Broadway vs. community theater: Why pastors and presidents are not CEOs

John Fea shares some highlights from a Barna Group survey on the reading habits of pastors.

Here’s the finding that struck me as most distressing: “One-third of pastors are reading business books.”


I appreciate that the job of a local church pastor is in some ways analogous to that of an executive, but that doesn’t mean that a local church is in any way analogous to a “business.” If all those pastors reading “business books” — a depressingly vapid genre for which Sturgeon’s Law understates the ratio — are getting the idea that their churches should be more “business-like,” then I fear for their congregations, their ministries, their parishes.*

One way of describing the difference between a local church and a business is by looking at the difference between a Broadway production and community theater.

Consider a Broadway production reviving an old classic like Carousel. At the very same time, far enough away that the rights are still available, a small community theater prepares its production of the very same play. Both productions share some of the same goals. They both want to tell this story as best they can within the constraints of their respective budgets and talent pools (both of which are far more constraining for the community theater). They both want to make their audiences laugh, cry, yearn and ache. They both want to sell tickets.

But Broadway is a business. Like any business, it wants to hire the best possible people for every role. So the Broadway production holds auditions in which some of the world’s best actors, singers and dancers compete to land a part in the show.

Casting doesn’t work like that at the community theater. Broadway starts with a list of roles to be filled, then selects only the very best people it can find to fill them. Community theater starts with the community — with everybody — and then tries to figure out how best to employ them, how best to manage the assembled ensemble so that everyone is able to participate and to contribute to the common goal.

Think of Mr. Fish in John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. Mr. Fish isn’t a great actor, but he’s a faithful member of the Gravesend Players and every year Dan Needham, the patient director of the local community theater, finds a role that he hopes will make the best use of Mr. Fish and his talents.

That’s the real magic of community theater. Sure, I can laugh along with Shakespeare at the amateur follies of Nick Bottom, Peter Quince, Francis Flute and Starveling, Snout and Snug in their deliriously awful “craftsmen’s play” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But let’s not sneer at them. Here you have a weaver, a carpenter, a bellows-mender, tailor, tinker and joiner working without pay. Why? Because this is something we humans do — we tell stories, we act them out. We’ve done this for as long as humans can remember anything humans have done. And if I were running a community theater, I’d be happy to have them — Quince and Starveling especially, because every theater needs a good tailor and a good carpenter. (I do wonder if Shakespeare ran into any trouble with his set-builders and costumers after they absorbed his mockery of the “craftsmen” in Dream.)

The challenge, and the beauty, of community theater is figuring out how to allow and enable all of these folks to make their best contribution to the production at hand. Mr. Fish might surprise us all and be better than expected if we cast him as “Mr. Snow” in Carousel. Starveling, Snout and Snug might fit in best as townspeople in the big “Clambake” scene.

The point is that the task for a community theater is the opposite of the task for Broadway. Broadway wants to find and to hire only the very best possible people for every role. Community theater wants to get the best possible contribution from every person in the community.

A local church should be more like community theater than like Broadway.

And so should the entire country. This is why I cringe whenever I hear someone suggest that we need a “CEO president.”

No. No we do not. A CEO is completely unqualified to be president. A CEO is someone who has spent years preparing for how not to be president.

Think of the matter of full employment. Full employment for a CEO means finding and hiring only the very best people for every position in your company. That’s easy. That’s like trying to find good dancers on Broadway.

But what about all those people who are not “the very best”? The CEO doesn’t care. The CEO doesn’t have to care.

A president does. For a president, “full employment” means that everyone who is capable of working is able to find work. That doesn’t just mean the most talented, best-educated, most capable people, but everyone — the incompetent, the perpetually confused, the easily distracted, the socially maladept, the clumsy, the dim, the schlemiels and schlimazels and every other variety of bungler and screw-up. They need work too. They need to be allowed and enabled to participate and to contribute. And just like in community theater, the challenge is to help them find the right role that will make the best of whatever abilities they have.

If you’re in charge of a business, then you simply fire the bunglers and the screw-ups, the Snouts and the Starvelings. Or you never hire them in the first place. What becomes of them after they’re fired, or if no one ever hires them? Not your problem. Not your concern.

But if you’re in charge of a country, or if you’re in charge of a local church, then it is your concern. You can’t just restrict yourself to the winners of the audition, to “the best and the brightest.” Your job is to make sure that everyone is allowed, encouraged, enabled and empowered to contribute to the best of their ability — whatever their ability may be. Everyone is your concern. Everyone is your problem.

No, wait, not your “problem.” That’s the wrong word. That’s CEO-speak. People are not problems — that’s a lie told by “business books.” Everyone is your community. Everyone is your neighbor.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* “Parish” is an archaic term referring to the long defunct notion that a local church carried certain obligations based on its geography and not on brand-affinity, ethnic and economic demographics, and partisan political identity. The automobile abolished the parish more than a generation ago. Any church with a parking lot does not have a parish.

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  • Daniel Björkman

    Well said, and a viewpoint I wish more (not to say all) people had.

    I am not sure whether I am too bitter and cynical, but it seems to me that even people who make a big production out of how progressive they are believe that incompetents don’t deserve to live. Oh, it’s a tragedy that smart, hard-working people can’t find jobs, we have to do something about that – but the idiots can starve to death in the gutter, that’s just capitalism in action and capitalism is the system wherein everyone gets what they have earned.

    Well, I am less able than other people. I was born that way. I will not hide from that fact like apparently I’m supposed to and claim that all my mental and neurological problems don’t reduce my performance at all and that the only thing standing in the way of my being a wonderful capitalist go-getter is the “ableism” of other people. But nor will I accept that I have a duty to drop dead to get out of the functional people’s way.

