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.

MC USA: What’s at Stake for You in This?

What’s at stake for you in this?

The first time someone asked me that question, I did the avoidance two-step. I didn’t know how to answer the question. I had never been asked that question before. I wasn’t sure I even understood the question. The more I thought about it – and the clearer the question became – the more I was really sure I didn’t want to do the kind of personal exploration that might produce an answer.

I was afraid.

What’s at stake for you in this?

It’s an unnerving question. It’s a revealing question. It pushes you to go deeper. It asks you to see what you might not want to see. It forces you to articulate your personal bottom-line.

It is also a question that opens up new possibilities. These are possibilities that are rooted in truth-telling.

It’s a question I like to ask people – especially when there is a conflict.

What’s at stake for you in this? 

Recently, I’ve been asking this question in the context of an ongoing conflict within the church denomination I call home: Mennonite Church USA.

The conflict is over how to be a church together amidst differences in how folks understand Jesus’ call to the church regarding gay people in our midst. (even the formulation of the issue is problematic, but that’s the best I can do right now)

In a public meeting yesterday, one participant said, “We’ve been dealing with this for forty years. I’m discouraged that we have made no progress.”

I have friends, and Christian brothers and sisters on both sides of the conflict. A question that keeps coming to me – which I haven’t had an opportunity to ask – is: What’s at stake for you in this?

I desperately want to know.

What will you lose if the conflict is resolved in a way that is not what you wish?

The answer to that question would be fascinating! Worth ruminating over! Potentially healing! Full of reconciling potential!

It’s a question the Holy Spirit is asking me!  So I’m asking you.

For those of you within MC USA – who are passionate and engaged and, perhaps, entrenched in this conflict – what’s at stake for you in this?

The answer, from both sides of the divide, might reveal a way forward.