The Business Church (and Why It’s Bad)

18 Jan

I don’t function well in the business world. I’ve held a few jobs in  “Corporate America,” and I have always been unhappy with my experiences. I’m not a person who is geared toward seeing things in terms of a bottom line or in terms of dollars and cents. I’m capable of being that way. I feel like it makes me become a cold, calculating person, and the times that I have allowed myself to think of people that way, I have regretted my decision to do so. That’s also not to say that every person who thinks only in those terms is somehow deficient or impersonal. I’m not a person who is good at finding that balance though.

In jobs that I’ve had in the corporate world, my biggest frustration is that everyone is obsessed with numbers and usually in a bad way. Yes, money has to be counted to make sure the business can stay alive, and knowing how to make the business run effectively requires knowing the numbers to make things run efficiently. Those aren’t the numbers I’m talking about. I’m talking about numbers that are used to measure success. This can be individual or corporate: an individual’s success in their position that is used for determining whether that employee moves up in their position is removed from it or whether the business is doing enough business to expand or needing to scale back in order to remain in existence. Those numbers frustrate because more often than not those are reductionistic.

This idea of reductionism came up in a conversation I was having with a family member today. He works in a sales department for a fairly big manufacturing company. Two of his coworkers were fired this week from his company because those employees were deemed to be not up to snuff. How was that determination made? Based on a random selection of phone calls (dealing with only one type of incoming call), the employees are given a monthly “GPA” of sorts, and on a scale of 1 to 3, the employee needs to hold an average of 2.8 to remain employed. If they fall below that threshold (consistently or not), they risk getting fired. As my family member described it, in this department (and company) you are not viewed as a person; you are a cog in the machine. If you fail to do your job, you get fired and replaced, and in some instances that happens incredibly quickly. Employees at this company are regularly under an intense amount of stress because they know that all it takes is one bad month of randomly selected phone calls and their job could be gone. It doesn’t matter if you had a number of great phone calls that far outweighed the bad ones: if you’re random selection came up poor, that’s it.

This is similar to my experience working in a call center for a tech support company. My employer tracked our progress by the number of cases we closed on average per day. Fall too far below that average, and you were fired. In the time that I was there, two thirds of my office was fired. Many of those employees fired were very intelligent, hard-working people who were assets to our company … but because their numbers didn’t meet the quota, they were let go. Now, you may say that clearly because they weren’t hitting their numbers, they must have been doing something wrong. You might be right except that employees quickly learned how to exploit a loophole. This company didn’t care about the quality of the work being done, just the quantity. So it didn’t matter if you had 18 cases closed with half of them having the work done. As long as you hit above the average, you’re doing fine. For those of us who actually spent time making sure we were closing our cases correctly and making sure our customers were happy, our averages were lower and therefore looked worse. I was not fired, but instead found another job working at a non-profit. About six months after I left, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. I wish I could say this was the case with all companies that track employee progress this way, but this proves to be the exception rather than the rule.

I get frustrated by this corporate attitude because it reduces human beings to products. Your value is determined by an arbitrary number whether it’s an assessment of your ability or the value of your assets. You are judged by how much money you have or how much money you can make. It’s one of the downsides of a capitalist mindset: everything becomes a market in which things (and people) can be bought, sold, valued, traded, and dismissed. Not that capitalism is necessary bad or evil, but this is one of the byproducts of the mindset.

I bring up these examples because this also represents a major frustration I have with the American Church: we treat churches like businesses. In fact, I have had more than a few pastors emphasize that the church is a business and needs to be run as one. This has always made me uncomfortable, but as I’ve experienced more in my own life and through observing certain events play out (the financial crisis and the 2012 election among others) I have become more concerned about this mindset.

Now, I understand part of what’s meant when pastors have told me that the church is a business. In America, churches are technically non-profit businesses. Certain numbers have to be reported, employees have to be hired to take care of day-to-day activities, budgets need to be made; there are business aspects to running the church. Further, the are certain numbers that are important to running a church that are similar to a business. Knowing the size of the congregation, the expected giving, what the size of the church should be in proportion to the size of the community, thinking about effective ways to grow numbers are all important things that churches focus on, and business analysis can often help bring clarity and insight into working with those numbers.

