Are You Managing by the Book of the Month or by the Book? (part 1)

by Terry Conley

A business perspective on Church as a business

Terry Conley is Executive Vice President of Primrose Schools Franchising Company in Atlanta and has 30 years of experience in corporate real estate and strategic development.  He is a member of Shiloh Hills Baptist Church in Kennesaw, GA.


Everyone wants to be the industry leader, but I have worked with some companies that appear to manage by the newest business book on the shelf, changing their strategy as often as the book of the month. The problem is that this leads to confusion, so the question is posed: Do we want to manage by the heart and mind of the latest guru or from the heart of God?

Managing by the vision, mission statement, and core values is one of the hot ideas in business that has been adopted into the church. This in and of itself is not wrong, but sometimes the application is, because the original vision and mission statement have been done away with or changed. But the very important difference between a business and a church, that of ownership, should give us pause to reflect. If the owners of a business want to change to match the business climate or the latest market demographics, it can be done and should be done. But with the church, the ownership and the message never change because the owner is constant and consistent. He is everlasting and unchangeable, and so is His Word. His Word also clearly states that we are the stewards, not the designers. Stewards, by definition are caretakers or those who serve the desires of the owner. So why do we, as stewards, not being in an ownership position in His business, even think we can manipulate the vision, mission statement, or core values? With an all knowing, never changing owner, we as His stewards are challenged to stay the course regardless of how the winds of change blow.

In the business world, everyone benchmarks against the leaders. In my world of corporate real estate, some companies try to execute their real estate plan exactly like McDonald’s because they are so successful. Of course the problem is that no one is exactly like McDonald’s. Personally, I think it is better to excel and lead than to benchmark and try to be like everyone else. There is no challenge in copying or following the crowd, but it is easy to get caught up in these ideas, thinking that you can become something more than you are organized to be or that your organization can be. If you have to be convinced that this is happening within the religious organizations, just take a look at the super-churches or TV mega-stars to see how often their styles, mannerisms, and performance is copied from the smallest start-up ministry to the largest congregation. This philosophy can create problems and lead to ruin.

After 30 years of business involvement creating and directing change along with dealing with the associated difficulties, I can see the beginning of similar problems in the Church. In its rush to become something that is acceptable to the world and to meet them at their level, the church has been absorbing many of the ideas of the business world without a lot of selectivity or in some instances, a lot of thought. This approach has proven not to work in business and this wholesale adoption or absorption of these ideas by the church has led to many of the current problems we see developing in the church. Of course, the excuse is that everyone is seeking a new truth that is more in line with today’s world and thinking. In order to appear current and make the message relevant, many church leaders are looking for a newer, more up to date model. The only problem with that thought is that the new truth is not truth at all. It is just bits and pieces of the original Truth with the ‘truths’ for today (refer to Aletheia, July ’02, Compromise Is Always A Synthesis).

One of the current ‘new truths’ is the idea that running a church should be managed and cultivated more like a business. The proponents state their position with a finality that allows no argument. While it is true that there are some sound business principles that should be involved, a church is not a business that is set up or measured by worldly standards. When the Church was established, Jesus did not do so with His eye towards the best business model of the day. He picked out the strong spirited people willing to forego all for the vision. Unfortunately, as is sometimes the case, we have looked at what God has established and said, “You know, we want what the world has”. We are guilty of looking beyond God’s goodness and perfection and settling for less than He has given us. We say, along with the Children of Israel ‘We want a king like they have’ (I Samuel 8:19,20).

