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Is the Church a Business?

Updated: Mar 20

By Rev. Michael Girlinghouse


The social ministry committee of a large, suburban church stood before their council to propose adopting and remodeling a Habitat for Humanity house.  Most of the members of the council, like the congregation itself, was populated by people from the business world.  Managers, CEOs, small business owners.  People like that.  In their presentation, the committee talked about the need for quality, affordable housing in their community. They shared stories about how the neighborhood where the house was located had changed for the better since Habitat started working there.  They laid out ways this project would speak to justice issues around housing and would meet human need.  The council asked many questions, showed an interest, but ultimately decided against going forward with their plan.  They couldn't see how adopting a house downtown fit into the congregation's ministry.


The committee left disappointed, but resolute.  They knew adopting a house was an important thing to do.  They didn't want to let the idea go.  But, what could they do?   One member of the committee, a business person themself, suggested they needed to take a different approach.  They suggested that the Council didn't understand the language of the proposal.  It didn't appeal to their "business sense."


So the committee asked to make another presentation and reframed their proposal in business terms.  They discussed "bottom lines" and how the congregation and community would "profit" from this work. They demonstrated the "economic impact" of the project using hard numbers and even found a survey that suggested people were drawn to churches involved in community and service work.  The project was approved unanimously.


That experience has always stuck with me.  I learned the importance of translating "churchy" language into a language that fits the context. 


Like it or not, in the consumerist world of mainstream American culture, most of us participate in "business" every day and, like the fish in the bowl not being aware of the water, most tend to think in business terms too.   Many times I have been told "the church needs to run more like a business!"  Usually these people come from the same world as those council members.  But not always.  It is the lens through which they, and many others, see and understand the world.  Just recently, a friend asked me what my ministry's "product" is.  I understood the question.  I speak business! 


So, given that context and reality, should the church run more like a business? 


I would say, "Yes."  And "No."  Mostly no.  Let me explain.


Over the years, I have learned a lot about ministry by reading things from the business world.  Though I've had to translate most of it back into "churchy" language and adapt it to a church context.  But, a few years ago, I read a book by Peter F. Drucker called Managing the Non-profit Organization: Practices and Principles that totally changed my perspective on "the church as business."  His book helped me see that it really could be said that the church is a business... though not a "for-profit" business.  And that makes a HUGE difference!   Most of the people who have suggested the church run more like a business are thinking of for-profit businesses.  And we are most certainly not that.  But Drucker's book makes a distinction between for-profit and non-profit businesses and why they need to be organized and managed very differently.   For example, for-profit businesses sell goods and services.  Their "bottom line" is to make a profit.  A non-profit's goal is to change people's lives. Impacting people's lives is the "bottom line." Our "product" in my friend's terms.  In a for-profit business the "end user" is a consumer.  In a non-profit the "end user" is a participant.  Can you imagine the grocery store where you shop asking you to help stock the shelves? 


So, no.  Churches should not and cannot be run like for-profit businesses.  That's not what we are.


Instead, churches need to be run more like other non-profit businesses.  Though there are differences there too.  Over the years, I have done a lot of strategic mission planning work with congregations and other ministries and I've struggled to translate the "churchy" language of mission planning into something people can grasp and get excited about.  But after reading Drucker, I realized that a "mission plan" was actually a "non-profit business plan" in churchy clothes.  So, in the last few years, I've changed some of the language in my presentations. For example, "mission statements" became the "organizational focus."  "Evangelism" became "Marketing."  "Stewardship" became "sustainability plans."  The content of my mission planning work didn't change.  Just the way I framed it.  And people seemed to get it. 


Churches are not businesses.  But, similar to other non-profit businesses we set out to change people's lives.  We do that by welcoming them into a community of faith, grace, affirmation and love. In the name of Jesus we work for justice, care for those in need, and invite people into a deeper relationship with the God who loves them.  Like all non-profits, there are some "business like" things we need to tend to -- we need a plan, we need to communicate who we are and what we're about, we need people to participate to make ministry happen and, yes, we need money to pay for it all. 


There are some things, of course, that distinguish the Church from other non-profit organizations.  The Gospel of Jesus we proclaim.  Our focus on worship and prayer, Word and sacrament.  The centrality of scripture and the story of God's reconciling relationship with God's people over millennia. 


Jesus didn't start a business.  He started a movement.  But, we can learn from the non-profit businesses around us something about how to structure and organize that movement today so we can continue the mission and ministry Jesus entrusted to his disciples... and to us.



Pastor Mike

Click for Mike's free resource "Business Planning for Churches"


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