The problem is that those very same numbers can reduce congregations to statistics, and far too often I have heard pastors and church workers becoming comfortable referring to their churches in terms of numbers instead of people. The way churches act out on those numbers becomes troubling as well. Churches base their success or failure on numbers. Fights break out over budgets, and looking at church budgets can reveal an enormous amount on where a church’s heart lies. It is often disconcerting to find that churches spend an inordinate amount on things that are primarily internal to the church (worship music being a main one). Does our theology tell us that we’re supposed to be concerned for ourselves or does it speak more about being concerned about others? It’s also disconcerting when “top givers” are thrown parties much like a business treating its larger donors with special gifts and access. This has been a problem with the church for centuries, but now it is hidden under the guise of making sure that churches don’t lose their top tithers. Does that make sense biblically? Is that where we’re called to focus our efforts?

Theologically I have issues with the “business church” and how it is run. I have always wondered (and still do wonder) whether churches should be considered businesses at all, though it seems it is one of the unfortunate realities of existing in the U.S. is that the church must be, in some form, a business. But ultimately our goal is not to view the church and its people in terms of a bottom line. If there is a bottom line, it’s that God sent his son that “we may have life and have it abundantly,” that we are to lose our life in order to gain it in God, that we are to focus on serving “the least of these” when they are hungry, sick, in prison, and in need of clothing. We are supposed to be the church that sells all its belongings so that it may be given to the poor, the church that feeds that four thousand and the five thousand that come to us even when we only have enough to feed a dozen.  We are supposed to be the church that uses our money for Mission, for our communities, for others rather than on worship, on carpets, on fancy pews and sound systems, on ourselves. We are the church that is supposed to be “foolishness to the Greeks” and a stumbling block for the wise. Some might even say we’re supposed to by the church that looks like a failing business but survives on the sustainability of God.

Clearly this is the idealist dream, and have a church building doesn’t mean we’re failing in our mission. Churches need their facilities to effectively serve, but the ones who use them effectively understand that these things are meant for others and not for us. For example, my church for this month has become a homeless shelter. Almost every facility is being used to serve and support those who do not have enough to eat or drink, who have no place they can call home. And the church understand that its role is not always to make the business savvy decision but to make the biblically savvy decision. I fear that many churches are failing and dying not because they are not making wise business decisions, but because they are making only business decisions. They try to view their ministry in statistics, to worry about numbers instead of people, to care more about what a person brings to the table rather than who that person is sitting at their table.

The mission of the Church is to point to God. “Just as the Father has sent me, so I send you,” says Jesus to his disciples at the end of John, and it’s the call he places on us too. We are sent by the one who sent his son to us. We are to be the church that cares more about the other than us, that makes decisions based not on what people can offer but based on what people need to be fulfilled. We are not called to be the business church. We are called to be God’s church.

1 Comment

Posted by on January 18, 2013 in Biblical, Doctrinal Issues, Theology


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One response to “The Business Church (and Why It’s Bad)

  1. Wes Ellis

    January 19, 2013 at 7:38 AM

    Jeff, sounds like you’ve got your finger on the pulse of the church at a crossroads. My wife and I just recently participated in a Focus group (with Kenda Dean) on “millennials” and church finances. Of course things are unpredictable, but the data suggests that the church is not going to be sustained (at least not in its current form) by “tithes and offerings” once the millennial generation becomes the 60-somethings of the church (the generation which currently contributes disproportionate amounts to the the “bottom-line”). We just don’t give in the same institutional structures. And that’s the crossroads – the church, one way or another, is going to have to deal with finances in a new way if we’re going to “survive.” Now, as an optimist of sorts, I think that we’ll figure something out… but the concern is whether the models we come up with are constructed out of necessity or out of concrete theological connection between what we do and why we do it.The temptation will be for the church to operate in even more of a business fashion, the temptation to crunch numbers and focus on the bottom line – just because we have to! The values of pragmatism and effectiveness will supersede the value of faithfulness… that is unless we heed your call…

    Moving forward, I think the church is only going to need more and more reminders such as this one. Thanks for posting it Jeff!


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