Provision for the Vision

blog May 02, 2024

By Tony & Dianna Rivera

In 2005, God led my wife, Dianna, and me to plant Citi Church, a non-denominational congregation in central Miami. Allapattah, the community we serve, is plagued with crime, drugs and violence and, at one point, had the highest juvenile delinquency rate in the county. Public services, from schools and health care to law enforcement and the fire department, have been overlooked as the rest of the city grew.

As God began to open our eyes to the desperate needs in the neighborhood, He prepared our hearts to embrace the people there. He also provided amazing ways to fund the ministry he had called us to—not through traditional fundraising or passing the offering plate at our church, but through grant writing.

In only a few years, we’ve created a wide range of programs in our community, touching the lives of students and their families and leading countless people to Christ. Not only has our church grown (from ten people to nearly 300), but we have taken our ministry outside the four walls to the community with an after-school program that reaches 100 elementary and middle school students every day. With regular food distribution programs and other ministries, we’re not just pastoring a church; we’re pastoring a community.

Our programs have received over $20 million in grants, and with our experience, we’ve helped nonprofits and churches in other cities and states write grants for $6.5 million to fuel their visions. Of course, many of those we’ve helped began the process with skepticism. We regularly hear comments like, “We’re not going to let the government tell us what to do! If we get a grant, they’ll control us.” Others have questioned the amount of work it takes to get grants from the local, state and federal government.

We understand the immediate resistance to the concept. Securing grants is new to most people, and it doesn’t fit quickly and easily into their usual ministry strategies. When people are informed, however, their resistance diminishes. In this article, we want to address the most common myths church leaders believe about grant funding.


Many church leaders assume the separation of church and state excludes even the possibility of government agencies approving grant requests for them. The fact is that government agencies have funds dedicated to programs for kids, families, schools and communities, and if a church can show they can provide services that will meet the agencies' goals, the money is often released. These agencies realize that churches are one of the (if not the) most effective organizations to care for people in the community—especially in urban settings. Not to mention, many people in inner cities trust churches to care for them more than government agencies.

A website that informs church leaders about government grants explains: “Church grants, or more properly, faith-based grants, are available through many foundations and the Federal government. Some support programs offer grants for churches by targeting funding for community-based programs. This category might include after-school programs for at-risk students, early reading programs, classes on safe food preparation, or any other targeted program that affects communities.”1

Private foundations like the DeMoss Foundation and the Mustard Seed Foundation have a national reach and could be good resources. Still, all the grant funding we’ve received has come through government agencies. We’ve observed that private foundations are often fairly restrictive in providing funding—you have to know someone in the foundation and have an established reputation. But government agencies are far more open to startups like Citi Church in our early days, as well as churches just getting their feet wet writing grant proposals. Agencies often provide funds if the proposal is compelling and the implementation plan is sound.


We want to laugh at this myth! It would be hard to be smaller than our church on the second Sunday after we planted it, and we had ten people show up. Agencies aren’t looking for size; they’re looking for competence to administer the program. In fact, some of these agencies only fund organizations with a yearly budget of less than $500,000. (We certainly qualified when we began!)

“Starter grants” are an excellent way to jump into this kind of funding. Small churches—in inner cities, suburbs and rural areas—can qualify for grants to provide valuable services for their communities. When we started, we had no idea there were so many avenues to get funding for programs to care for people around us. In fact, we’re still uncovering opportunities. The money is there; we just need to craft programs that align with the agency's goals, and that’s far easier than you might think.

You may read about enormous grants to large organizations, but don’t be scared away by the size. You can find plenty of sources to provide $5,000, $10,000 or $20,000 for programs that will give you a broader reach into your community.


A pastor asked us to come to his church to consult with him about grant funding. He and his team had many of the usual questions, and he assumed his church was too small for any government agency to pay attention to them. He capped off his complaint by saying, “And besides, it looks like too much work.” As we sat in his office, Dianna went online and found an agency with $10,000 available for a program that fit the church’s outreach strategy. Dianna and the pastor filled out the application, and the request was approved on the spot! The grant has been renewed three times so far, but at higher levels each time. Too hard? Not so much.

