurial endeavors that have nothing to do with the lived experience and the plight of people who are disenfranchised, who are socially vulnerable, who have minimal resources. These types of innovation just didn’t meet what we see as coming from being rooted in Jesus’ teachings and sticking to “the least of these.”

There are a lot of people who are seen as Christian innovators, but a lot of times, they primarily exist to either help their institutions navigate the cultural shifts or to change their institutions to be relevant and responsive to changes in society. So in these cases, innovation is a practice for Christians for the primary benefit of the institutions, their traditions and their programing.

While there is definitely importance in this type of innovation, given all the challenges that people and religious institutions have faced, especially over the past several years, this is insufficient to be understood as Christian innovation.

I think it’s a misconception that if Christian leaders effectively navigate their institutions through these difficult challenges and keep their institutions and people intact or they successfully transfer the institutions, that they’re deemed innovative. Yes, they may be deemed innovative, but when we’re talking about Christian innovation in particular, in our book we advocate for what’s rooted in Jesus’ teachings about God’s preferential starting place — to benefit the disenfranchised, socially vulnerable, underresourced and undervalued.

F&L: What are some models you’ve found that are truly Christian innovation?

KRD: If we’re talking about people who are doing innovation rooted in addressing these particular communities, that might be someone like Kit Evans-Ford, who went through the accelerator program in 2017 that Stephen and I co-founded.

She developed and launched and has a thriving business that she calls her ministry that is rooted in addressing women who are survivors of domestic violence and abuse. Her business ties into her own story and into her ancestors’ stories and is helping create a healing community for these women who have often been overlooked and who have just been trying to survive.

She is giving them a place and a space to thrive, giving them an opportunity to create some economic value by employing these women, giving them free services to help them heal as they move through their journeys. So whether that’s spiritual reflection or therapy or a chiropractor or coming together and having some studies with one another, she is providing this community center, and she’s providing a place to employ these women.

That’s one example. There are six steps in the book about how to do Christian innovation, and she’s tied to the last step, which we name “Do it,” when you’re actually implementing your solution. That’s the very last step. She has gone through all the steps, and she is doing the work for the benefit of a particular community.

Bottles of lotion from Kit Evans-Ford's business, Argrow's House of Healing and Hope. Photo courtesy of Argrow's House

Or another example might be LivFul, which was co-founded by Hogan Bassey, who is a Nigerian-born man who was experimenting with a solution to a problem that his particular community faced, which was malaria.

He had been infected with malaria four or more times by the time he was 10 years old, and so he started testing out an insect repellent that soon became the seed for LivFul, which initially offered this award-winning insect repellent to heal his community and also provide them with an opportunity to have access to it, because repellents were [not readily accessible] to them at the time.

He provided easy access to this insect repellent so that he could save lives and hopefully help people flourish. LivFul offers a lot more now, but that’s just a little highlight.

F&L: What do you hope readers would learn from the book?

KRD: We hope that through this book people are able to have concrete steps they can take and practices they can engage in to help them identify their next most faithful step in exploring innovation.

We want them to understand what Christian innovation truly is, and what we are advocating for, which again, like I’ve already said, is rooted in Jesus’ teachings, addressing those who are disenfranchised, undervalued, vulnerable in our families, in our communities and in our society.

That is very important, and we hope that the book serves as a blueprint for innovators, for people who may be innovators, people who are leaders, educators, and for communities, to create a more just world by developing solutions to stubborn social problems.

This book is really for people who are innovators — innovators who are within the church context or other forms of faith communities, people who are drawn toward social entrepreneurship and driven by their faith to make a positive impact on communities.

This book is for educators who are teaching the innovators who will come into our communities. This book is for communities in and of itself. We want people to be clear about the ways that they can faithfully do innovation that meets the needs and provides healing and opportunities for flourishing and empowers everyday people.

F&L: How should a reader use the six steps that you outline in the book to identify Christian innovation?

KRD: In every chapter, it begins with an overview of that particular step. I think someone who is already working on some type of innovative ministry or has an entrepreneurial venture that they’re trying to develop would get clear about whether that’s the step they’re at and the one they should focus on.