    That’s why I like this blog. It’s just about the only place I’ve ever found that seems to grant me the right to exist even if I am weaker than others.

  • Lliira

    Yes to all of this.

    I read an article claiming the problems of disabled people were all, literally all, rooted in society’s ableism. Bullshit! Ableism is a very serious and very real problem. And there are certainly some people whom we think of as “disabled” who are very able indeed in the right role. But I’m not one of them.

    I can rarely even shower because of pain and incapacity. Pain dictates my life. And certain people on the left want to think that I’m just different and if society were only better I’d be just fine. Fuck that shit. Frankly, I think it’s based in fear: this could happen to anyone. So people have to pretend there’s an upside. There is not.

    Disabled people were able to get others to stop using the term “differently abled”. But the thinking behind the term is still there. My disability does not give me superpowers. It takes away my ability to do almost everything. We could live in a perfect society and my life would still be dictated by pain. And there’s nothing good about that, no upside, nothing but pain.

  • Daniel Björkman


    The thing is, there seems to be an unspoken assumption in our society that the cure for any social ill must be “tolerance.” That doesn’t mean that social ills like, say, income inequality are never addressed at all, but they have to be framed in terms of tolerance vs intolerance, which can look pretty weird sometimes (“you want the poor to stay poor because you are prejudiced against poor people! You intolerant bigot!”).

    I admit, tolerance is better than persecution. But for a lot of people (for me, and apparently for you too) it’s not enough. What we need is compassion.

    I think that tolerance is such a popular solution because it’s very simple – it just requires you to stop caring about anything that doesn’t directly affect you (which does, I admit, make it all the more sad that so many people can’t even manage that much…). Compassion requires you to actually accept a little less for yourself so that someone else can have a little more. I think that people would rather believe that that’s never necessary.

  • Fusina

    And that is why I drive my ladies around. They don’t have cars, I do. I have time. So I drive them. I don’t charge for my time or gas money–all of them are on Social Security–and it is my way of honoring my Grandmothers and my Mother-in-law, who at the end of her life was dependent on people driving her places.
    It is not to look good by doing something nice, it is doing something necessary for others. I have less time to myself, but they get where they need to go. I believe that if we could get an entire community to do this sort of caring, it could be awesome.

  • esmerelda_ogg

    “Compassion requires you to actually accept a little less for yourself so
    that someone else can have a little more. I think that people would
    rather believe that that’s never necessary.” – Daniel Bjorkman

    YES. That’s a lot less comfortable than sitting back and criticizing other people for not being tolerant enough (“differently tolerant”, perhaps? [/ sarcasm off]) – but compassion is a lot more likely to improve people’s lives, where possible.

  • AnonymousSam

    Some people seem to lack both tolerance or compassion. They’re openly antagonistic toward the idea of anything they do bettering the life of someone not in their very limited circle of empathy.

    As a complete sociopath, I have no bloody idea how they function. I wouldn’t want to live my life not caring about people.


  • Invisible Neutrino

    It continues to boggle my mind how some people in our society have managed to make it almost a virtue to say “let the Devil take the hindmost.”

  • hf

    I was just thinking about what I’d say to Aleister “The Great Beast 666” Crowley if I went back in time.

    AC: So how will my religion of Thelema replace Christianity?

    Me: No clue. In my timeline, the rich accept the most selfish part of your doctrine – but they call it Christianity. There was this atheist anti-Communist writer by the name of Ayn Rand who preached the virtue of selfishness, starting shortly before your death. Conservatives after 2000 would speak of her and Jesus in the same breath without a hint of irony. If you can replace her, then people might remember you as a prophet.

    Emmy Noether or John von Neumann: Why are you telling him that?

    Me: Because if someone based the goals of an Artificial Intelligence on Thelema, it might possibly come out friendly. You remember what I thought would happen if you based it on Christianity.

  • LMM22

    Ableism is a very serious and very real problem. And there are certainly some people whom we think of as “disabled” who are very able indeed in the right role. But I’m not one of them.

    I’d qualify this statement even further: There are certainly some people whom we think of as “disabled” who are very able indeed in a role which they enjoy. (As a corollary, for example: There are certainly some women whom we think of as “oppressed” who are very happy indeed with their assigned roles.) The assertion that disabilities don’t exist provided there are roles available that one can fulfill is, to me, still ableism — it fails to acknowledge that that person we think of as “disabled” might have no desire to fill the roles that are available to them.

    Frankly, I think it’s based in fear: this could happen to anyone. So people have to pretend there’s an upside. There is not.

    “This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.” — Le Guin. (This is a quote I will freely admit I use *wildly* out of context, but it’s a far better quote than anything that I can come up with.)

  • LMM22

    The term I’ve heard is “pity-charity liberalism” — the idea being, we’ll pursue a policy that everyone knows will have a lot of losers (outsourcing! cutting in-patient mental health centers!), but we’re going to compensate by helping the losers to do something else. All of which seems great, I think, until the promised follow-up doesn’t come through or until it still doesn’t help people do what they want to do. People want to be a part of something, and our culture increasingly fails to make that happen.

  • Dave Jones

    How we won the James Randi Paranormal Challenge




    We really enjoy when comfortable bourgeois atheists talk about the apocalypse…

    Unfinished business

    Are these claims “falsifiable? Millions will see this.

    we’re not KIDDING


    get to the article on the APOCALYPSE – pg. 22

    no, 99% have failed!

    2 Kings 19

    “That night the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a
    hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp. When the people
    got up the next morning—there were all the dead bodies!”





