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.

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