Let’s run the church like a business, part 2

In part one of this two-part series, I tried to show how the plea to “run the church like a business” often misses the point. The church is not a business. But, there are some great lessons we can learn from the business world. Here are four of them.

Under promise and over deliver

ProductsI keep an 18oz. jar of Smucker’s jelly in my office. It reminds me of a great lesson from that wonderful company. There’s a legend that they put a little extra jam in each jar. If the label says 18oz., you can count on there being a little more than 18oz. of jelly in there. They deliver on their promise, plus some. And the product tastes pretty good, too.

As church communicators, we can learn from Smucker, both in our personal lives and in church life. Personally, we can carefully assess our capabilities and make sure we can do what we say. And as we think of the words and images we use to represent our congregation, we can strive to tell it like it is rather than as we wish it would be.

Carefully manage your resources

I once worked with minister who routinely overspent his budget. And he didn’t seem to care. He wasn’t embezzling, or spending it on frivolous things. He just couldn’t seem to exercise restraint. If he saw something that would help his ministry, he’d buy it. At the end of the year, the Finance Committee would slap his hand and tell him to be more careful next year. You can probably predict what happened the next year… and the next.

But the time came when this minister needed some money for replacement of some expensive equipment. Since he had not earned the trust of the finance people in the church, they nitpicked the request for months. They brought in an outside expert to evaluate the request and review the proposal. When they finally approved the money, they appointed someone else to manage the project. And I don’t blame them. Jesus addressed this issue in one of his parables – A master gave his servants some of his treasure to manage in his absence. When the master returned, he said to the servants who managed it well, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’” (Matthew 25:14-30)

Count the cost

As human beings, we live with limits. There are only 24 hours in a day. There’s only so much money in the budget. How can we best deploy the resources God has given us? That’s one of the challenges we face in ministry.

Jesus was talking about the cost of following him as a disciple when he used the illustration: “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?” (Luke 14:28) But don’t you think it’s great advice for everything else we do in the church?

I worked with a new pastor some years ago who came to the church sensing a call from the congregation to fix some longstanding problems in the physical plant. He set to work right away. Addressing those issues was his passion. Unfortunately, he didn’t count the cost of focusing all his attention on the building at the expense of pastoring the people. Everybody agreed the building needed fixing. But the inexperienced pastor didn’t accurately count the cost of spending time on those issues before building a solid relationship with his congregation. It became increasingly difficult for him to work with the committees, deacons and other church leaders, whose support and counsel he needed.

The story has a happy ending. The pastor eventually rearranged his priorities. They got the building fixed and he became one of the most beloved pastors in the church’s history. How much more effective those first five years of his pastorate would have been if he’d counted the cost before launching the building program.

Give people opportunities to grow and advance

Helping-MentorGood business managers hire great people, encourage them, give them opportunities to learn and grow, and promote them to positions of greater responsibility. Those of us who work with volunteers in the church can do the same. We can seek out and recruit people who have a lot of potential. We can encourage them, help them see the big picture, give them opportunities to try their wings and learn from their mistakes, and then release the ministry to them.

I remember a woman in a church I served many years ago. As a member of the Woman’s Missionary Union, she wrote up a little promotional announcement for one of their ministries. She did a better than average job with it. So I encouraged her to continue writing. A few years later, she published her first book: a great little volume on how to do ministry to international families. She gave me a copy and wrote inside, “For David Powers – the first person who gave me the encouragement to write. Had you not said such kind things about my first efforts, I might never have had the courage to try.”

Let’s run this church like a business, part 1

Part 1 of a 2-part series.

small-church-with-customer-parking-sign“The church should be run like a business!”

I’ve heard it many times. And each time, it grates on my ears. I’ve done both. And I’m convinced there are very few similarities between running a business and, if you will pardon the phrase, “running a church.”

My dad owned and operated a grocery store. He was a Christian and ran the business on Christian principles. He treated his customers, employees and suppliers with integrity. I helped run that business for a couple of years, and worked there most of my growing-up years.

It seems to me that the lessons I learned in church applied more effectively to the business than did the lessons I learned at the store applied to the church.

I read an interview with Ted Engstrom in “Christianity Today” a few years ago. Engstrom, who died in 2006, was editorial director and general manager of Zondervan Publishing House, a pretty big, profitable business. He left there to become president of Youth for Christ International and later World Vision International. Interestingly, his Wikipedia entry notes that, “he was known in part for instructing churches, parachurch ministries and other non-profit organizations how to apply business concepts.”

ted engstromIn the interview, he says,

A profit-making organization is the easiest to run. It’s a business with a narrow measuring stick for success: profit. The next easiest to run is a nonprofit organization like ours, World Vision. We pay our people, we can hire, we can release. There are more problems than with a profit company, but we still have a strong measure of control. Running a volunteer organization like the church is the hardest. The church accepts everyone, warts and all. It’s made up of the walking wounded—”anybody can come if you’re a friend of the Boss.” Yet you’re challenging these people to difficult ministry—without pay. (Read the full interview.)

I usually encounter the “Let’s run the church like a business” line in church finance, budget and personnel committee meetings. It is usually couched in an argument for more accountability, tighter budget/spending controls, and measurable standards for staff performance and compensation.