I think what is a benefit to this particular book is that in each step, you can go to the end with these interactive exercises that will give you some concrete and tangible practices and questions that you can consider that will help you refine what it is that you’re doing to make sure that you’re actually meeting the needs of people within your community. I would say to start there.

But in looking at the steps just broadly, it’s pretty clear that when you “Get curious,” you’re really starting with a question. You’re wondering why things are the way they are in order to develop a solution, whether it’s a ministry or a business venture. You’re getting curious about the problem, the need, the desire that you see within a particular community.

Then you’re moving from that and you “Make meaning” of what is coming up — what came up in your curiosity and what that might mean for these insights. Then you need to “Be open” to what emerges from God, what emerges from your community in order to further build out your ministry.

Then you just need to try it, experiment with it, develop something. Even if it’s not perfect, “Try this” to see if it even works, and then show that you can “Prove it” works, from hearing from the community. Ask and see if it’s actually making an impact in the way that you hope it does.

Once you prove it, just “Do it.” Looking at the highlights of each step, I think, will give people a sense of where they might need to focus, and then leveraging the interactive exercises that we have at the very end following Stephen’s theological reflections can be very helpful.

Single mothers pursuing their education live in The House Next Door along with their children. Photos by Tessa Sheehan

A nonprofit ministry in Idaho houses single moms rent-free while they pursue their education.

When the house next door to the parish hall of Grace Episcopal Church came up for sale, it created the opportunity for more than a real estate transaction.

The Rev. Karen Hunter, the vicar of the Nampa, Idaho, parish, had already recognized the need for a local ministry to help support single mothers. With buy-in — both financial and philosophical — from the right people, she believed that the unassuming building could help them serve a new set of neighbors.

The Rev. Karen Hunter saw the need for ways to support single mothers in the Nampa area.

What resources to address a problem are so close that you might have overlooked them? If those resources seem unattainable, what are some creative options to overcome those hurdles?

Although the church had owned the property once before, when Hunter and other members of the congregation went to take a look, they discovered a much larger floor plan than they’d realized. Knowing that Grace could not afford to buy the house outright on its own, Hunter reached out to her sister and brother-in-law and pitched them on the purchase with the hope that the church would pay them back eventually.

They agreed, and the plan was discussed further at a congregational meeting.

“There were a number of people who surprised me in being supportive, because something like this is a big undertaking,” Hunter said. “We had so many people who had experienced being single moms, or had people close to them who were, I think it really resonated. It was clear that this was a time in people’s lives when assistance is really important.”

With an eye to housing families led by single mothers who were pursuing their education, the parish established a committee and a board, both of which got to work. The planning for what would be aptly named The House Next Door began in earnest, with next steps that would be familiar to any housing nonprofit: applying for 501(c)(3) status, hiring staff members, bringing in furniture along with the bits and pieces of daily life that would make the empty house a home.

The 1930s-era house is next door to Grace Episcopal Church.

Learning as they go

The House Next Door went on to open in 2015 and has since provided rent-free housing for 16 mothers and 27 children, five of them born while their families were in residence. The qualifications and application process have evolved over the last seven years, mostly in response to new information and unexpected considerations, including deciding what qualifies as pursuing an education.

How do you respond when realities shift and your expectations for a project need to change? How might you reframe those changes as opportunities?

One of the first residents was pursuing her GED diploma rather than a college degree, as had been stipulated. In response, that requirement was broadened to include any kind of education — from GED studies to heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) training to an apprenticeship with builders to learn how to frame houses.

Nampa, with a population of roughly 100,000, is located 20 miles west of the state capital of Boise. The city is home to the annual Snake River Stampede Rodeo, abundant parks and walkways, and other attractions. It is also among those municipalities faced with a growing need for affordable housing. For single parents trying to improve their families’ circumstances through education, housing insecurity is an additional burden.

Meredith Greif, an assistant research professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, said that supporting housing stability and parental education benefits families and communities.

“Anything that can be done to help people to advance their education is going to go a long way in terms of their ability to gain jobs that are helpful to their families, income they earn and, similarly, the housing they’re able to secure,” said Greif, whose research focuses on race, space and housing.