  • Headless Unicorn Guy


  • Dave Jones

    babbling impotent idiots!

  • Lliira

    Oooh, is this an insult generator? *pokes with stick*

  • JustoneK

    I prefer the Shakespearean, it’s got a lot more adjectives.

  • hf

    Don’t poke the crazy person unless you think it will increase the chance of the courts forcing him to get help.

  • FearlessSon

    babbling impotent idiots!

    Hey! We are no longer impotent.

    They make pills for that now. :p

  • Ima Pseudonym

    Your Mayan apocalypse came and went, and James Randi is never going to pay you a cent–nor should he. Neither is anyone else. Get the fuck over it already.

  • Dave Jones

    you think we want his dirty money

    his public humiliation is what we want

  • Ima Pseudonym

    Also not going to happen, and there’s no “we” unless you’ve got a rat in your pocket. There’s just you. Grow up and get over it. Do the Montreal police know you’re stalking online again? Maybe someone should let them know, so you can be put somewhere where you can be stabilized with medication.

  • AnonymousSam

    Go home, Dennis. You are drunk.

  • Simongren

    I know this is probably going to sound ‘stupid’ to you, but I have absolutely no idea what you are trying to say in this strange, capitalized, links to nothing, post of glommed together nonsense.

    Are you trying to say that skeptics all died on a specific day in December 2012? Because that is patently a provably false statement. Are you trying to say that people stop believing in stupid end-of-the-world scenarios? Because sadly, that is also a provably false statement. Are you trying to say that Depeche Mode did a video on top of the WTC before 9/11? That one is true. Are you trying to say that someone has won the James Randi Paranormal challenge? Because that is a provably false statement.

    Is it just that I have not had enough coffee yet this day to see the whatever people are supposed to see or are you just a dipsquad?

  • EllieMurasaki

    Consensus seems to be he’s dmabus, actually. In which case, he’s not supposed to be on the Internet at all, that’s a condition of his parole after being jailed for harassing people on the Internet, or some such thing. Ignore him.

  • AnonymousSam

    Physical stalking too, in the case of PZ Myers, which is where the first police report originated.

  • Simongren

    Thanks. It’s weird, I can usually follow what a troll is trying to say but this made less sense then Timecube.

  • Eric B

    I agree. In seminary I had to read “Built to Last” which is a book that ministers, CEO’s, and community theater can benefit from. To a point, anyway. The problem is that church leadership classes are really just organizational leadership classes. Recently, Nehemiah, not Jesus, has been the go-to model of Biblical leadership. He had a task and got it done. Jesus, well, he was kind of inefficient and all over the place.

    This time next year, I will be done with pastoral ministry. The reason is that nowadays, being a pastor is mostly a customer service job. And not even the cool kind where you can really help some people out, but the kind where you have to pander to people’s sense of entitlement.

  • flat

    good article fred.

  • Hexep

    Best business book ever is Eliyahu Goldratt’s ‘The Goal,’ but that’s all about practice and not about theory.

  • mhelbert

    This is something that I’ve talked about for years. Church is not business…and should not be “run” as one. And, I’ve had pastors tell me that, well, yes it is. I, too, had to read some business model books in seminary. Fortunately, at the end of the quarter the professor stated that these books were really inappropriate and would not be used for future classes. It seems that she, too, finally ‘got it.’ Good post, Fred. Thanx!

  • AnonymousSam

    I wonder how many of them see their sermons like sales.

  • Carstonio

    Yes. Whoever conceived of the concept of “running government like a business” doesn’t understand what government is for.

    About parishes, I had understood that Catholics were strongly encouraged to join their local churches. Similarly, I know of one Episcopal rector who wanted a family seeking infant baptism to use their local church, to cement the bond with the congregation – the parents had wanted to use one about an hour’s drive away where their families had roots.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    George W, Bush talked a lot about how he was going to run government like a business. If the mass media had bothered to report the simple fact that every business he ran either went bust or got bought out by his rich friends, they would have understood that was a WARNING, not a promise.

  • fraser

    I’ve got to say, your community theater experience is very different from mine. I’ve never run into a group that thought “Ooh, so many people trying out, let’s pad the cast!” Though yeah, tech can suck up a lot of willing workers.
    I do think that the best Pyramus and Thisbe I’ve seen shows them as sincerely enthusiastic, really dedicated and not at all stupid … just not good actors.

  • PepperjackCandy

    Granted, I’ve never auditioned for a community theater production, but my few experiences with community theater people (an acquaintanceship that came through an old friend) is that they are a little clique that is hard to breach. My friend invited me to a party that the group was having and then left me to my own devices during the party itself. A few people were friendly, but most were too busy trying to impress each other with their creativity to take care of the stranger in their midst. I spent much of the time completely alone trying to entertain myself. My other experiences with these people weren’t any more warm and fuzzy.

    Maybe they are warmer and more welcoming to newbie thespians than to guests who attend their parties. However, I doubt it.

  • fraser

    I’ve found that to be true with pretty much any party where you get someone new and a bunch of people who’ve known each other for a while. But yeah, when you’re working on a show, there’s a lot more socializing, even with newbies.

  • dpolicar

    One of the things our community theatre is really proud of is that for quite a few years now we’ve averaged 50% new people (that is, people who have never acted for us before) in ever show we do. We find it strikes a happy balance between cliquish and lacking all continuity.

  • dpolicar

    Also, disqus is playing keepaway with login options, which annoys the hell out of me.

  • Jenora Feuer

    Well, one theatre group I was involved in (FASS at the University of Waterloo) explicitly made it a goal that anybody who wanted a part on stage could get a part on stage, so there were always lots of bit characters around. Usually you’d end up with a number of people taking two bit parts and swapping costumes backstage during the intervening scenes.