Unfortunately, such discussions barely scratch the surface of all that’s involved in doing and being church. And it is hard for some business people to fully grasp the issues by sitting in the pew and attending committee meetings.

I think you only begin to understand the uniqueness of “running the church” after you deal on a day-to-day basis with…

• the constant struggle to remember that it is God’s call that we follow, and the way of Jesus that we model,
• the transient nature of volunteer labor,
• the criticisms that accompany speaking a prophetic word,
• the pain of counseling grieving parents and troubled souls,
• the fulfillment of seeing spiritual enlightenment happen, and
• the joy of leading a group of people to do and be what Jesus called us to do and be.

There are very few parallels in the business world. The way decision-making process, the motivations, and the measures of success are entirely different in the church.

But there are many things we can learn from the business model that will help us do church. I’ll address those in part two of this series.

The challenges of church communication

Church communication involves dealing with constant tensions… a pull between either/or. Rather than seeing these tensions as problems, perhaps we can replace “or” with “and.” By re-framing the issue, we begin to deal productively with the challenges.

Quality or and ministry

The level of quality in communication is limited… or set free by the folks who actually do the work.

Let’s take me and the First Baptist Church website as an example. I think we’ve got a pretty good website. But if it were up to me to write all the code that makes it work, the quality of our web experience would be significantly diminished. Thanks be to God, we have several folks who volunteer their time and expertise to write the code and work their magic so that the website is attractive and functional. It is my job to provide some general direction and encouragement, and then get out of their way and let their gifts soar.

In other areas, however, the lack of gifted people limits the possibilities. Then my job turns to recruiting and training. The quality of what we do may not be up to the standards I’d like for a while. But we never lower the bar. Rather, we hold up good examples, model desired behavior, and take advantage of the opportunity to ignite a spark of service and ministry in someone else.

In this context, ministry is pointing out, and sometimes creating opportunities for people to use their time, talents and energy in service to God and others; encouraging and empowering people to act; and then helping them to reflect on how their specific activities are part of the greater work of the Kingdom of God.

An overload of communications

Advancing technology or and limited money

Technology is only a portion of the communication pie. But it seems to take up more than it’s share of energy, especially if you’re involved in a broadcast ministry or do live streaming. It is a full-time job just to keep up with advances in communication technology. But we’ll never have enough money to constantly acquire the latest and greatest toys.

Here’s how we cope: get free subscriptions to Broadcast Engineering, and Post magazines; regularly visit websites like Creative Planet Network, Streaming Media Producer, iMedia Connection, and Fast Company’s Create site; connect with other communication folks in your area, or through the Metro Media Ministers Association (if you’re a fulltime church staffer); attend technology shows and fairs such as the annual National Association of Broadcasters expo in April; and find reliable technology vendors who will listen and work with you rather than always trying to sell you the latest and greatest.

Learn all you can about what’s going on. Process that knowledge through the filter of your local congregation’s mission, priorities and budget. Keep in mind that the purchase is just the first and easiest step in implementation. The hard work begins when the shiny new toy arrives and you have to make it work and play nicely with your other toys… and teach all the volunteers how to operate it.

So you’ve done your research, talked with others who are traveling the path, got your budget approved, and made your decision. Now… boldly take a step, knowing that the technology you choose today will be obsolete tomorrow. And the manufacturer will likely cease supporting it within 3-5 years.

Deal with it. It’s the culture in which we live these days.

Autonomy of the ministries or and coordinated effort

I’m a Baptist. We talk a lot about the “autonomy of the local congregation” – which means that each church governs itself and there’s no diocese or religious regional manager to tell us what to do.

In many churches, there are a handful… or perhaps dozens of ministries that operate on the same principle. If the Lefthanded Bowlers Ministry wants to put on an event and publish a brochure about it, they often forge ahead with little consultation on how their event and the communication about it impacts the whole church.

For better or worse, that’s the culture of most churches. How do we cope as church communicators?

At Richmond’s First Baptist Church, we tried to make it easy by providing some publicity resources on our website. Those resources include some guidelines for promoting events. We use the church calendar as the central clearing house. And we offer the Communication Ministry as the one-stop-shopping-center for getting the word out. It works with varying success. But it often gives us an opportunity to at least make suggestions.

Event promotion or and branding

An effective communication ministry involves much more than promoting and publicizing events. But it does include publicity, there’s no getting around that. So the trick is to take every opportunity, when publicizing an event, to connect the dots and put the event in the context of what the whole church is about.

Branding is an imperfect word to describe what we do as church communicators. I like the way Mark Borchert put it…

“Communication involves the shared understanding of a group. This alternative understanding of communication focuses attention of the issue of identity. Communication questions no longer center on imparting information but on representing the core values, beliefs, and behaviors of the group.

• Effective communication grows out of the identity and context of an individual church.

• Effective communication encompasses every aspect of church life, including worship services and events, facilities and decor, promotional material and websites, and the stories that members tell about their church.

• Effective communication involves everyone in a church, not merely the church staff.

• Effective communication focuses attention on values and stories rather than only on conveying information.”

Mark Borchert, associate professor and chair of the Communication department at Carson-Newman College, in an article in “The Doorpost”- the weekly newsletter of the Center for Congregational Health, August 20, 2012