The Church is not a Business


For 25 years the field of “Church Leadership” has taken its signals from business.  We started searching for excellence, in the 1980’s and are still scrambling be good one minute managers as we go from good to great while learning to cope with a flat world, the long tail all the time wearing the six thinking hats.

            The trouble is the church is not a business.  It ought to be run with sound financial practices and we ought to be efficient and care about effectiveness, but there are crucial differences between business and the church. We have to make a “translation” of these nifty business fads before we can bring them over into the church. Here are a few of these differences to get your thinking started:


1. Our bottom line is foggier.

The church’s bottom line is not money but ministry.  So how is your church doing?  Hard question, right?  If producing a higher stock price and a generous dividend for our stockholders were all we had to do we’d be better off. Even if our denominational statistical reports could measure effectiveness we’d be just peachy. But statistics can’t do a complete job. Where do you list the 14 hours you just spent in the hospital with a family while their son was going through open heart surgery.  Or where will you list the “productivity effectiveness” of spending the entire next day arranging his funeral after the operation failed?  In the church we defend such “wasted” time by saying we were not “making money” but “making ministry.” Ministry is our bottom line. And ministry is a lot foggier to measure than money.  


2. Our leadership is more nuanced.

In business you simply get “the wrong people off the bus and the right people on.” In the church, we sometimes work with the “wrong people” on purpose. We take ordinary fishermen and turn them into something better. We seldom dump the dullards in exchange for the bright people from Jerusalem. In the church power is diffused among a hundred people not concentrated into the hands of the company president or management. Our leaders work with the people they have. “Headhunting” by swiping “top notch producers” from other churches is frowned upon (other than doing so for paid staff).  For the church “the competition” is treated as brothers, not as competing entities to be run out of business. Our leaders build consensus, take their time, and know exactly how much of the future to introduce into the present. And we do it tenderly and carefully because the way we do it is as much of our bottom line as what we do.


3.  Our pay is mostly intangible.

While paid staff can be motivated by money the workers in the church mostly receive an intangible salary: things a sense of meaning, knowing I’m doing a good thing, and feeling a part of something worthwhile or pleasing the Lord. While “intangibles salaries” are receiving more attention in the business world (recently) they have always been the primary payroll in the church.  We work with volunteers who, well, volunteer.  We can’t easily change results by approving a new salaries budget. For us, a far more complex system of rewards takes years of calibration and emphasis to get new results.


4. Our workers are our bosses.

Some pastors might wish they were CEOs who could summarily fire laity who were dragging their feet on needed changes.  Most of us can’t get rid of workers so easily. Dealing with an entrenched union is apple pie next to dealing with entrenched church members.  Which business has a “pastoral vote” where the workers decide if they’ll keep the CEO another term? See?  For most Church leaders we have the far-more-complicated task of leading the very volunteers who vote on their retention.  Simplistic business solutions like “find them and fire them” just don’t come over into the church. The person they “find and fire” in those situations will likely be us!


5. Our means can be our ends.

Our mission is not to make money but spend it.  In the church we intend to make disciples out of people then guide those believers into spiritual maturity while accomplishing evangelism, discipleship, fellowship, worship and service. These are our mission, not a means to some other mission like making a profit.  Business types who get on our boards need to be reminded that we have a different bottom line.  Youth ministry is not “a waste of time because it doesn’t produce more tithers” to us—it is something we do for itself, not for profit or greater income. In the church our outcomes are our inputs-- being the church is the bottom line.



There are more of course, and in response some will suggest others. But these five differences are enough to get us started in remembering that bringing over into the church the most recent sexy business book usually requires considerable “translation.”


I should, however, point out one recent encouraging trend among business writers.  They are increasingly recognizing this difference.  For the last five years churches (and Christian colleges like mine) have swooned over Jim Collins’ Good to Great as if it had apostolic authority in guiding ministry success.  Recently Jim Collins published a little-known monograph admitting many simple business truisms don’t “come over.”  In his overpriced and under developed pamphlet Good to Great—Social Sectors he tells stories of how pastors and other non-profit leaders argued with him—and how he lost these arguments. His monograph is his mea culpa or at least a whopping ten dollar footnote to his popular and helpful work Good to Great.  We in churches and the non-profit world have been doing our own translation of business books for decades. Perhaps some of the writers are going to help in the future?


So, what do you think?

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Keith Drury January 16, 2007