Church members don’t generally want to have their church compared to a business, but sometimes they just can’t help themselves and they fall into the metaphor themselves.
The board meeting had a motion on the floor to upgrade the brand of Sunday morning coffee to one that was more appealing to the younger generation that was starting to attend. A couple of the senior members were grumbling about the switch and the Sunday school superintendent said, “You know, many of our members are older and like Folgers and don’t care for that strong, bitter, bend-your-spoon kind of coffee … we don’t want to alienate our customer base.”
And to be honest, what the Sunday school superintendent said was true. A church shouldn’t alienate it’s customer base. But the fact is, the church has been alienating our customers and our customer base for decades and it’s time we stopped. But the Sunday school superintendent was also dead wrong: the church’s members are not our customers … though they are often the church’s primary consumers.
So, just who are the church’s customers?
To uncover that, let’s go ahead and use a business metaphor as an analogy to understand some truths.
But remember … this is just a metaphor; it’s not a church organization plan!
In this metaphor, the lead pastor would be the President/CEO (I’ll just stick with CEO designation from here on). In most organizations, the CEO is responsible for the health and the wealth of the organization. S/he has been hired to do one primary thing: to achieve the organization’s mission. In addition, most CEOs are also responsible for the creating and/or pursuing the organization’s vision.
In this role, the typical CEO has a good bit of authority. S/he has the authority to hire/fire staff, to choose who else is in the C-Suite (the other executives), and has the authority to lead, manage, control, and make changes as needed to achieve the mission/vision within the company’s policies.
Board of Directors: Church Board, Council, Vestry, Session:
Continuing the metaphor, a corporate’s Board of Directors operates very differently than most church boards do today. In most organizations, the Board of Directors does no management; instead, they set policy and oversee the bottom line (the “results” of the CEO’s work). Most Boards meet quarterly to approve finances (the mark of mission achievement in most organizations). And when needed, the agenda includes policy-making, but this is a fairly rare occurrence since policies tend to be static.
The Board has one other key function (other than hiring the CEO in the first place): Holding the CEO accountable for results. Whatever the organization’s bottom line is, achieving it is in the hands of the CEO who is held responsible for attaining positive, measurable results. So long as the methods are ethical and legal, the vast majority of Boards take a “hands off” posture. For instance, biographers speak about the near-tyrannical reign of Jack Welch at General Electric, but the Board pretty much left him alone since he boosted the company’s worth 4000 percent over his twenty year tenure.
The C-Suite & VPs: Professional Church Staff
It will become apparent in a few moments why I have segregated professional church staff from other employees. Indulge me for a bit as I continue the metaphor.
Some of you may be unfamiliar with the biz term C-Suite. The C-Suite is a team of senior staff members that the CEO hires directly and works with on a day-to-day basis. These tend to include the Chief Financial Officer, the Chief Information Officer, and the Chief Operations Officer. In addition, the CEO is also generally the one who directly hires divisional Vice-Presidents who oversee specific areas of the company.
These positions are analogous to a church’s ministerial and professional staff. They would typically include church positions like the executive pastor, worship director, music director, associate pastors, financial director, discipleship directors, office administrator, and so on.
Although, a corporate HR department might well be involved in the identification of lower-level positions such as the CEO’s executive secretary, the CEO would have the authority to reject the selection, to fire, or to find their own office staff.
The primary difference between how a church approaches the hiring of ministerial and support staff and how the corporate world hires the C-Suite, VPs, and direct support staff is that in a church, the HR or Staff-Parish committee and the board and often the congregation itself gets involved in the hiring (calling) of these positions. Indeed, in some churches the lead pastor has limited say in the hiring process – and they have even less of a say in the firing (most pastors in most churches have to get permission to fire a staff member). On the other hand, the Board of Directors, HR, or the company at large wouldn’t dream of interfering with the hiring/firing process of those who report to the CEO (or other corporate leaders for that matter).
Because the CEO is solely responsible for the corporation’s achievement of the mission and vision, they must have the authority to hire and fire as needed. And anyone who watches how the corporate world works knows that staff serves at the pleasure of the CEO … and if the results aren’t there, a savvy CEO has little compunction to fire ineffective staff.
Employees: Church Members
Here is where I expect to get the most pushback. Most churches mistakenly operate under the presumption that a church’s members are the church’s customers. But not only is that a bad analogy, it’s not biblical in any way, shape, or form.
Back to our metaphor. In the corporate world, the employees are the ones who do the day-to-day work for the company. They do sales; they do distribution; they do maintenance; they are the company’s primary doers; etc. And they are held accountable by management staff for achieving results based on the job descriptions provided by the corporation. They are expected to get their jobs done and to do so in-keeping with the corporation’s values and culture. In other words, in most companies, that means they come to work with a smile on their faces and do the work they were hired for without grousing. Bullies and faction builders are summarily fired. Those who don’t reflect the company’s ethos are removed. And those who don’t achieve measurable results may be encouraged, then warned, and then disciplined, but in the end, regardless of the process, they are ultimately escorted to the door and told not to return.
Customers: Nones, Dones, and Non-Christians
The final analogy in this metaphor is the second half of the church’s misconception. The church’s customers are not the church’s members.
In the corporate world, customers are those the company is trying to reach with their product. Whether it’s Raisin Bran, a Lexus, medical services, or a Dragon 2 rocket, the corporation has something to sell and the customers are the ones who buy the product. The corporate world generally reaches their clients through marketing and through sales people. And most of the time, the goal is to separate a customer from their money.
And that’s where the church largely gets it wrong. Because the church depends on the people in the pews to put money in the offering plates, there’s a widely held misconception that church members are the customers … that they “pay” for the services they receive from the church. They are the consumers.