Many pastors assume they have to write proposals the length of a John Grisham novel, but most documents are five to 20 pages, and after you’ve written one, you can cut and paste most of the information for the next ones. All proposals have similar contents: They want to know who you are, the needs you propose to meet, the program and plan, the qualifications of the leader and the team, and past successes.

Another aspect of feeling overwhelmed is that the agencies seem vast and distant, like there’s a gigantic organization in Washington staffed by aliens. That’s not the case. Many of the connections are in your own neighborhood. City and county agencies have money earmarked for certain types of programs, and they are eager to find worthy partners. We’ve developed deep roots in Miami to know how the government operates and who holds the purse strings.

For instance, about half of YMCA funding comes from government agencies, including the Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs.2 All these have local offices to work with organizations like the YMCA—and churches with programs that fit their objectives.

Our first tutoring program at Comstock Elementary was a federally funded initiative from the Department of Education. The dollars allocated for No Child Left Behind went to the states. As we mentioned earlier, we applied to the state for funding, and then we applied to the school district to administer the program in our local schools. In everything we do, our primary contacts aren’t in Washington; they’re in our community.


This is one of the most common misconceptions. Many church leaders don’t trust the government and assume the worst. Pastors have told us (with supreme confidence) that if they get a grant from a government agency, they’ll have to change their statement of faith to be liberal, and the agency will take control of the church. We want to respond, “Look at us. Take a good look at us. We’ve received dozens of grants, and nothing remotely similar to that has happened.”

But of course, one of the requirements of those who receive grants is accountability—they want to know we’re doing what we said we’d do. If we’ve agreed to receive money to feed 100 people each month for a year, the agency wants an accurate and timely report from us. That’s good and right and fair, and in fact, they should expect nothing less.

Some agencies require that we don’t proselytize or share our faith with people in the funded program. We respond to this requirement in two ways: First, we have many ways to let people know we’re following Jesus. We wear Citi Church shirts, talk about our relationship with God, and often serve people in our church facilities. We’re preaching Jesus through our compassion and our service. As Francis of Assisi noted, “Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.”

Second, when we participate in a program, like after-school activities or tutoring, we can speak up about Jesus as soon as the period has ended. At that point, we can ask if anyone wants to know more about how to be forgiven and have a sense of purpose through a relationship with Christ. This isn’t dishonest; it honors the commitment and creatively finds ways to share the gospel.

People want to know if our actions match our words. If we preach the love of God but seldom touch the lives of people in need, they have every reason to wonder if we mean what we say. But as we move into the community to meet needs in tangible, meaningful ways, we build trust so that when they hear our message of salvation by grace through faith, they’re more willing to listen.


At Citi Church, we manage programs funded by grants the same way we manage every other program: We define objectives, plan our activities, recruit a leader and a team, marshal the necessary resources and get to work. The only differences are in the source of funding (grants instead of tithes and offerings) and the reporting structure (to the agency, in addition to church leaders). If you can lead a successful vacation Bible school, you can manage programs funded by the government.

We began by working with Hope for Miami, an organization that conducts after-school programs and other community services. We learned a lot from Hope’s president, Yvonne Sawyer, but when she told us we were ready to go out on our own, we applied for our first grant. Our work with Yvonne’s organization showed us that we could pull off a program with excellence, so it wasn’t a big jump to manage our own.


Some agencies, foundations and companies will give tangible resources but not money. Years ago, we started a Christian school, and soon, we had sports programs up and running. We often played teams from private schools in much more affluent parts of the city, and our equipment wasn’t up to their standards. We applied for a grant from the athletic equipment giant Riddell, and they gave us credit for $10,000 worth of their uniforms, shoes and other football equipment. The boys on our team were thrilled to wear top-of-the-line gear on the field.

One year, we wanted to provide food for Thanksgiving for people in our church who didn’t have enough to provide a nice meal for their families. We wrote a letter to a local grocery store to share our story and explain the needs of our people. We asked them to donate gift cards so our people could shop there. They gladly gave us 20 gift cards, each for $50.