Looking in, it appears that many of the business principles absorbed into the church are a direct result of a very real fight for a position of recognition in the world and to increase their customer base. As business does, the church is seeking ways to connect to the customer who is reaching out for something to anchor to and insights that will enhance his life. Some think that organizations that can read the culture, translate core principles into relevant practices and products, and provide value will be taken seriously and grow. Many believe and teach that the more effective Christian communities become at tying their faith principles to lifestyle choices, the more appealing they will be to potential audiences. But at what cost? The marketing that is done to create and support the brand deals with ideas such as the look, feel, and ambiance. It is selling or creating the sizzle, not the reality. Unfortunately, it seems that there are many who do not understand that the Church does not have this latitude. It has to deal with the reality of life today and of that yet to come, but after viewing some of the large, seeker sensitive worship centers, this is not on their agenda. The question needs to be asked: can these things be done without compromising the mission? Is this what the church should strive for? If you believe all you see, all the successful churches have reached that elevated plateau by offering an ‘updated Gospel for today’ making it more appealing to the new audience and being more sensitive to the needs of the ‘seeker.’ That is why the current flock of TV evangelists are busy selling recently revealed diet plans, financial management plans, leadership programs, reading and entertainment programs. Is this why we notice that the church has become an exercise salon, a dating service, a divorce counseling center, and more? Each is important as a part of Christian support but they are not to be the driving reasons for existence.

Who is the seeker we are trying to persuade? In Judges, the Bible speaks of a new generation that grew up neither knowing nor respecting the ways of the Lord and traditions of the elders. This being the case, it appears that there was a breakdown at two levels. The passing generation failed in one of their obligations to teach and pass along the basics of their beliefs. The younger generation failed to take advantage of the knowledge and experience that was represented by the elder. In the business world this approach will eventually lead to a loss of focus on the business of the business. Mistakes will be repeated and growth stymied. It is all about mentoring. This is a topic given much publicity but little execution. A mentor is a trusted counselor, guide, tutor, or coach. It is an Old Testament and New Testament teaching that we are commanded to fulfill. The world has adopted and uses this idea. If you are a golfer, who do you go to for advanced knowledge and teaching? Not to someone on your level. You go to a coach, someone who knows the game or the course. If you are new in an organization, you seek out someone who knows the ropes. Recent activities in the local Church seem to point to the fact that the Church has chosen not to follow this Biblical and business principle. There are many voices saying very forcibly that the elders need to get out of the way for younger, newer ideas that appeal to today’s market. Some think the ideas and times for the elder generation have passed. The process is upside down. In this instance, the Church does need to be more like the world. It appears that both sides need to reconsider. Too often the elder generation becomes angry and drops out and the younger generation continues to push. The elders need to be concerned enough to teach the younger generation of believers and the younger generation must be respectful enough to learn.

Perhaps the new seekers have to be taught just like we teach new business customers. If the business world makes little effort to teach them or to reach them, they will take their business elsewhere. But that does not mean we should let the customer set the course and take us somewhere we may not want to go. It does mean that the more experienced should take the less experienced under their wing to mentor and train them in the way they should go. The business world does not always execute on the idea well as the result of human feelings of jealousy and fear. As Christians, we should not be driven by these feelings. We should be driven by the love and concern for our fellow believers. These younger believers should be able to draw from and call upon the elders, those who have been there and built the brand in the market place. Of course, this works both ways. The younger believers need to be aware of the older, more experienced believers and look to them for direction, thus following the admonition found in the Scriptures.

Are these changes being made out of fear of failure or ridicule, or to keep up with the church next door? What determines success and how is it rated? Where does it all stop? Is bigger better? Is it market share, bottom line, EBITDA, or is it the approval of God and changed lives? Being seeker sensitive, we say – “I am like them; try me, I’m just like they are.” If this is the case, there is no reason for the customer to make the life changing commitment God demands. Where is the conviction that our product is top-notch, that what God gave us is perfect and needs no changing? What does the Bible say about this way being narrow but the rewards being tremendous? And, what about the command to come out from among them? There is a reason God made this a command, not just a recommendation or suggestion. Meeting people “where they are” sounds good, but the problem with meeting people where they are is that they may be keeping you there. Why not turn that around and elevate the lifestyle choices to the level of the faith principles?

What is the role of the church today? Has the mandate given us by God changed? Has the rock Jesus founded His church upon been found to have a base of shifting sand that changes with the tide and needs to be shored up by the hands of man? The role of the church today is as unchanging as its owner.