Are You Managing by the Book of the Month or by the Book? (part 2)

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.


In building a business, the brand has to be established.  But what exactly is ‘the brand’?  Some may argue that it is a product, colors, signs, or designs.  It is all those, but more than anything, it is a set of promises, expectations, and lifestyle issues.  It identifies a place among the competition of the market.  Users gravitate to the particular brand because their needs change or they aspire to be like someone else or be something other than what they are.  In a business, the brand can and does evolve with the changing demands of the market, but can the Church do this?  Should people attend a particular church in order to feel good about themselves or feel like they are part of a particularly attractive group or those ‘in the know’?  Of course not!  This is something that a church can’t do because the demands or needs of the human soul do not change.

In building the brand position, the commercial company I help manage takes a very narrow look at the market. Our company positions itself at the top, limits the opportunities, and requires a high price and definite commitment.  The result?  We have waiting lists and people who move cross country to gain an opportunity to buy one of our locations.  They see the difference and are willing to pay the price.  The parents who place their children in our pre-schools also see, appreciate, and pay for the difference.  This is the case with most of the top performing and successful companies.  Should anything less be expected for the Church? The church can and should adopt this principle of being the best in its business.

But churches sometimes make the same mistake businesses do in placing an undue amount of importance on immediate results.  In his book Heretics/Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton states, “There is nothing so weak for working purposes as this enormous importance attached to immediate victory” (page 6).  As apparent as it was to Chesterton, it is much more so today because today, if groups are not growing fast, they are considered to be failing.  Sometimes, quantity overrules quality.  In the business world, this can open the door to mis-management and eventual disaster and the same results are usually seen when the same path is followed in the Church.  Clients, customers, and members expect and sometimes demand immediate fulfillment and demand so regardless of the method, whether by lower costs or cheapened products.

This immediacy has the unfortunate quirk of changing from day to day.  What was important yesterday is no longer important today.  Enterprises that try to respond to the immediacy of fads find themselves with a tremendous amount of left over inventory of yesterday’s treasures that very quickly become tomorrow’s trash.  It is marked down or given away as a discounted value and in the consumer’s mind, anything that is cheapened by a sale or given away will never attain the original market position of uniqueness or value.

Knowing Your Core Values

The belief that the role of the Church continues to be unchanging does not preclude the use of sound operating principles.  These ideas are not mutually exclusive.  In fact, they are Scriptural.  Lasting value in any endeavor is established by quality.  Quality is established in the organization by having a system of beliefs and practices in place that are stable, non-changing, and provide solid guidance.  This means the organization will react the same way and promote the same message each time there is a decision to be made.  If this anchor is there, the customer, client, or member will feel secure with the product.  Again, we can look to the business world for this direction.  Jim Collins, in his book Built to Last states that with all the world coming down around them in their personal and business life, “…people run the risk of having their moorings ripped away if they only depend on the external structures” (page xx).  He suggests that the only truly reliable source for stability is a strong inner core and the willingness to change and adapt everything except that core.  This same idea was put forth forty years ago by Thomas J. Watson, Jr., former CEO of IBM.  It was in his 1963 book, A Business and Its Beliefs where he discussed the idea of corporate and personal beliefs.  He stated, “ I firmly believe that any organization, in order to survive and achieve success, must have a sound set of beliefs on which it premises all its policies and actions….Beliefs must always come before policies, practices, and goals.  The latter must be altered if they are seen to violate fundamental beliefs” (page 75).

The business world recognizes the importance of these core values, spending time and effort to make sure they accurately reflect the corporation.  In an interview quoted in CPN, a real estate industry magazine, Peter Roberts, CEO of the Americas for Jones Lang LaSalle, Inc. is quoted as saying: “…it is important to have strong core values and to stand by them.  (They) provide a bedrock against which strategies can be laid.”  He went on to say “But having them is not enough.  If you don’t (stick to them), you’ll be in a lot of trouble when problems do occur.”  As important as this idea is to business, it is much more so for the Church to have this solid, unchangeable position.

Establishing a Vision and Its Mission

Building from the core values, the vision of the enterprise tells us why it exists.  The vision is an informed and forward thinking statement of purpose.  It is a statement of ambition for the enterprise that tells us where we want to go but not how we will get there.  It is the mission statement that relates to the specifics to be accomplished in support of the vision.  It is ambitious and emotionally compelling and should provide benchmarks to keep everyone on track.

