Creative Leadership

When Business and Ministry Collide

We must reject the idea – well-intentioned, but dead wrong – that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to become “more like a business.”
— Jim Collins, author of Good To Great

The idea that a church, ministry, or non-profit must run like a business has gained enormous momentum in the last two decades.  The world is exploding with business books by a variety of gurus and supposed “experts,” and as a result, business thinking has become accepted dogma in religious organizations.  I’ve always been an advocate of this development, because over the years, after working with more than 1,000 churches and ministries worldwide, I’ve discovered that frankly, religious organizations are often the worst run operations on the planet.

Much of that difficulty comes from the tension between “performance” and “loyalty.”  Naturally, in a religious organization, profit isn’t the bottom line, and therefore, performance isn’t as emphasized as much as it should be.  As a result, churches and ministries are filled with wonderful but incompetent people.  These employees and volunteers are committed to the organization, have integrity, and are good people, but they’ve often been promoted through the years because of loyalty rather than expertise.

I know of one major church with a single employee that I’ve estimated costs the organization at least $100,000 per year through sheer incompetence.  She’s responsible for the marketing efforts of the church, but she misses print and advertising deadlines, makes costly mistakes in product shipping, doesn’t know how to evaluate advertising campaigns, and her decisions on any number of issues is usually wrong.  She has no experience in marketing, but was promoted to the position after being a loyal and capable assistant to the pastor for many years.

Employees of one church on the west coast actually have a rather sick joke that to be fired, you’d have to show up at a shopping mall with a machine gun and shoot a few people.  A job in that organization is pretty much a job for life, no matter how poor you might be at any given position.  The lack of competence, poor stewardship, and resulting mismanagement of the congregation’s money boggles the mind.

In another major ministry, poor management has created an atmosphere of insecurity and terror throughout the organization.  One incompetent senior ministry executive spent years managing employees through fear disguised as “concern.” For instance, when an employee would make a mistake, he would sit them down, express compassion, and then tell them, “I’m really worried that the pastor will find out about this.  If that happens, he’ll fire you for sure.”  Much like Absalom at the city gate, he would pretend to be concerned about people, but in reality, he was buying their loyalty, and using fear to undermine the pastor.

Completely unknown to the pastor, this manager was terrorizing people and pointing the finger at him.  When I discovered the problem, and shared my assessment with the pastor, he completely denied the possibility.  He couldn’t imagine that his employees were afraid of him, and flatly refused to believe it.  But I asked him to spend a few weeks “walking through the factory” – causally spending time with employees, gaining their confidence, and listening.

Sure enough, during my next visit a month later, he pulled me aside, and confessed that I was right.  Employees of the ministry were horrified of him, and thought he ruled with an iron hand.  He eventually fired the senior executive, but it took years to completely repair the damage and change the perceptions of his employees.

Spend time with employees and volunteers. That means “listening” time, not just “talking” time.

And speaking of “walking through the factory,” let me share one of the most important secrets of managing a successful church or ministry – spend time with employees and volunteers.  Whenever we brand a ministry, it’s critical to understand the thinking of your people, and the only way to do it is to listen.  You’d probably be surprised at the number of corporate executives, church pastors, and non-profit leaders who rarely spend time with employees or volunteers.  I know some that haven’t visited sections of the building in years.

In some cases, ministry leaders spend little or no time with the media directors, graphic designers, or writing staff – the very people who are the key to presenting that leader to a national media audience.  They rarely hear his heart, or have close contact, and then the leader wonders why he’s not happy with the way he’s being presented on national television or radio.

Don’t automatically assume everyone’s onboard with your vision or the direction of the new brand identity.  It’s critical that they feel that you have their interest in mind, know you are listening, and share their concerns.

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  1. Good thoughts Phil and I agree with a lot of what your saying.

    There are elements of business in any organization, including the Church and I don't think it is wrong to strive for excellence and accountibility as an element of basic Christian Stewardship.

    It's not an either or proposition however so I would reject the question, "Should the Church be run like a business or not?" as a false dilemma.  It's not an either/or proposition.  There are degrees in between and the idea of the proper mix or balance comes into play rather than arguing for one extreme against the other.

    I think the real question is, if we start with the business world and take the current popular thinking and apply it to the Church, what are the underlying assumptions and philosophies that those business ideas are built upon that may come into the ministry and life of the Church like greeks hiding in a wooden horse?

