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.

Striped Carpeting

We had a problem at church.  The carpeting in our basement meeting space was old. The carpet wasn’t just old, it was unraveling at the seams. The estimate to replace the carpet was approximately 15% of our budget – and that’s IF the loose tiles underneath weren’t asbestos. If the tiles were asbestos, the cost would rise.

What to do?

We have another problem at church, too. It seems unrelated, but it’s not. There are fewer people in our church than there were ten, twenty, thirty years ago.  Fewer people means fewer resources. In the past our church could meet budget and above budget projects –  like carpet replacement.  Now we cannot. We can meet budget. Or we can replace the carpet. But we can’t do both.

That adds another strategic wrinkle. Our carpet is old and unraveling in a physical space that is used infrequently by fewer persons that cannot afford to replace the carpeting. However, we do use it enough that the unraveling carpet is both an eyesore and a hazard – both of which impact church morale.

Striped Carpeting

That’s how we ended up with striped carpeting. The decision was made to fix the seams without replacing the entire carpet.  Our carpet guys cut an eight inch strip where the unraveling seams were. They then put down a strip of carpeting in a color that complements the original. It looks better than before, but it’s pretty obvious that it wasn’t designed that way.

Analysis

The presenting symptom is unravelling carpet. The underlying illness is a failure to thrive in a key aspect of church health – growth/stability. It’s fair to say that we would not have put stripes in the carpet if we had the resources to do otherwise.

In my view, the solution of striped carpet was…

  • Creative – Leaders were able to look beyond the obvious option of replacing the whole carpet in order to imagine new solutions when resources didn’t allow for the best option.
  • Resourceful – While not the preferred solution, Leaders were able to resolve the carpet issue with the resources available in a way that works.
  • Potentially distracting – What remains to be seen if whether or not leaders will engage the underlying illness now that the presenting symptom has been dealt with in some fashion.
  • Potentially discouraging – The obvious stripes in the carpet CAN represent a creative, resourceful, solution. It also serves as a visible reminder that the church does not have the resources it once did. It’s better than unraveled carpet seams, but it sends the same basic message – we aren’t what we once were. This is another leadership challenge.

What would you do?

Many churches face this kind of situation. While it might not involve carpeting, the basic pattern of declining resources – people and finance – creates problems that require the best from leaders.

On one hand, the creativity and resourcefulness is to be applauded. It’s not healthy to face challenges like this with a sense of defeatism born in the inability to do what one wants to do. It’s far better to face challenges like this responsibly, using what resources are available, to resolve the issue in the best possible way.

At the same time, the key for leaders is not to let what is urgent draw all the time and attention away from what is truly important. Missional engagement is critical for each church. If we spend all our time on striped carpet, such that we barely talk substantively and practically about missional engagement, there will be many more striped carpets in the church’s future.

So, by all means, lets have striped carpet this time. But if all a church is doing is the equivalent of striped carpet, there may be some deeper issues at the leadership level that require attention.

Does it matter if we’re Mennonite? (a serious, in-house, question)

Does it matter?

I’m knee deep in transcribing interviews, coding survey data and writing (Dmin thesis). It’s a bit like herding cats, only the cats are ideas and insights that have to be captured, and written down, and put into a coherent form.

In the midst of all that, a question popped into my mind. It’s one that I will explore further, but today, I want to ask you the question:

Does it matter if we are Mennonite or not?

The question comes out of a series of observations.

  • A very strong majority of people, in both surveys and interviews, say being Mennonite is important as a distinct, or different, way of following Jesus.
  • That same, very strong majority, think Mennonite theology and practice plays an important role in the world.
  • That very same strong majority says it is important to welcome and include new people in the life of the church.
  • Yet, that very same strong majority says it isn’t important if new people, coming into the church, are or become Mennonite (either theologically or communally).

This is curious to me.

On one hand, we acknowledge that the Mennonite name is often misunderstood outside of our congregation. We also recognize that, to some degree, this misunderstanding hinders our outreach in the community.

On the other hand, we acknowledge that Mennonite faith – properly understood and practiced – is distinct and needs to continue. That involves successfully reaching out to our non-Mennonite, non-Christian, neighbors.

On the other “other hand” (if that were possible), we are not intentional about leading others into the Mennonite way of faith and practice. For example, it’s common to hear Mennonites say that we are not trying to make Mennonites out of others. What matters is that we are Christian.

Two questions

If being Mennonite is important, both theologically and institutionally, then why don’t we intentionally make Mennonite disciples of Jesus?
If being Mennonite isn’t important, either theologically or institutionally, then why in the world would we keep the name – which we believe hinders outreach?
Either it does or it doesn’t matter if we’re Mennonite. Which is it?