Fortunately, the Church does not have to spend much time in analyzing and deciding about such things.  These have been established by the founder and are unique in that they are unchanging regardless of how the world changes.  We do not have to worry through the decision process, we just have to execute on them.  An example of core values for the Church is found in I Corinthians 13.  They are faith, hope, and charity with the greatest being charity.  And what greater vision can be set than when Jesus said ‘I will build my Church’?  This is followed up by a compelling, clearly stated mission statement found in Acts 1 when Jesus commanded His followers to “Go into the world and preach the gospel.”  We are to reach the uttermost part of the world with the gospel.  It is not narrowed to a specific generation or demographic, just the entire world.  And yet if you visit some services, it appears that these are no longer accepted or a ‘new version’ or application has been found.  It should be of no surprise to read that the Barna Research Group continues to report that the majority of pastors are content with the way things are going in their ministry.  In fact, the larger the church is, the more likely the pastor is to feel pleased with his performance as its leader, even though more than half of his congregation may not be saved and see no need to be.  Is it amazing that only 2% of the pastors themselves can identify God’s vision for their ministry!  Yet they feel competent enough to restructure God’s original plan.  Catering to seasonal trends and emotional whims as businesses do is not one of the ways the church should copy business. Businesses in this kind of market are short-lived or struggling at best.

Avoiding the Shifting Sands

Because the church represents or reflects the current profile of the population, it is facing some of the same associated questions and uneasiness. For the church, as well as successful businesses, the foundation can’t be based on anything but a solid, unchanging position. One of the reasons people tend to argue for change is related to the ongoing demographic changes in the market. Most of the time, these demographic changes point to the younger population and its trends.  Does change relate to age, or lifestyle, or generation?  The erroneous assumption is made that a new group will act like the last group at that age and doesn’t take into consideration the attitude and environment that formed them.  You should take great care that you do not set a church or a business on a confusion based on age related trends versus a generation related trend. If you very specifically target a demographic segment, you may become so narrowly focused that you miss the real, solid growth opportunities.   Don’t make the mistake that the future attractive demographic will be attracted to the same type of product or service as they are today.  You will end up constantly looking for new ways to attract that particular demographic or special group, potentially building upon confusion, and not clarity of message.  The importance of this is brought out by a September 29, 2003 USA Today TV review for Joan of Arcadia in which the reviewer makes the point that ‘the show would not appeal to everybody but that was okay.  To appeal to everyone, you can’t be anything, think anything, or demand anything’.  The message becomes garbled and confusion abounds.  If the business world can see this, why can’t the church?

It is evident that the message is becoming garbled with the results being seen in various studies conducted by the Barna Research Group.  They indicate that Americans identify faith as a key factor in their life, with large majorities claiming that their religious faith is very important in their life.  They describe themselves as deeply spiritual, born again Christians who own a Bible and know all of the basic teachings.  But those same studies revealed that less than half of the people who describe themselves as Christian also described themselves as absolutely committed to the Christian faith.  After claiming that they know the basic teachings and claim to be born again, they say Satan does not exist, the Holy Spirit is merely a symbol, and that eternal peace with God can be earned through good works.  To them, truth becomes something that is only understood through reason and experience.  From a business standpoint, it sounds like the brand should go through a major focus group study to find out why the perception is so dramatically different from the reality.  In retailing, when the consumer is this confused, it means the message is not getting out clearly.  In its drive to be all things to all people, the real message is lost.

The church is not a business to be measured by worldly standards or customer whims.  Jesus used no benchmarks in establishing a vision and mission statement for His Church.  His demographic was the unsaved and His target audience was the lost.  He did not pick the best business model of the day to copy and His message cannot be adjusted to fit the marketplace.  There are no discounts and half off sales.  He established no separate visions or values for the various ages, ethnicities, or income levels.  Rather, Jesus’ message rose above the noisy demands of the marketplace.  His was a message of constancy and commitment with a set of core values, vision, and mission statement that set the Gospel apart.  Jesus did not come to earth as man to die on the cross to fill up auditoriums.  He came and died that man might know God and be transformed by that knowledge.