Leadership: The relationship between church and business

If I ran a business the way you run the church, it would be bankrupt

Raise your hand if you’re a pastor or church leader and you’ve ever heard that complaint!  I see that hand…and that one…and that one…

This is a common sentiment that gets expressed when poor leadership practices are clearly hurting the church. Dysfunctional boards. Loose process. Lack of professional standards. Poor communication and feedback loops. Lack of strategic planning. Meetings that last too long and accomplish too little.

The principle, behind the sentiment, underneath the quip is this: Any group, of any sort, that is trying to accomplish anything needs structures that function. This is true for the church.  The appeal of comparing the church to a business is that there are hard realities, rooted in economics, that are at work within businesses which make it hard for businesses that don’t function well to hide for too long. This isn’t necessarily true for churches.

So it is natural for some to think that running a church like a business can be helpful.  And, to some degree, it can.  There are some practices within businesses that can help churches function better. In business they call them best practices. Some of them can help the church.  So keep reading your Bible.  But every once in a while pick up FastCompany, too. You can learn  interesting things about innovation, management, human resources, design, and so on. If you find you’re reading FastCompany more than your Bible, repent. The Bible is still the primary source for church leaders.

The problem with this church is that it’s run too much like a business. 

This is the other side of the coin. This sentiment gets expressed when a church is run too much like a business. What that usually means is that people have  become less important.  Vision is executed by those at the top of the leadership structure. People’s voices are marginalized. Spiritual disciplines, like Scripture reading, prayer and discernment, are put on the back burner.  Too much FastCompany. Not enough Philippians 2.  1 and 2 Timothy. Not enough Jesus (that’s always a problem).

It’s natural for some to think that running a church like a business is the reason that relationships suffer, compassion is lacking and people become secondary to structure, process and management. Therefore it is important that leaders recognize that church is not a business. The bottom line for churches is people, connection, collaboration, participation, and….LOVE!

What is the proper relationship between church and business when it comes to leadership?

For me, when it comes to management, process, visioning, innovation, etc. there is a lot churches can learn from business. When it comes to people, church leaders need to take their cues from Jesus, as well as Paul and other Old and New Testament leaders. Joseph. Moses. Jeremiah. Peter. James. to name just a few.

In that way, both quips are right and wrong. The key is balance. The church is not a business. But that does not give churches permission to run poorly in ways that hurt the mission, vision and direction of the church. If learning from business can help the church run more effectively from a structural standpoint, I don’t see the harm. In the end, however, Bible trumps all else.  A good business practice that is inconsistent with the teaching of Scripture is a bad church practice.

Towards a triple bottom line

Last Sunday I stepped on a few toes by pointing out that a major employer in our area has also been associated with human rights violations in foreign lands.  Some folks in our congregation, whom I respect very much, work at said company and heard the critique.  I wasn’t saying that the company was bad.  What I was saying (through other examples as well) is that we, in America,  live at a time where our mere participation in our economy involves us in things that stand in the way of the shalom (justice with peace) that God is bringing.   There are no easy answers to this dilemma, because like most situations this one isn’t black and white.

Shades of gray make it easy for us to simple go about our business, content that participation in injustice is indirect at best.  Given the immensity of the problem, it’s also easy for us to say, “The problem is too big for me to really make a difference.”   What those two paths fail to account for is how our collective power can actually push companies in the right direction.  The reality is that every company wants (and needs) our money.  How can we leverage that reality for good?

For me, it’s been helpful to think in terms of a triple bottom line.  A triple bottom line asks companies to consider more than profit when considering how to go about their business (that’s a single bottom line approach).  Profit is important.  Without it businesses would fold up.  But a good business will also pay attention to two other things.  They will pay attention to how their business practices impact the environment.  Any business that makes a profit at the expense of the environment, or by exploiting natural resources, is cutting off their nose to spite their face.  A good business will also pay attention to how their business practices impact people.  That means paying attention to more than the overall satisfaction of the end user.  It also means paying attention to how people are treated, their quality of life, whether they are getting a fair wage, and so on through the entire production chain.  The goal is to root out and correct any systemic injustices inherent in the way the company does business.

By adopting a triple bottom line, there will be some give and take.  In order to ensure that people are well cared for and the environment is properly protected, it’s possible that the amount of profit will decrease.  At first, this seems contrary to good business practice.  Yet, in reality, it will move the business towards a more sustainable model that continues to benefit the company and the community.   The point of challenge comes in the measurement of profits.  When is enough profit enough?  When is sacrificing profit by investing in people and the environment good sense?

The question is, can “we the people” get our collective act together in order to move companies in this direction.  The biggest challenge, of course, will be that we want to save our lives, not lose them.

For those that work inside businesses, there is a perceived risk in pushing the company at all.  That could result in the loss of job, which means the loss of income, which means the loss of the provision, and so on.    As consumers, if we push businesses like the people who make our shoes and clothes and cars we could end up paying more for our products.  What would motivate people to take such risks for the sake of people they don’t know?

I’m not sure, unless we are talking about followers of Jesus.  Followers of Jesus are called by God to join Jesus in building and expanding the kingdom of God.  That means helping to put the world back the way God intended from the beginning.  Sin is everything we do to keep the world the way it is.  Confession and repentance require that we take a disordered world and help to set it right in any way that we can.    Part of that involves the proper stewardship of creation.  Part of that involves helping all people, in all places, at all times have the stuff that makes for life!