Feel free to talk among yourselves about these questions, or give me a call. We can sit over a cup of coffee and talk. I’d love to hear your thoughts. You can also email me or comment below.

A soft rant (delivered in love)

I hesitate to say this out loud, but it is something that bothers me every time it happens.  My words here are an honest reflection on how a particular comment I receive (semi-regularly) feels.  My words are not meant as a slam to those who make this – or similar – comments.  Those who say it are sincere.  I love them.  It’s just that, I’m not sure they know how disheartening their words – meant to encourage – really are.

Let me back up.  I serve as pastor of an awesome church, filled with many of the best Jesus followers I’ve ever met and spent time with.  They worship, lead, give and serve tirelessly and accomplish more for others than churches 5 times our size with 5 times our budget.  BUT…we are an older, getting smaller, rural, Mennonite congregation.

Over my almost 20 years at MMC, I’ve witnessed people who were raised by this congregation leave here as they head to the congregation(s) down the road(s)  The music is hipper, more people my age, varieties of programs a smaller church can’t accomplish, and so on and so on.

Here’s the comment:

Pastor, I just want you to know that I still consider Metamora Mennonite my church home.

It’s not always those exact words, but the sentiment is nearly always that.  “I still consider Metamora Mennonite my church home.”  Those seem like encouraging words.  Sometimes they are – especially when the person saying it lives in another community or state or country.  But when the person saying it lives near by, and they are choosing to go to another congregation, the positive sentiment is down-right frustrating.

When I hear it I often want to scream, “THEN COME HOME!”  There are a lot of people at home that would love to throw you a welcome home party.  They are the same people that changed your diapers when you were in the nursery, taught your Sunday school classes, played games with you at VBS, taught you the hand motions to “Deep and Wide”, led you on service trips, introduced you to Adam and Eve, Moses, Noah, Jonah, David, Mary, countless others and – most importantly – Jesus.  They are the same people that pledged to have your back when you were baptized. And, by the way, you said you would have their back too. They still have your back and would welcome you back.

I guess I wonder what the sentiment accomplishes? “Pastor, I want you to know that I still consider MMC my church home.” To me, that would be a lot like me saying to my wife, “Melissa, I want you to know that I still consider you to be my wife,” as I leave her.  And, to make matters worse, reminding her of that every time I happen to run into her. I think we’d all be better off just telling the truth.  I’m choosing to be somewhere else with someone else.  Yes, such truthfulness inflicts a deeply personal wound. But the wound is no less deep by pretending it isn’t happening.   Why can’t we do that with our “home” church? Own the reality.  Sometime I think the sentiment is intended to cover up the fact that leaving a church also inflicts a deeply personal wound.  It is a way of pretending that it isn’t a big deal – but it really is.  It would have a lot more integrity to say, “Pastor, I’m choosing to be somewhere else with someone else.”  Then I could say, “I’ve noticed. We will miss you deeply.  I wish you God’s best, and hope you are an engaged member of your new community for the glory of God.”

In the end,  a faith community is not a group of folks that consider that community their home, but a group of folks that make that community their home by their presence.

Will the real “wretches” please stand up…

 Matthew 21:33 – 46

Beginning in Matthew 21:23 Jesus is teaching in the temple and the chief priests and the elders of the people engage him in a discussion about authority. He asks them some straight forward questions and then tells them some parables. Last week we explored the parable of the two sons. (you can read both articles online at metmenno.org). The thrust of Jesus argument is (1) they know where Jesus’ authority comes from but they will not admit it and (2) they are like people who say “Yes” to God’s call and then don’t follow through. In Matthew 21:33 – 46, Jesus sets a trap that reveals that he’s right about them.

The trap comes from the interplay between two levels of meaning in the parable. The first level of meaning is a common business practice which was “legal” but against the Law and God’s intention for his people and the land.[1] The second level of meaning comes directly from Isaiah 5:1 – 7. So he is also talking about God and Israel and the Kingdom of God.

Here’s a brief window into the situation. Legally, the absentee landowner owns the vineyard, but he shouldn’t because he is a foreigner. That land used to belong to a Jewish person, who somehow, lost the land. The kicker is that God gave the land to His people as a means of providing for them, economically. They would work the land and the land would yield fruit. So, the tenant farmers have a legitimate complaint. They are working the land, which should be theirs, to the profit of a foreign land owner who shouldn’t even own the land, to begin with. The whole situation hinges on the priests and elders of the people who make this business arrangement possible.