“Kids will 100% only benefit from that, from the stable environment their parents provide,” she said. “Parents are best equipped to be supportive of their own kids when they, too, are in a mentally stable place, when they perceive their quality of life to be good and they’re satisfied with their environment. Having parents feel good about themselves and feel engaged in the world and confident only is going to spill over to their kids.”

Since 2015, 16 mothers and 27 children have lived in THND.

The application process for living at THND includes a list of general criteria: mothers must be 18 or older or legally emancipated; they must be enrolled in educational programming at least part time and be working toward a degree or certification; and they must maintain a minimum 2.0 GPA.

All residents must also agree to abide by the list of house rules, which include no smoking, no drugs or alcohol, and no overnight guests. Mothers with a prior history of addiction must be in recovery for a minimum of six months prior to applying.

Living in the house

The 1930s-era house blends into the neighborhood, with only a small yard sign displaying THND’s name and logo.

Thanks to a donor, the house’s interior and exterior have just received a fresh coat of paint —bright white inside and out, with teal accents and shutters.

In addition to the four bedrooms and three bathrooms split between three stories, there is a kitchen, dining room, living room, study room and separate playroom. Amenities include a washer and dryer, Wi-Fi, and a large backyard with a patio, storage space, a playground, and an aboveground pool.

Two mothers residing in the house recently spoke about what the experience has meant for them. (The mothers requested that their last names not be used.)

Residents live rent-free but pay $80 toward utilities. They also pay for their own food and personal expenses.

When have you been surprised by someone’s generosity, compassion or empathy? How can that shape your vision for what is possible?

Carolina, 26, has three daughters, ages 2, 7 and 9. Originally from Honduras, Carolina speaks Spanish as her first language, and her interview was conducted through a translator.

She heard about THND through pastors in a church where she and her family had been in a shelter, and they helped her connect. Her family moved into the home in early December 2021, and she has been working on English classes and getting her GED certificate since then.

Jamilet, also from Honduras, learned about THND from Carolina through their work harvesting grapes. She is 22 with a 1-year-old and a 6-year-old. Before moving into THND in early February, Jamilet and her children were living in her aunt’s living room. She already has her GED diploma and is taking English classes so she can attend college and pursue a career in nursing.

Jamilet said she feels safe and at peace living with her daughters at THND. She is glad the people there are helping her succeed. She also said it was challenging at first to establish a routine in the house between school, working, taking care of the kids and other responsibilities but that she feels more established in the home now.

The communal living established by THND is intentional, as it means more help with child care, house cleaning and general support. All are important factors while trying to juggle school and single parenthood. Each family pays $80 per month toward its share of the utilities and other necessities of the house. Residents also cover their own costs for food, insurance and personal expenses.

Building supportive relationships

Melinda Romayor became executive director in March.

Melinda Romayor, who became THND’s new executive director in March 2022, has a background in advocacy against sexual violence through the Women’s and Children’s Alliance. She has almost a decade of experience running shelters and advocating for clients, a background that is useful for leading the work of The House Next Door. While THND is not a shelter for women affected by domestic violence, many who stay there have had similarly traumatic experiences.

Romayor’s arrival came during a time of staff turnover, in both the executive director and the house manager position.

“There was a lot of change for the residents in terms of someone checking in,” Romayor said. “They were used to just living there, doing their thing and not really being supported.”

Romayor has been working to change that relationship, visiting with the women and helping them utilize all the resources THND has that they might not have been taking advantage of before. She has also been working to get the community more involved in opportunities for engagement, like sponsoring a room or a service project, such as the recent house painting, so that more people feel a part of THND and its success.

The residents live communally, helping each other with child care, house cleaning and general support.

Who are the people you need to bring on board for your next big project? What are some ways you can contribute to a larger endeavor in your community without being the one in charge?

Each project done to renovate and upgrade THND — from replacing the 80-year-old original windows in 2016 to renovating the downstairs after a flood in 2017 to installing a new HVAC system in 2020 — has been through the support of volunteers, donors and grant money.

Grace Church has managed to secure funds for THND through a variety of endeavors, including a social enterprise to make priest’s stoles and annual fundraisers, together with donations and grants.