    Sometimes the parts weren’t even speaking parts. One show had the theme of ‘Hell’ (or, as they said in the introduction, ‘we polled people to see what they thought would be a great theme, and this year, as a result, FASS goes to Hell!’). One scene involved a walk-on keyboard like the movie Big, with damned souls underneath played like the Muppephone… all used to do a version of ‘Do Re Mi’ using the Seven Deadly Sins. (Reverence was not a big thing in FASS.) All you had to do as the part of one of the ‘keys’ was sing the note name on pitch when the guy playing the demon stomped on your key.

  • J_Enigma32

    “And so should the entire country. This is why I cringe whenever I hear someone suggest that we need a “CEO president.””

    What? No way. We need them fellers at BP running the country. Them big ol’ bankers everyone said shouldn’t get those bail-outs – that’s exactly how we need to be runnin’ this country. It needs to be run just like a business; just like the good ol’ boys at Wells Fargo, Sallie Mae, and EA run their businesses.

    FWIW, I feel the same thing whenever I hear some jackass braying about how schools need to be run like businesses and follow a business model. But we’ll learn real soon why those people are full of shit when the school system stops functioning. In Michigan, they’re already closing down entire districts because they don’t have the money. Where’d the kids go? Hell, since they’re often times poor and minority students, nobody cares.

    Just like the proper business model says: fuck the minorities unless you can screw them over. Only rich, wealthy White people (men) matter.

  • Rowen

    I’ve started responding to those claims with “So, who do you think should be fired from being an American to increase productivity? And what do you think “Fired from being an American” entails?

  • Worthless Beast

    Out of a cannon into the sun?

  • Elizabeth Coleman

    The problem with that is that I know people who will have an answer to that question. “Immigrants.”

  • EllieMurasaki

    So all the white people?

  • Rhubarbarian82

    The Daily Show did a great segment back during the Republican National Convention where they audited the lowest performing states to see which would be fired from the Union.

  • Ross

    A decade and change ago, I wrote a video game with a scene set in a dystopian near-future where corporations had formally taken over the world. Due to automated profit-maximizing processes, they fired canada. Using killer robots.

  • reynard61

    “So, who do you think should be fired from being an American to increase productivity?”

    Bankers…and, in fact, *anyone* who spends their day behind a desk uselessly shuffling paper and/or money around. If they want another job, let them get behind a plow in a field; or grab a shovel and start building some *actual infrastructure*; or grab a hammer and start rehabbing and/or building some affordable housing! (Believe me, I could probably go on all night! The list of things that all those desk-bound Suits could be doing [aside from rotting in a well-deserved prison cell] instead of being desk-bound is a long one!)

  • EllieMurasaki

    **anyone** who spends their day behind a desk uselessly shuffling paper and/or money around

    Define your terms.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    Stockbrokers and derivatives traders, I think.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Okay. That computes. I thought they were talking about office workers in general, and wanted to have a fit.

  • reynard61

    Plus pretty much anyone with CEO, CFO or some such as their title — or the letters MBA behind their name. (There might actually be an exception or two — the late Steve Jobs comes to mind.) But, yeah; I probably should have been a bit more specific there. Secretaries (who do the *real* work in any office) get enough crap piled on them and rarely get paid enough for it.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    Steve Jobs was a total shitbag to his workers.

  • reynard61

    Well, his interpersonal skills *did* leave much to be desired; but from what I’ve heard and read, he was a lot more “hands-on” in his approach to running Apple than a lot of what passes for the “leadership” that hides behind their desks and sheepskins in most companies these days. To illustrate what I mean, try this: Name the CEOs and/or CFOs of the Top 25 companies in any given industry. Sure there are some CEOs who love the limelight — Donald Trump (Real Estate and Development), Jack Welch (Electronics and Television), and Lee Iacocca (Automobiles) — but most of them only become “known” to the public when something goes extraordinarily right or horribly wrong. Otherwise they’re just faceless (*and*, I might add, *unelected*)”Suits” behind a desk with some letters before and after their names who hand down Holy Writ From On High that affects the rest of us whether we know (or even *like*) it or not.

    My point is that maybe the “Captains of Industry” need to get out from behind their desks, put down those pens that they use to sign pink slips and government subsidy checks, and get behind the steering wheel of a farm tractor or pick up a shovel at a construction site. It might give them a more realistic perspective on how the Real World works.

  • Hexep

    … that’s what I do.

    Hey, man, I think /your/ job is unimportant. If one of us has to go to the mines, why should I do it? Why can’t you?

  • Touchdown Al

    “Wells Fargo, Sallie Mae, and EA”

    One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong.

  • alfgifu

    Hah, I remember being part of an amateur dramatics club as a teenager. We did some beautiful things, but the production that really sticks in the mind was the last one – we kids didn’t know it yet, but our teacher had just been diagnosed with leukemia and she knew it was her last shot.

    It was a big show – all the different age groups got to be part of it. One of my group (older teenagers) had a knack for writing and knocked out a simplified version of A Winters Tale that even the eight- and nine-year olds could join in with.

    The play had to be adapted to meet the needs of the group in other ways as well – in particular, we ended up gender-flipping and reducing a number of the main roles. I ended up with the part of Camilla, female adviser to a jealously angry and physically aggressive Leontes – and out of nowhere we suddenly had a whole new dynamic. Almost a new play. Because all of a sudden Leontes was projecting his own adulterous desire for his adviser onto his wife. His sudden suspicion played against Camilla’s desparate attempts to manage her own dangerous footing, and Camilla’s story became absolutely pivotal. At the end of the play the classic Shakespearian assumption was that Camilla should be married off, and I remember the blinding realisation (as an actor) that the last thing my character wanted was to get married. We left her single, and triumphant.
    Thanks for bringing back that memory, Fred, I think it got buried under the sadnesses that came after.