So Jesus sets the trap: There is an absentee landowner who “owns” the land and plants a vineyard. The tenant farmers work the land and are expected to give the profit to the absentee landowner. They stage a rebellion, trying to recover the land and all the fruit for themselves. They kill the absentee landowners collection agents, even his own son.

Here’s Jesus’ question, “When the landowner comes, what will he do to the tenants?” They answer in vs. 41. They refer to the tenants as wretched. They support the absentee landowners right to kill them and rent the land to other tenants. In other words, they support a business practice that is both against God’s intention and against God’s people. This is a big problem (see Isaiah 5:7). It fully reveals the hearts of the chief priests and elders of the people.

This comes full circle when Jesus turns their own answer back on them. If the landowner has authority over the vineyard and the hired help are required to bear good fruit for the landowner, what does that mean for the chief priests and elders? In their very act of supporting an exploitive labor practice against God’s people, the chief priests and elders of the people are revealing that they are not producing the kind of fruit God demands of them. That fruit is the fruit of justice and righteousness (Isaiah 5:7). For that reason, Jesus tells them that the kingdom of God will be taken away from them and given to people who will produce good fruit.

Often times, it is the things that we take for granted as being normal, everyday, routine practices that reveal the truth in our hearts. It is the bloodshed and injustice all around us that we don’t even see or acknowledge that convicts. In the everyday course of life the chief priests and elders of the people supported a practice that was contrary to God’s intent for the land and for the people. It was their inability to see how they participated in something so very wrong that was their undoing, according to Jesus.

May the Spirit reveal to us the normal, everyday, routine practices that we have accepted that ought not be.

[1] I owe much of my thought on this to Parables As Subversive Speech by William R. Herzog. Even though I don’t quote him here his work on parables has become a part of my thinking about them…

[this piece was originally published in the October 5 edition of The Weekly for Metamora Mennonite Church]

When you can’t tell the truth…

In Matthew 21:23 – 32, the chief priests and elders ask Jesus two direct questions. “By what right are you doing these things?” and “Who gave you this right?” They are questions about authority. In the religious system of Jesus’ day, the chief priests and elders of the people had authority to speak on God’s behalf. Jesus wasn’t a part of that system. Yet, the things he did and taught had all the marks of the authority and authenticity and liberating power of God. This made the religious system anxious. After all, what if the people decide that they don’t need the religious system and follow after this upstart, Jesus? What seem like good questions (especially to people in authority) are more statements for public consumption. In essence they were saying, “Jesus, you have no authority!”

Jesus responds the way good rabbis often responded. His question, when answered honestly, does answer their questions. He asks, “Where did John’s baptism come from? Was it from God or from this world?” Jesus wants to know how they understand John’s authority – is it from God or earthly systems of power?

This puts the chief priests and elders in a bind. If they say from God then Jesus will rightly ask why they didn’t believe him and participate in what John was doing? If they say from earthly systems of power (i.e. not God) then the people will turn on them. The problem is that it was pretty clear that John’s authority came from God. Everybody understood that – even the chief priests and elders. They just couldn’t admit it without loosing a bit of their own power and control.

Some say that Jesus put the chief priests and elders between a rock and a hard place. I would say that Jesus asked an honest question that they were unwilling to answer truthfully. Jesus didn’t put them between a rock and a hard place, they put themselves there. The reality is, that is where they lived because they were unwilling to be honest and forthright about something they could’ve clearly answered.

To claim you are leaders of God’s people – and not be able to do the one thing God requires of you (i.e. point out when and where God is at work) is like a son who says, “Sure, dad, I’ll do the work you ask of me” and then ignore that work. The chief priests and elders could’ve easily said that John’s baptism was from God. But in answering truthfully, they would have also had to say that Jesus’ ministry was from God as well.

In an ironic twist, those on the margins – the tax collectors and prostitutes – had no problem being honest about John’s authority and Jesus’ authority. These are the ones that, from all outward appearance, had said “No” to God. But had they really? In the end they were the ones who had the courage to tell the truth – to believe and bear witness. They did what the Father wanted.

As you think about questions of inclusion and exclusion; God and culture; “sinners” and the church; insiders and outsiders remember this text and Jesus’ message to those who were certain they were right and the truth revealed by those who, while being told they are wrong, none-the-less were ready, willing and able to embrace what God was doing in their midst.

[originally published in the 9/28/2014 edition of The Weekly, Metamora Mennonite Church]

Quote of the Day

‘Politics’ affirms an unblinking recognition that we deal with matters of power, of rank and of money, of costly decisions and dirty hands, of memories and feelings. The difference between the church and state or between a faithful and unfaithful church is not that one is political and the other not, but that they are political in different ways.

– John Howard Yoder, Body Politics