The organization’s budget goes primarily to maintenance of the house, Romayor’s and the house manager’s salaries, insurance, and the mortgage. They rely heavily on volunteers for supportive roles, especially for babysitting. Then there are the little things throughout the year that don’t necessarily cost that much but have a big impact, such as gift cards for the residents on their birthdays.

There seems to be a natural rhythm to those coming and going from THND; there have been a few times when someone was wait-listed, but typically, as one woman moves out, another happens to apply. Grace Church and THND have received many requests over the years to open a house for single fathers. But for now, given the price of real estate in the area and the need to finish paying for the current house, the focus remains on the small home in Nampa, making a difference in single moms’ lives.

Questions to consider

  • What resources to address a problem are so close that you might have overlooked them? If those resources seem unattainable, what are some creative options to overcome those hurdles?
  • How do you respond when realities shift and your expectations for a project need to change? How might you reframe those changes as opportunities?
  • When have you been surprised by someone’s generosity, compassion or empathy? How can that shape your vision for what is possible?
  • Who are the people you need to bring on board for your next big project? What are some ways you can contribute to a larger endeavor in your community without being the one in charge?

iStock / Kali9

A theologian’s book emerged from theology done in partnership with disabled Christians.

My recent book, “Becoming the Baptized Body,” owes its origin to a rather unexpected place: the waiting room of a multidisciplinary pediatric clinic. In this waiting room, where I’ve met countless families as an occupational therapist over the past decade, I encountered a preteen named Hallie and her mother, Heather (whose names have been changed for their anonymity and whose story is being shared with their permission). Engaging in some introductory small talk, I mentioned to Heather that in addition to my clinical work, I studied and taught theology at Duke Divinity School.

With this revelation of my bi-vocation, something shifted within Heather. Her eyes lit up intensely, and she began to lament her and Hallie’s experiences in the church. Hallie loves loud gospel music and being around people. She also uses a wheelchair and has an intellectual disability. Though Hallie is nonspeaking, she communicates her needs and emotions in a rich diversity of ways.

Heather longed for Hallie to be baptized. She recounted to me their family’s story of traveling from church to church, seeking a community of belonging. But Hallie and Heather couldn’t find this kind of church. Pastors and lay members of congregations told Heather that Hallie’s vocalizations were too disruptive during their services. In many churches, Heather recalled, Hallie couldn’t access Sunday school or the sanctuary in her wheelchair. And in one conversation Heather had with a pastor, she was told that it wouldn’t matter if her daughter were baptized, because Hallie couldn’t understand what was happening.

Hallie and Heather’s story of seeking a community of baptismal belonging is one among many stories, wounds and questions that disabled Christians in my life have recounted to me over the years. Their stories have shaped me into the kind of theologian I am today — a partner alongside Christians with intellectual disabilities, seeking to uncover how we might grow in love of God and love of neighbor more faithfully.

Over the past several decades, various theologians and Christian leaders have contributed to the field of disability theology. However, in this body of theological literature, perspectives from people with intellectual disabilities are few and far between. As I sat with the pain of Hallie and Heather’s story, along with other experiences of rejection from churches among my friends with intellectual disabilities, I resolved to prioritize the perspectives of disabled Christians in my own theological work on disability and the church. I committed to theology done in partnership.

With this commitment, I spent a year visiting Christians with intellectual disabilities around the state of North Carolina. We had meals together, worshipped together, sat in silence together and shared stories together. In short, we did theology together.

My partners included Christians like James, who watches a recording of his baptism on a weekly basis and, with this constant reminder of his baptismal identity, beautifully lives into his life as “God’s beloved son.”

My partners included Christians like Al, who repeatedly said to me that in baptism, he has truly become “who I am.”

And my partners included Christians like Ava, who witnessed to me that the practice of baptism serves for her as a gentle but steady assurance of “knowing who you are, where you belong with Christ.”

These partners in doing theology together have transformed my imagination about my own identity as a Christian disciple. Whenever I hear the story of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River, I think of James’ insistence that he, like Jesus, was named as God’s beloved in his baptism. And in these moments, I give thanks to James for his witness to me that I, too, am a beloved child of God — a reality that I too often forget.

