Act Like a Business, Expect Customers by Amy Simpson

At Q Ideas, we are all about celebrating best practices: in business, in the arts, in science and technology—and in the church. But those best practices don’t always translate from one field to the next. What’s best in the arts isn’t necessarily what’s best in medicine. What works well in the research field may not be effective at all in a creative ad agency. And the best practices of a business are not going to be the best practices for a church. So why do we keep insisting that they must be? Amy Simpson, a former publishing executive with an MBA (i.e., someone who knows business), reminds us of the unique call of the church—one that requires its own set of best practices, not merely a borrowed one.

Given the condition and reputation of business these days, I’m not sure why this is still happening. In recent decades, church leaders have stood before a constant parade of books, articles, seminars, conferences and other resources designed to help them learn how to emulate businesses and business leaders. Some of these companies and their leaders are worthy of admiration; some might even serve as examples in one way or another. Still others manage their lives and businesses in ways that directly contradict what Jesus taught. Yet many pastors and other ministry leaders feel obligated and enthusiastic to learn from all of them—and in many cases, try to be more like them.

So leaders model churches after businesses, lead them like executives, hire large staffs, plant franchises, create five-year strategic plans, copy others’ “success,” produce, market, brand.

And then they say things like “How can we get more volunteers to come alongside us and help pursue our vision?”

I’m an idealist by nature, so ironically, I walk at the edge of cynicism most of the time. But I can’t be the only one who hears such words and suspects they really mean, “How can I get more free labor to implement my great ideas?” I certainly would interpret them that way if they came from the mouth of any business executive.

Churches behave like businesses but act surprised when people in their congregations behave like consumers.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against being organized. I’m not against plans. Anyone who knows me would laugh at that idea; I can’t go 10 minutes without organizing something. And if I had something against business, I wouldn’t have an MBA. But there’s a difference between organizing and institutionalizing. Between making plans and packaging them. Between building a loving community and surrounding yourself with “the best.” And it makes no sense to establish a business and expect either your employees or your customers to pitch in like they’re at a family reunion.

Here’s one of the problems with patterning churches after businesses: Good businesses are not very good at caring for people. The more efficient, productive and streamlined your processes, the more cold, uncaring and unwavering you will be when presented with opportunities to deviate from plan and love your neighbors, grieve over tragedy and celebrate joy. The more thorough your strategic plan, the more deaf you’ll be to the voice of the Spirit. The stronger your brand, the weaker your sense of true community. And the more packaged the product you offer, the more likely you are to attract window shoppers and people looking for clearance sales.

When businesses want to motivate people to action, they either pay them well (employees) or spend a lot of money on marketing (customers). Most churches who act like businesses don’t do a good job of either—so it shouldn’t surprise them when people aren’t motivated to get involved.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not knocking volunteerism. I volunteer in my church, as I have for most of my life. But it’s not institutional vision that motivates me to do so. In my worst moments, I’m motivated by a sense of duty. I give of myself exactly the way Paul told the Corinthian church not to give: “reluctantly or in response to pressure” (2 Corinthians 9:7). And in my finer moments, I am motivated by love for Christ and for people.

If you want to motivate people to genuine service, engage in genuine service. Find out what is stirring in people’s hearts and help them get together to do something about it. Reach out to the uninvolved and find out why they believe they have no place in the church’s mission. Assure them they do—even if their skills and abilities wouldn’t qualify them for a job at any Fortune 500 business.

Jesus did not come to earth to establish a social institution—although a social institution is one way to express the church. He didn’t come to make us cooler, more successful, more efficient or popular. He came to draw all people to God—and to be the pathway that will take us there. Following that pathway, and calling to others to join us, is possibly the most organic process imaginable. The church is not a business—it’s the church. It’s unique. It doesn’t really make sense to pattern ourselves after anything.

If you think the church best fulfills its mission when it’s efficient, productive and well-branded, by all means call yourself a CEO. But don’t expect volunteers—or disciples—to line up to help you achieve your business strategy.