  • Andrea

    Ohhh, thanks for the Owen Meany reference; you’ve made my morning. Dear old Mr. Fish!

  • Rowen

    There’s a small part of me that keeps giggling at Mr. Fish as Mr. Snow, since Carrie Pepperidge’s biggest complaint about Mr. Snow is that he smells like fish.

  • Sue White

    Seems to me that the biggest difference between a business and those other entities is that a business is usually run for profit. That’s its reason for existing. Any church that exists for profit should be treated that way by the IRS.

  • reynard61

    I regret that I have but one “^” to give to this post.

  • Jeff

    “And just like in community theater, the challenge is to help them find the right role that will make the best of whatever abilities they have.”
    That’s not the job of the president or of government, and you don’t want it to be.

  • Sign Ahead

    Without something to backup your statement, it’s tough to take it seriously.

  • LoneWolf343

    The private market has failed in that regard, so who is left?

  • Jeff

    The individual himself.
    It is in no one’s interest to have a situation in which government, rather than the individual, determines what is the “right” role for someone or what constitutes the “best” use of their abilities. It’s best left to the individual to make that determination, and best left to him to implement that as well.

  • Maniraptor

    Whose job is it to ensure there are opportunities for everyone, even if the individual is the one making the final choice?

  • Jeff

    That’s a fair question. I don’t dispute that the government has a substantial role to play in supporting robust economic growth so that jobs are available. But that’s a separate issue from the one Fred has raised, which pertains more to ensuring individual outcomes for individual people. That’s a level of micromanagement that we don’t want the government engaging in, (a) because it won’t do it well, and (b) because it can lead, as Fred’s rhetoric can be construed to lead, to a situation in which the governement /dictates/ individual outcomes to individual people.

  • EllieMurasaki

    You’ve confused yourself. It’s an issue of scale: the community theater can, as you say, micromanage in a way that the government cannot do and should not attempt, because the community theater people are personally close to their community in a way that the government is not and cannot be. The government doesn’t need to care who fills the jobs they create as long as everybody who wants a job gets one, and the individuals themselves will sort out what jobs they want to apply for. If it’s easy to get a job, after all, nobody will apply for a job they don’t want simply because they need one.

  • Jeff

    Where does the money come from to create all of these government jobs to employ the incompetent, the bungler, the screw-up, and everyone else Fred wants the government to govern? And who is responsible for filling the jobs? Let’s say you’re tasked with that responsibility, and you have two applicants: one competent, and one incompetent. Which will you hire? Is your point really that the government should create two jobs so that both can be hired, so that the taxpayers can be saddled with paying an incompetent person? Please explain that to me.

    The better solution is for the government to promote vigorous economic growth (which will create the abundance of jobs that you’re looking for), and for the incompetents and screw-ups to either, if possible, improve their performance so they can be a candidate for one of those jobs, or if impossible, to identify a line of work that they ARE able to perform within their limitations. (Note that I don’t actually subscribe to Fred’s extraordinarily negative evaluation of human capability, I’m just using it for the sake of discussion). I don’t think there’s anything especially controversial about this proposed state of affairs. What Fred, and apparently you, support, is a radical departure from the current way that things work, and I think the onus really rests with you to make an argument as to why there’s any likelihood that such a program would be implementable and successful.

  • Jeff

    “…everyone else Fred wants the government to govern?”

    Err, wants everyone to /employ/. Wish I could edit comments in Disqus…

  • reynard61

    You can edit if you get a Disqus account. (AFAIK it’s still free.)

  • EllieMurasaki

    My point is really that the government has to pay for the “incompetent” (which probably actually means “not quite as superbly qualified as the next applicant” in this climate of six jobless people and sixty applicants for every job opening) person’s room and board either way. Or should have to, because somebody’s got to be responsible for every US citizen’s well-being, and those who are kept unemployed can’t be responsible for themselves. So why the fuck NOT pay one person to dig a row of holes and another to fill them back up?

    You know, we have a lot of infrastructure that needs fixing, we just don’t have the trained bodies to do the fixing. Hey, look, a fuckton of unemployed people who just need some training.

  • Jeff

    Ellie, I don’t think Fred is necessarily talking about the current situation, in which perfectly competent people find themselves unemployed due to the poor economy. (I don’t think a bunch of make-work projects are a solution, by the way, but that’s neither here nor there). He seems, to me, to be talking more about the government’s perceived obligation to find work for those who consistently underperform, and perhaps couldn’t find work even in a good economy.

    In Fred’s view, the incompetent stay incompetent, and the lazy stay lazy. In his view, if someone can’t show up for work, you don’t insist that they take some responsibility and improve their performance, you create jobs in which showing up for work isn’t an obligation or a fireable offense. In his view, the incompetent can’t cut it on their own, and need the government to bail them out.

    I just reject that view of human capability; I think it’s terribly condescending and offensive to say to someone that we don’t expect very much out of them and we’re going to take care of them because we don’t think they can take care of themselves.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Citation needed. Now. For the bits where Fred believes “the incompetent stay incompetent and the lazy stay lazy” etc. Because the only indication I have ever seen, and I have been reading Fred’s blog for like eight years, that Fred believes what you say he does is that you say he does.