When people ask me to describe who I am or what I do, I often think of Al’s insistence that baptism is the act where God reveals to us who we truly are — people welcomed into God’s covenant and equipped by the Holy Spirit with unique gifts for ministry. And when I feel isolated or despairing, I recall Ava’s assurance to me that remembering my baptism affirms my belonging with Christ.

Five years later, the fruit of our doing theology together is out in the world in the form of a book: “Becoming the Baptized Body: Disability and the Practice of Christian Community.” The book, dedicated to all those like Hallie and Heather who are still seeking a community of belonging, stresses the importance of thinking about how core practices of the Christian faith — prayer, Holy Communion and, most centrally, baptism — are sites where God’s action challenges us to take seriously the gifts of all Christians, disabled or nondisabled.

In close conversation with the stories and experiences of my research partners, the book explores disabled perspectives on baptismal practices, disabled interpretations of Scripture on Christian identity, disabled critiques of baptismal liturgies, and the rich possibilities for practicing baptismal preparation, testimony and reaffirmation that emerge from the witness of disabled Christians.

Though the formal work of this theological research has concluded, I remain committed to the work of doing theology together. My co-researchers and I share in decision making about where the royalties from the book will be donated. And as my partners read or listen to the book and offer me their thoughts, I commit to not only following up personally but responding in my ongoing scholarship.

When I speak in academic settings about this work of doing theology together, colleagues often comment on my work with “unlikely” theological partners — Christians with intellectual disabilities. I find myself somewhat puzzled by this characterization of who exactly constitutes an unlikely partner. After all, in my explorations of the intersections of baptismal identity and intellectual disability, I, a person without an experience of intellectual disability, am the unlikely partner in learning and transformation!

I wonder how in our own work we might find ourselves positioned as unlikely partners. I invite you to ponder how developing new ways of being together might expand your perspective, your wonder, and your learnings about love of God and love of neighbor.

Expanding our perspectives can begin as a small practice of asking a new question or seeking out someone we might not initially consider an expert. Becoming an unlikely partner might require us to reflect on the stories and wounds that others have shared with us — stories like that of Hallie and Heather. Reframing our work in the world as something we must do together might be energized by participating in a new kind of gathering, such as an event with L’Arche North Carolina, where people with and without intellectual disabilities flourish together.

May we be open to the transformation that comes in and through unexpected partners in a commitment to doing work, ministry and worship together.

Started by Oak Lawn UMC, Union Coffee Dallas is both a coffeeshop and a worship space. Photo courtesy of Union Coffee Dallas

Don’t let confusion about taxes stop you from doing something new, say two experts in faith-based social enterprise.

More and more churches are looking at new ways to generate revenue beyond the offering plate. This might take the form of renting rooms in a church building to a community partner, starting a new social enterprise like a grocery co-op, building affordable housing — anything that generates earned income.

There is a lot of promise in these activities, and through them many churches may not only generate revenue but also engage in new and meaningful expressions of ministry that serve vital needs in their communities.

But making money from earned revenue activities raises new questions and concerns about something most churches have largely ignored: taxes.

Does a church renting out rooms need to pay income tax or property tax? Does a church selling coffee need to charge sales tax? Is a church’s new development project subject to property tax? And could too much “business activity” jeopardize a church’s tax-exempt status?

We have experience with church-based social enterprise and taxation from both the academic and the practitioner side. Andrew McGannon recently wrote a thesis on tax implications for faith-based social enterprise in the U.S., and Mark Elsdon is the executive director of Pres House, a $2.4 million-per-year faith-based social enterprise, and consults with churches throughout the country on revenue generation and social entrepreneurship.

While this article cannot answer tax questions for any specific situation, we offer the following suggestions to keep in mind for churches generating new revenue.

Do we need to worry about paying taxes?

Yes and no. Ironically, perhaps, the two broad risks related to taxation are to not worry about taxes enough … and to worry about taxes too much.

Generating revenue can, and often does, trigger some taxation, through unrelated business income (UBI) tax at the federal level, sales tax at the state level and/or property tax at the local level (see decision tree below).

Churches generating revenue from income-producing activity should not ignore taxes. It is our legal and ethical responsibility to understand and comply with applicable tax law.