AmeriCorps is a federal agency that “provides opportunities for Americans of all backgrounds to serve their country, address the nation’s most pressing challenges, and improve lives and communities.” Those who participate aren’t paid a salary but receive a monthly stipend to cover a wide range of expenses, including rent. This means a church can apply for a grant to at least partially fund a staff member who is actively involved in serving the community.


The assumption is the opposite of high control. Some people assume that if they get money from a government agency, they can spend it any way they want. Yes, the funding is incredibly valuable, but it always comes with strings: We must use it to fulfill the objective described in the proposal. That’s not unfair, and it’s not undue pressure. The objective in the proposal is something God has put on our hearts, and accountability is entirely reasonable.

The relationship between the applicant and the funding agency is a partnership. They each bring specific goals; if they overlap well enough, the agency may fund the proposal. Some church leaders have come to us and asked, “Can you help me get a grant to build a new sanctuary?” or “… pay the light bill?” or “… create a food bank?” The question is simple: How does your vision to build a new building advance an agency’s goals? (It almost certainly doesn’t.) Or pay the light bill? (Ditto.) However, creating a food bank may accomplish the purpose of one or several government agencies.

In considering proposals to particular agencies, always ask yourself, “What will be the payoff for the agency? What is a win for them?” Don't bother submitting a proposal if you can’t answer this question. They’re looking for a positive impact on their target audience. If they see that your effort will accomplish that, they may release the funds you need to make it happen.

It’s certainly possible that a grant can indirectly fund a project that has nothing to do with the agency. For instance, if your church has been spending $15,000 on an after-school program, you might get a grant for that purpose, which frees this money for another program in the church. So, look at what you’re already doing in your community. Could you get a grant for some or all of this effort? If so, you can double your investment in the community.


We’ve talked with church leaders who told us, “Yeah, I know somebody who applied for a grant but was turned down. He said he’d never make that mistake again!” When we hear this complaint, we wish we could talk to the actual person who tried and came up empty. What happened? What didn’t happen? Did they actually apply, or did they quit because they didn’t know what they were doing?

A few leaders have told us someone in their churches volunteered to write a grant proposal, but it was turned down. It may be that the proposal didn’t follow the agency guidelines, or the proposed church program didn’t align with the agency’s goals.

There may be many reasons a first attempt didn’t work, but that’s not our experience. In fact, we’ve never been turned down. (Throughout these chapters, we often say an agency “may” fund proposals. This isn’t a lack of faith. It’s true that not all proposals are accepted and funded—but all of ours have been.)

Matthew’s account of the life of Jesus tells us about many remarkable events, and one of them seems unusually strange. When Jesus and the disciples returned to Capernaum from the Mount of Transfiguration, officials from the Temple asked Peter if Jesus would pay the Temple tax. A short time later, Jesus and Peter discussed the legitimacy of the tax, but Jesus told him, “We don’t want to offend them, so go down to the lake and throw in a line. Open the mouth of the first fish you catch, and you will find a large silver coin. Take it and pay the tax for both of us” (Matthew 17:27).

Jesus was using an out-of-the-box funding strategy to provide for people in need, him and Peter. It was, to say the least, unconventional. What do you think was going on in Peter’s mind when he threw the line into the lake? Did he wonder if he looked like a fool? Did he have confidence that what Jesus promised he would provide? No matter what fears he may have had, he obeyed and experienced a miracle.

But the story has another point: Where did the coin come from? Did a righteous person drop it in the lake? Or an unrighteous person? The source didn’t matter. Jesus used an unconventional method to provide funds from an unknown source to meet a real need. Who would think to look in a fish’s mouth for funding?

When we sent in our first grant proposal, it was like Peter throwing a line in the water and expecting a coin in a fish’s mouth. It seemed not only new but strange. Grant funding has done wonders for Citi Church and the people of our community. It may appear unconventional, but it’s a place where we can find coins.

So here’s what we want to say to you: Come on! Give it a shot! Maybe this is how God can fund programs to advance his kingdom in your community. It may be a novel thing to attempt, but it’s not nearly as strange as going to a lake to find a coin in a fish’s mouth! You can do it.


  1. “Church Grants,” Government Grant.US,
  2. “YMCA Federal Funding Overview,”

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