Ministry isn't a Business! Is it?
It’s often uncomfortable to talk about ministry in terms of business - we answer to a higher authority, after all!
The irony is, one of today’s business trends is caring about customers, employees, and the world. Even in the sphere of life where money is the bottom line, we are finding that meaning, connection, and value offer much deeper rewards.
Shouldn’t the opposite also be true?
For those of us who ultimately serve God’s Kingdom, using the tools of business - including money - to further our goal, could be seen as very effective evangelism.
Often enough, though, we give in to our discomfort over the clash of financial and spiritual mindsets, and embrace the notion that ministry must be ‘pure’ - free from material rewards.
This puts us in a bit of a dilemma, however, in terms of supporting clergy, congregations, and reaching beyond church doors to bring Good News to the world.
Traditional thinking is usually in institutional terms: salaries and hierarchies organized with centralized resources and authority. A major drawback to this is the limited ability to innovate, in terms of what is offered (teaching, worship, spiritual care and practice, etc), and how it is paid for (basically grants, endowments, and subscriptions/tithes).
Without innovation, we are seeing both congregations and clergy struggle to thrive in ministry, and church membership statistics bear this out.
What if we started thinking of new ministries as ‘start-ups’, instead? What if thinking like a business is one way to increase the value of spiritual investment - for clergy, congregations, and the wider world?
If the business world is discovering that there is more to life than money, then shouldn’t the religious world use business principles - and profit - to prove this point exactly?
Here are three business strategies for reimagining thriving, sustainable ministry, inside and beyond the walls of the church:
1. Clergy as entrepreneurs
Clergy employment is often a gray area - do we work for a specific congregation? For a denomination? Are we self-employed contractors? The answer is YES to all! Depending on who you ask, or what context we are in (taxes, for instance…)
Reimagining clergy as start-up entrepreneurs, however, gives us the advantage - and the energy - to try new things, to connect with others in new ways, and to challenge ourselves to innovate the process of bearing the Scripture, sacraments, and traditions of the church.
This can sound radically scary - are we talking about monetizing prayer, or making up our own theology?
Here’s a much less scary real-life example:
A single congregation pays a minister a salary that includes an in-person Bible study that 10 people attend, which works out to about $25/hour of ministry time, paid by an average of 100 people, most of whom are not at the Bible study.
If the Bible study lasts 10 weeks, the congregation pays $250 for this service ($2.50 per participant), which is a lot for them, and not sustainable for the minister.
A Free Range Priest (not on a salary) offers an online Bible study that 10 people attend, and they each pay $10 per session directly to the minister. This is $100 each for the people who receive a 10-week class, and $1,000 to the minister. The congregation can subsidize individual members if the cost is a burden, and they can afford to because they are not paying a clergy salary. Those who are NOT members of the congregation can also attend, and in this way support the congregation’s mission and ministry. This enhances both evangelism and sustainability for all!
It also offers greater convenience for members of the congregation, who may have mobility issues, don’t drive at night, etc., and find it easier to join a ‘virtual’ Bible study than an ‘in-person’ one. It could even be a ‘hybrid’ - an in-person Bible study that others pay to attend virtually.
As clergy think of ourselves as entrepreneurial missioners, we can think about serving the church without being paid a full-time salary by one congregation. Which doesn’t mean we don’t get paid! It means congregations - and individuals in them - pay us for specific services, in ways that promote sustainability for our service and our mission.
2. Spiritual practice as a service
Most Americans say they find meaning in their families, spending time in nature, and their careers. Spirituality and faith practice come further down the list. Perhaps a reason for this is that so few Americans today are actually brought up in a faith tradition, and they are unaware of how connecting the meaningful things in their lives with the eternal love of God can bring even more depth to them.
For those of us who devote our lives to carrying the Christian faith into the world, traditional practices are key elements of meaning: worship, prayer, study, sabbath rest, tithing, forgiveness, sharing resources, and caring for our neighbor are at the heart of our connection to God and others.
These practices are known to fewer and fewer, because if they are found mostly in church communities (where fewer are!). But people are still seeking spiritual connection: yoga, meditation, and undefined ‘spirituality’ are all thriving areas of business.
Christian spiritual practice can be, as well. Being paid to guide others in them is not only sustainable, it is evangelical. As individuals practice the faith, they grow in it. They come to know the transformative love of God.
An example of how this works is Yogadevotion. Pastor Cindy Senarighi, who is ordained in the Lutheran Church, uses the practice of yoga to help guide followers of Jesus.
3. Church business plans
Have you been to a church budget meeting lately? How well did you understand it? Were there lots of charts and line items, and not a lot of clarity about what the congregation pays for, and how?
It’s not our fault!
The institutional system of a building, a clergy person, a few other part-time positions, and one group of people who supports it all, is NOT usually a thriving situation in today’s world. Most congregations are forced to budget with dwindling resources, and forced to reckon with how to manage very real-world financial situations like aging infrastructure and rising salaries.
The money to pay for everything comes from parishioners who are also aging - with more needs and less energy for the work of maintaining the church. New church members typically give less to the church - and often have less to give. Older members who tithe more are dying, and it takes 3 or 4 new members to replace one, from a financial perspective. Some churches have endowments, or other maintenance funds, but these last only so long.
Increasingly, it takes prayer, luck, and deferred projects for churches to keep their doors open. This is the definition of UN-sustainable ministry!
But what are congregations do to, besides closing?
There are other answers, but they take looking outside the box. Literally, outside the box of the institutional model.
Churches can look beyond ‘strategic planning’, which generally relies on ideas to generate income in the same ways (by trying to increase membership, or increase the giving of members), that have not worked for awhile. Instead, a congregation can think like a business: what are we offering? Who is paying for it? And how can we offer value to those who don’t know us yet?
This does not have to include members only!
Most congregations have buildings, and these can be shared. The most obvious customers for this are other congregations! Which may result in some sacrifices for those who think of the buildings as ‘ours’ exclusively, but it can bring some fruitful partnerships.
In terms of who is paying for the church’s mission and ministry, there are ways to expand this to those who are not members, as with the Bible study example above. And there are ways to pay for clergy service that allow other congregations to share it.
When congregations start thinking like businesses, they open up new possibilities of what thriving ministry looks like, and steps they can take to get there.
The Bottom Line It turns out that even businesses know that the most valuable thing in the world is LOVE. When those who are concerned about profit start to get it, that lives rich in meaning, purpose, and connection are what we are ALL striving for, then we have come full-circle to the place that WE know best. In ministry, we start from a place of FAITH in God's love, and we set our goals accordingly. In business, the goals are growth and earnings, yet the deeper values still inform them.
What if it is time to learn what business knows, in order to help them see what we know?