On the other hand, worry about taxation and fear of trying anything new can stifle innovation in congregations. Taxation should not prevent a congregation from creating innovative ministries using a social enterprise. Most concerns can be addressed through careful decision making. And paying some taxes on a socially and financially valuable enterprise isn’t the end of the world.

Image courtesy of RootedGood

Is our tax-exempt status at risk?

Earning revenue through a social enterprise may incur taxes, but it is unlikely to result in a loss of tax exemption given proper planning and consideration.

Some key considerations in determining whether a new activity fits within an existing nonprofit exemption include the scale of the social enterprise as well as the relevance to the core mission of the organization as expressed in its mission statement.

If revenue from the social enterprise becomes significant relative to the rest of the income of the church, especially if the social enterprise is not specifically relevant to the mission of the organization, changes to the legal structure may be necessary.

Churches can often benefit from creating an affiliated limited liability company or an entirely separate nonprofit organization to house a social enterprise and its revenue. Proper planning and consideration around the financial and legal implications for a social enterprise, with assistance from tax experts, will likely prevent any risk of loss of the tax-exempt status.

Again, don’t let fear of losing your tax-exempt status stop you from innovating.

So what has been done? Two examples.

Affordable housing

St. Paul’s Commons is a mixed-use affordable housing apartment complex located in Walnut Creek, California. Building upon a long legacy of ministry around housing insecurity, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church is providing, with this enterprise, 44 units for individuals who were formerly experiencing homelessness.

They also rent space to other nonprofits that engage in case management, employment services and related programs. The St. Paul’s Commons space opened in March 2020, just as COVID lockdowns were beginning. One of the leaders recalled that moment, saying, “It’s ironic: just as the world was shutting down, I was handing out keys to people’s homes.”

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church owns the land on which the complex sits, but the new building is owned by Resources for Community Development, a nonprofit focused on developing affordable housing.

Through careful legal structuring and accounting, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church has developed a way to serve their community with a tangible and much-needed service without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status or becoming overly burdened by tax liability.

Coffee shop

Coffee shops have been a popular option for churches interested in offering alternative programming and generating additional revenue. Union Coffee Dallas is an experimental model that advances a hybrid social enterprise and worship space.

Rather than a coffee shop within a worship space, Union is a worship space within a coffee shop. They aim to cultivate a nontraditional worship space for individuals who are looking to develop their spiritual faith but do not necessarily identify with the mainline traditions.

By regularly donating a percentage of revenue to other nonprofit organizations, Union lives out their tagline: “The Most Generous Cup of Coffee in Dallas.” They hold worship events, writing workshops and narrative storytelling performances in the space.

Union was started in 2012 as a ministry of University Park United Methodist Church. In fall 2021, they officially chartered with the North Texas Conference as a missional congregation. The property and building where Union is housed is owned by Oak Lawn United Methodist Church.

Union Coffee House Ministry brings in three different types of revenue: traditional coffee shop income (coffee shop goods, merchandise and room reservations), donations and fundraising events, and foundation grants for specific projects.

With help from an accounting firm that specializes in nonprofit accounting, they are able to keep track of the different streams of revenue and the tax implications of each. They also pay property taxes per the applicable Dallas property tax code. Union is exploring how to expand to different locations and may create an additional limited liability company to provide the flexibility needed for expansion.

Where can I find additional resources?

Our organization RootedGood has facilitated the production of a number of resources, including a training video with experts on church taxes and a more comprehensive decision tree tool that assists congregational leaders in navigating the complexities of social enterprises and income-generating activities.

These resources begin to address some of the major questions that congregational leaders have around the topic of taxation and revenue generation. Congregational leaders are also encouraged to reach out to legal and accounting expertise in their local contexts to answer questions and set up structures well. Problems can often be avoided by some up-front investment in expert assistance.

The information contained in this piece is provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject matter. You should not act, or refrain from acting, on the basis of any content included in this piece without seeking legal or other professional advice.

Some content for this article is drawn from a thesis researched and written by Andrew McGannon for RootedGood, which includes additional case studies and the broader legal context around revenue generation and taxation within congregations. Used with permission.