  • Jeff

    Ellie, grow up. You can disagree with me without being so argumentative, you know.
    Fred said, “That doesn’t just mean the most talented, best-educated, most capable people, but everyone – the incompetent, the perpetually confused, the easily distracted, the socially maladept, the clumsy, the dim, the schlemiels and schlimazels and every other variety of bungler and screw-up. They need work too. They need to be allowed and enabled to participate and to contribute. And just like in community theater, the challenge is to help them find the right role that will make the best of whatever abilities they have.”
    He writes about making the best of what limited capability these folks have. He makes no mention of helping them to improve, or of expecting them to improve, or of believing that they are capable of improvement in the first place.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I like being argumentative. It’s fun. And you’re misreading that passage entirely. ‘Make the best of whatever abilities they have’ in no way implies ‘with no attempt to improve those abilities’.

  • Jeff

    Fair enough; I suppose I should have said “accusatory”, because that, moreso than argumentativeness, is what is objectionable.
    I’m sorry, but I do read Fred as implying a rather static outlook for our hypothetical underperforming individuals. We can agree to disagree.

  • EllieMurasaki

    You do realize you’re saying that it is possible to be such a waste of space as to not deserve an income, yes?

    Yeah, I’m damn well going to be accusatory about that.

  • Jeff

    Again, Ellie, your beef is really with Fred, not with me. I don’t think anyone is a “waste of space”. He is the one who argues that the incompetence of the incompetent is irredeemable.
    But your wording is interesting; you strongly imply that everyone “deserves an income.” An income is generally understood to mean remnuneration for work performed. Did you perhaps mean that everyone deserves the /opportunity/ to compete in the marketplace for an income, or perhaps that everyone deserves a /livelihood/, or are you really, truly saying that everyone should be paid an /income/, whether they are working or not?

  • EllieMurasaki

    How are you defining food stamps and Social Security disability, if ‘income’ isn’t it?

    And yes, everyone fucking well deserves a living-wage job. Those who can’t take one (for WHATEVER reason) fucking well deserve cash assistance. Because no one, ABSOLUTELY FUCKING NO ONE, deserves less than a roof overhead in a safe neighborhood, enough food and health care for their needs, some way to clothe themselves and get from point a to point b in a timely fashion, some access to leisure time and entertainment…

  • Jeff

    Ellie, when your rhetoric descends into allcaps profanity, I’m afraid you’re not having fun any more, and I don’t want to be responsible for spoiling the start to your holiday weekend. Have a good weekend.

  • AnonymousSam

    That is the most pathetic passive aggressive tone argument I have ever seen. Congratulations.

  • AnonymousSam

    Goddamnit, I need to stop using that word. *Edit*

  • EllieMurasaki

    Thanks for the edit

  • AnonymousSam

    It’s so bloody automatic, I was literally cursing even as I hit the post button. It’s the same sort of problem as when you get halfway into a word and muscle memory (even at a vocal level) turns it into something else, like saying “Yes, I’ll have the deluxe chicken situation with bacon and ranch dressing” and knowing you fucked up two words after the mistake and still feeling compelled to complete the sentence before correcting yourself.

  • EllieMurasaki

    DO NOT FUCKING TONE-POLICE ME. And I am in fact having fun, or I WAS TILL YOU STARTED TONE-POLICING ME. Now, since I’m sure you’re dying to answer: my assertion that everyone deserves a living-wage job and everyone who doesn’t have a living-wage job deserves cash assistance. Answer it.

  • Lliira

    Oh dear, Jeff. You seem to have been having fun until Ellie out-argued you so thoroughly you couldn’t think of anything to do but take your toys and run home, tail between your legs. Poor little Jeffy-Weffy.

  • Maniraptor

    Is discussing how to make people’s lives livable supposed to be fun?

  • Ross

    Everyone deserves a living. Our cultural insistence that a living must be made from a job requires that we add jobs at least as fast as we add people, and that’s without innovation ever making jobs obsolete.

  • EllieMurasaki

    True. Amendment accepted.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    It doesn’t have to be jobs provided by the government, necessarily. It does take a macroeconomic policy and a welfare state to accomplish the goal of maximum personal growth.

    Guess what – there was one in the 1950s and 1960s: the government set interest rate policy with the intent of maximizing employment, and so did the way government spent money.

  • Gotchaye

    What is the intellectually credible alternative to Keynesian stimulus at this point? “Where does the money come from?” seems like a question with a very obvious answer.

    Actually, you get at this in your second paragraph. Everything we think we know about economics suggests that a great way for the government to promote vigorous economic growth (now) is to get money to people who don’t have it, which incidentally makes them more able to pursue projects of their own choosing.

    Edit: It’s true that this probably doesn’t work for that last few percent of unemployed, once we actually do have vigorous growth again, although it remains plausible that higher taxes on the rich coupled with a universal basic income ends up doing better even in the long-run. That strikes me as a reasonable way to give people the economic freedom they need to pursue projects of their own choosing while still creating incentives to do work that others find useful.

  • EllieMurasaki

    So everyone who’s currently unemployed and resourceless should, what, start their own business?

    Do you have any idea how hard that is?

  • Lliira

    I did that before I was disabled. It was on the upswing, and in about 6 months to a year, was going to start making me enough to live on. I used my writing ability to do it; everyone does not have the education, resources, connections, and basic abilities to do what I did.

    Then my back went out. Can’t do a thing now, because either I’m in too much pain to do it, or I’m too drugged to do it. But my father thinks I should be able to start shitting gold by force of will, so it’s not a surprising attitude to find among strangers.

  • Lliira

    You’re an ignoramus.