This is the one place where the business metaphor breaks down. Although Southwest Airlines is employee owned, none of the employees are expected to pay the company for the privilege of working there. However, in the church, that’s exactly the expectation. Instead of a paycheck, the “rewards” for the work of a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ are twofold. First, it’s an investment in the future, in life after death. Although the “gift” of eternal life can’t be bought, any honest read-through of the Gospels reveals that there are more commandments of what a follower of Jesus is expected to do than there are explicit instructions about what they are to believe. And second, the reward for the work of being a faithful disciple is a peace that transcends our own understanding.
Therefore, sacrificial “giving” is one of the job requirements of the church’s work force. From the C-Suite to the sales clerks, from the pastor to the third chair in the choir, everyone in the church is expected to “pay” for the privilege of working in the church as an employee of the heavenly owner (Colossians 3:23–24).
And so, the church’s customers are not the members, but those who are not yet faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Ostensibly, anyone who is not a church member is a customer. However, the truth is that there are a number of church members who really are customers because they are barely believers, let alone faithful disciples of Jesus. However, these “customers” should have no say whatsoever in the operating decisions of the church.
Again, back to the metaphor, all the work of the marketing and sales department is to “sell” the company’s product, and though discipleship is not a “product,” there can be little argument that all of the church’s marketing and sales efforts, sometimes called evangelism, are focused on accomplishing one thing: turning the Nones, Dones, and those who believe in other gods into faithful followers of Jesus. In other words, the church’s customers are “Those who are not here yet.”
So, what does all this mean? What are the implications of the metaphor for the church? I think there are at least three things.
- As “employees” of the church, that is, church members, we are all are responsible to adhere to the policies, procedures, and outcomes of the employee handbook, otherwise known as the Scriptures. Those who choose to flagrantly disregard those policies need to be terminated for the sake of the “company.”
- One hundred percent of all “employees” of the church have a specific job requirement: to actively participate in turning “customers” into faithful followers of Jesus Christ. In other words, all church members are personally responsible for discipleship and evangelism. Those who are not active and productive in their positions need to be encouraged to do their jobs with excellence, to receive remedial training if necessary, and to be removed if they refuse to meet minimum position expectations.
- The members of the C-Suite, that is, the ministerial staff of the church, should be the leaders of the church. The lead pastor should indeed be hired by the church’s board and given both the responsibility and the authority to do whatever it takes for the church to be successful in its mission to make disciples of all people. That means, the pastor needs to be held solely responsible for the church’s mission, but it also means that the pastor must be given access to the resources necessary to achieve that mission and the authority to hire, fire, and terminate staff and employees who are non-productive.
- And yes, I mean what I’m implying here … if a church member’s behavior doesn’t reflect the high expectations of the scriptural definition of a disciple of Jesus Christ, then the pastor should have the authority to show him/her to the door. I’m not suggesting members have to be perfect, but I do mean that the church’s leadership must remove those who flagrantly disregard the biblical expectations of discipleship, the bullies, the terrorists, the controllers, the gossips, the liars, the faction-builders, and those whose lives reflect more of the fruit of the flesh in Galatians 5:19–21 rather than the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22–23.
- Is it possible that that kind of authority could be abused? Absolutely it could be. But that’s why there’s a board. And the board’s primary task is to ensure the mission gets met, the vision is reached, and the policies enforced. If the pastor is provided with both the resources and the full authority to meet their responsibilities and is unable to lead the church into faithful mission achievement, then the pastor should ultimately be removed.
In other words:
- If the pastor has the necessary resources and authority necessary to lead the church effectively,
- If the pastor isn’t removing the staff and church members who hinder the church’s mission and vision,
- If the pastor isn’t leading the church into faithful accomplishment of the mission and vision,
- If the pastor isn’t reflecting the kind of leadership required by the New Testament …
Then the board should:
- Redouble its efforts to encourage the pastor to pursue the mission/vision with excellence,
- Provide opportunities for remedial training if necessary, and
- Ultimately terminate him/her if the pastor is unable to lead the church into faithful fulfillment of the mission.
The church isn’t a business. The pastor isn’t the CEO. The ministry staff aren’t the C-Suite. The members aren’t the employees. But the members are also not the customers; indeed, each member has been given high expectations by the head of the Church, which is Jesus Christ. Each and every member has been given a job by the Holy Spirit “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). And if a church that is in decline doesn’t operate a whole lot more like a corporation and a whole lot less than a consumer-driven North American Church, then we can expect the results we’ve been getting for over fifty years now.
Great article. As a member of the C-suite of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, I was told by a board member, “remember, we are a ministry in business, not a business in ministry.” Also, in some mainline churches (United Methodist) the pastor/CEO is picked for you. This is where the metaphor breaks down for we Methodists. And as a life-long Methodist, nary a chance to convince folks that “those yet to come” is the target audience. Thanks for sharing.
Hi Don, Thanks for the kudos.
One note about the UMC. Not all UMC pastors are intimidated by the congregation and therefore have been able to lead their congregations into seeing the “customers” as they are. Adam Hamilton, Bill Easum, Mike Slaughter all come to mind, and there are many more.
On the other hand, it’s not just the Methodists who are having problems with getting the church members to understand who the real “customer” is … almost every denomination is struggling with that, which is why the church in North America is having so much trouble with the prime directive!
Again, thanks for the note.
Bill, Thank you! This consumer church metaphor explains a lot for me and helps to explain why we are in the mess our tribe (ELCA) is in. I wish I could help our leaders see what you see. Thanks for this article. It is well said/written. I can’t wait to share it with our leaders and discuss it. Keep up the good work..