    It all ties into a lot of what you've said in the past about culture being as important as vision because without a healthy organizational culture the vision cast will come back empty or be distorted.

    A lot of business practices are value neutral, but not all.  I think what is called for here is not a pat answer cast from either extreme, but wisdom and discernment that pokes things around a bit to see what's really hiding there underneath and does it fit with the purpose of the Church?

  2. I agree with much of what you're saying Phil.  My only concern is how/if mega-churches and mega-pastors can begin to change as quickly as they might need to. 

    It seems like the baby-boomer churches came to great success amidst the top-down leadership of the early 80's and 90's and I just wonder if these current leaders will be able to transform as much as you might hope.

    I am an optimist so I do hold out hope.  However, I think that what you're describing is more in line with "generative leadership."  And while Harvard is beginning to teach this, I have my doubts that many mega pastors will be able to truly transform as much as their contexts will need them to. 

    Because at the end of the day if it appears that things are working, why change ?

  3. Good post and good comments (so far).

    There are differences in the cultures of for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. Performance in the corporate world is being monitored by management, directors, shareholders… those with a personal stake in outcomes. But, in the nonprofit world, those monitoring may not have much of a stake in outcomes, as long as things are going along well enough. Leadership in a nonprofit has often been trained for a helping profession, which prepares a leader to believe the best in people and to be patient and longsuffering. So a pastor may consider the optimum situation to be a staff that “gets along” and an absence of “strife”. And non-performers are tolerated because tomorrow may be the day it all changes.

    Boat rockers, change agents, and others who confront deficiencies in performance just don’t fit. And, since critical mass often belongs to those whose primary value is getting along, the life span of a change agent inside the bubble is usually quite short.

    There may be some leaders who will be able to make a shift into a more participative, team leadership, but I think most will not be able to make the shift. It will simply not “feel” right. It’s easy to talk about giving up authority and control, but for most of us, insecurity will ultimately sabotage such an attempt.

    It’s not so much about personal management skills, which can be taught and learned, but the culture is set much more by values, which are intertwined with what makes us emotionally comfortable. In short, authority is hard for us to share, because due to our fundamental beliefs, we find security in wielding authority.

    It will take a generation of leaders who value collaboration and teamwork more than control and individualism to turn the tide. The good news? – if you look closely at the church you might detect that the waters of change are gradually rising. The bad news? – for the most part, it’s painfully slow.

  4. Ministry is not business but ministry can (and should) do business and implement/operate good business practices – observe in Paul’s ministry, Ordination of Bishops and Deacons in 1 Timothy 3; workers/servants/young men in Titus 2; and Christians in 1 Thessalonians 4. A verse in Romans actually says that we should ‘Not [be] slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord;’. When I was Secondary School as it is better known in the US as High School, my physics teacher told me that physics is not math but physic contains a lot of math and it would do me good to understand math to perform better at physics. I think it is just about the same principle with ministries or churches that decide to have products & services attached to their ministry operations. But unlike the world, one thing is clear cut; we gain finances to serve people better and distribute wealth (many Christians still don’t get this one at all) not accumulate/heap up and feel good about our achievements. Not what the world look like if we did this more often?

  5. Phil,

    You are such a breath of fresh air. Unfortunately I believe I know the ministry you are refering to, however, my commment on this blog is from a different angle. I too have seen a massive amount of wastefulness in the ministry, my angle is from the media buying side. Millions of dollars a month spent to broadcast a 30 minute program. Ministries who are spending money on stations like INSP, Word Network, Church Channel, God TV etc. They buy local network markets like FOX or NBC or ABC or MY Network, with zero accountablity as to what they want the station to produce. I constantly am hitting the reset button and asking what it is the station is going to produce for them. Why they want to but on certain networks. I can’t believe some of the responses I have recieved over the years, especially from ministries that you and I would think they know how to buy and what to expect. It seems that the more money the ministry is spending the more it is a relationship buy, rather than an accountabliity buy. Here is a lesson for those of you who have a 30 minute broadcast on Word, INSP, Church Channel, TBN or God TV or any other christian satellite network. Are you ready….

    You are buying perception… Nothing else.

    There are no comparitive ratings or numbers that these stations can give you to make an educated buy. So if you want the perception that you are on Nationally and are willing to pay 10,000 month or more for a perception and relationship,than the above stations are good place for you to buy. If you want any sort of numbers and accountablity then you need to look other areas.

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