  • Jeff

    Lliira, that’s not really called for, nor is it productive to the discussion. My understanding is that you are experiencing a medical disability. Unless I’m very much mistaken, Fred’s post is not directed at your situation at all, and certainly my comments haven’t been.

  • Lliira

    Actually, Fred’s post is directed exactly at my situation. Either you’re pretending not to see that fact because you’re an asshole, or you honestly can’t see it because — well, because you’re something worse than an ignoramus.

    As for your comment, it also is directed exactly at me. You don’t want the president of the country to help me or anyone else who’s disabled. And ya know, a person doesn’t have to say something about my situation directly for me to think they’re an ignoramus.

    I have no patience with fools. I have even less patience with people who lack empathy and try to lecture me on etiquette.

  • Jeff

    Lliira, I’m sorry, but you are completely wrong, and your vituperative language is inappropriate and unacceptable. Fred’s post, and my comments, are about a hypothetical person who underperforms or undercompetes in the economy because of personal or behavioral shortcomings. In Fred’s view, there’s no onus on that person to attempt to improve their performance (and no hope that they could), there’s just an obligation on the government to find something useful for that person to do.

    That is completely different from a person who is suffering a medical disability, which can’t be gotten rid of simply by trying harder or acquiring new skills or whatever. I have never said anything that’s within a mile of “I don’t want the president of the country to help [you] or anyone else who’s disabled,” and I don’t think that, either. You’re simply wrong, flat, dead wrong.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Your comments may be about “a hypothetical person who underperforms or undercompetes in the economy because of personal or behavioral shortcomings”. Fred’s post is about everyone who is shit outta luck in this economy. Which is like 20% of the country. You honestly gonna say that 20% of the country is out of work because they can’t hack it, when nobody is fucking hiring?

  • Jeff

    Ellie, read the post again. It is true that there is widespread unemployment because of our appallingly weak economic growth. That’s not what Fred is talking about; if it was, he would be talking about ways to promote economic growth to create more jobs. He is talking about finding a place in the economy for individuals with shortcomings of various kinds and disagrees. If you’re upset with someone saying that some people can’t hack it, you should take that up with Fred, because he’s the one who says that, not me.

  • EllieMurasaki

    But he IS talking about creating more jobs. How in the fuck did you MISS that?

    *wanders off to do something more useful*

  • Lliira

    Jeff, I’m sorry, but you’re an asshole, and your attempt to moderate my and Ellie’s language as if you have the right is inappropriate and unacceptable.

    Oh, you mansplaining itty bitty boy, you have no idea what you’ve gotten yourself into. Or I guess you do, since you ran squealing all the way home.

  • Jeff

    You’re correct that I don’t control your language, but I do have some say over the terms under which I’m wiling to participate in a discussion, and I think I do have some right to object to vile accusations being made about me when such accusations are completely baseless and no attempt at supporting or substantiating them is made.

    Lliira, let me reveal something that you have absolutely no right or business knowing, but that will show just how egregious your false accusations and shameful rhetorical conduct is. I have a son with a disability, and he receives support from the government at various levels (local, state, and federal) in various forms. It’s a great help to him and to our family, and we appreciate the assistance.

    The sad thing about you, Lliira, is that your mind is so completely poisoned with hatred and rage for conservatives, that even my revealing this won’t make you rethink your disgusting allegation that “you don’t want the president of the country to help me or anyone else who’s disabled.” No, it will just make you think that I’m a hypocrite — happy to take government help when it benefits me, but eager to block others like you from receiving it.
    The reality, of course, is that the situation that Fred describes, and the one you’re in, are completely different, and I have been talking exclusively (and correctly) about the former the whole time. This person that you have slandered in such a profane way is simply a creation of your own imagination.

  • Lliira

    The sad thing about you, Jeff, is you think you can read my mind. Another sad thing about you, Jeff, is you think you’re better at understanding what people mean when they write essays than I am. And a third sad thing about you, Jeff, is you feel you have the right to condescend to women. Fourth sad thing: in your fervor to disagree with Fred, you cannot see that he’s talking quite precisely about your son’s situation. Oh dear oh dear. You’re a very sad person indeed, Jeff.

    Jeff, if you’re not willing to participate in discussion with me, then you have every right to stop. Jeff, you do not have a right to tell me how to use my language. Jeff, I will fucking say whatever I fucking want and if you don’t fucking like it you can fucking ignore me. Is that fucking clear, Jeffy-poo?

  • AnonymousSam

    I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who gets a little irritated with having someone say my name repeatedly in a message addressed to me. XD

  • Jeff

    Err…I thought it was just good practice to use someone’s name to help make it clear who you’re responding to in these long, zillion-post discussions. I guess that with Disqus’s threaded discussions, this practice isn’t really necessary. A few extra usages may have slipped through… Anyway, sorry if it gave offense.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I get the impression I’m being ignored. I like that nearly as much as I like being tone-policed.

    So. Do you agree or disagree with the statement that everyone deserves a living-wage job and those who don’t have a living-wage job deserve cash assistance? If you disagree, why do you disagree?

  • Jeff

    Lliira, I can’t read your mind, but I can read your words, and you are lashing out at me in a vile and profane way for things I did not say or think. And now you’ve added misogyny to the list (notwithstanding the fact that I wouldn’t have actually known whether you are a woman or not — I suppose “Lliira” probably sounds feminine, but maybe it’s Italian, or maybe you’re a guy who uses a feminine-sounding handle. How the heck should I know?). Sorry Lliira, this in 100% a you problem. I’ll take your advice and ignore you henceforth.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    Lliira, I can’t read your mind, but I can read your words, and you are
    lashing out at me in a vile and profane way for things I did not say or

    Oh my fucking God, stop with the faux wide-eyed innocent lip-quivering you’re doing here.

    You come across as being seriously patronizing here.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    You come across as being seriously patronizing here.

    I’m reading all of Jeff’s posts in the voice of the Smart Gremlin from Gremlins 2. Seems about right.

    (As a bonus, the best financial advice I’m heard yet.)

  • LMM22

    but that will show just how egregious your false accusations and shameful rhetorical conduct is. I have a son with a disability, and he receives support from the government at various levels (local, state, and federal) in various forms. It’s a great help to him and to our family, and we appreciate the assistance.

    No. No, you don’t. You take the assistance for granted, because you assume that, should an inspector come to evaluate, your son — or, rather, your family who cares for your son — would turn out to be someone worthy of support.

    Appreciating the assistance means assuming that other people deserve the same thing.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    Instead of dumping crap all over Lliira like some folks do, the US government ought to be:

    1. Implementing single-payer health insurance.
    2. Relaxing elgibility guidelines for Social Security Disability payments.
    3. Subsidizing prescription medication that a doctor has determined is necessary to help the pain.

  • Ross

    Glad to see someone who finally gets it. It’s not the place of anyone other than the individual to detemine their own “right” place, which is why we must dispense with the idea that someone who fails to find a place that adds to some arbitrary market-driven metric for being “valuable”, and have a society where people are considered due a decent life just by virtue of being people, and no one is penalized or forced to live in poverty and dispair just because the place they make for themselves doesn’t generate large amounts of money.

    I mean, obviously that’s how you must feel; otherwise you’d be a giant asshole.

  • reynard61

    So, what, everyone who’s unemployed should hang a shingle advertising their particular occupational specialty? I can see that maybekindasorta working for an unemployed plumber or accountant or someone else with a readily definable skill-set. (But then we come to the problem, as pointed out elsewhere, of how to *pay* for what is essentially setting up a small business.)

    But what about someone who has a somewhat less-readily-definable set of skills? Say…a writer. Would it actually be practical for that writer to hang out a “Writer” shingle and expect people to hire him or her to write The Great American Novel on demand? What if that writer isn’t a novelist? What if that writer wrote technical manuals for the local manufacturing plant that closed a few years ago due to the last recession? (And let’s say, for the sake of argument that our writer had looked for a job in a similar field, but found that either all of the other manufacturing plants already had *their* own technical writers or there were no other manufacturing plants in the area.) Do we simply abandon this writer to the vagaries of the market place and hope that *someone* hires him or her before they starve to death? Again, is it *practical* to make *everyone* individually hang their own shingle?

  • AnonymousSam

    That sounds familiar. ¬¬;;

  • Jeff

    I think you’re verring off course from Fred’s post (assuming that our hypothetical writer is competent and merely unfortunate, as opposed to being a bad writer). But to play along with your example, exactly who is responsible for that writer’s success, if not the writer himself?

    Even granting the incredibly dubious assumption that our technical writer can’t find any technical writing jobs ANYWHERE, is there really no hope for him absent the government intervening and playing the role of employment agency? Perhaps our writer could hire a literary agent to help find a publisher, or he could start a blog, or freelance, or take out a column in the local newspaper, or take a job at the writing center at a local college, or edit papers for students, or get a job writing copy for the local TV news or an ad agency, or teach an ESL course, or look for a position as an English teacher, or any of the other myriad jobs in which having a useful skill like writing could be beneficial.

    Or to put my question differently; who do you think is most likely to be /emotionally invested/ in that writer’s success: the writer himself, or a government bureaucrat?

    “Do we simply abandon this writer to the vagaries of the market place and hope that *someone* hires him or her before they starve to death?”
    At what point did giving someone autonomous control of their own life and their own success become tantamount to “abandoning them to the vagaries of the marketplace”? If our writer is a good writer, do you really have so little confidence in him as to believe him to be utterly incapable of succeeding without your, or the government’s, help? Maybe the problem is that your expectations are too low, and to be blunt, that’s far more destructive to him in the long run than a suggestion that he be “abandoned” to the market.

  • EllieMurasaki

    You’ve…never been a writer, have you?

    I have short fiction and poetry published. I can link you if you like. Wanna know the total dollar figure I’ve made off my writing? Lifetime?

    Since my first publication was not yesterday, that ain’t any living wage.

  • AnonymousSam

    I love the constant statements of the Republican and libertarian defenders of personal responsibility that being given the means of living in a house with relatively decent food is somehow far worse than being homeless and dying of disease and starvation on the streets.

  • Jeff

    AS, you and your compatriots are all over the map in this discussion, and it would be easier and more productive if we could confine the discussion to one subject and actually talk about that. And, if you could stop putting words in the mouths of those like me who dare to disagree with Fred.
    Since you are responding to my response to reynard, I will assume that we are still talking about his hypothetical, non-incompetent technical writer who has been laid off and (dubiously) can’t find a single technical writing job anywhere in the contentinental US. Good. Now, what did I say about our writer friend that leads you to believe I would prefer he die of disease than that he be given the means to live in a house?
    Anyway, it’s a false and ridiculous choice. What I would actually prefer, as you can tell perfectly well from reading my comments, is for him to successfully find employment in his chosen profession. And, unless I’m much mistaken, we do have unemployment assistance to help him while he’s between jobs. “But what if he can’t find another writing job, ever? Do you just want him to die?” I mean, where do you guys come up with these stuff? It’s either, Obama gives him a job, or he dies of disease? How about “he explores other options, considers a different career field, accepts a job that pays less than he’d like but still enough to live on, and adjusts his lifestyle accordingly,” or any of a number of other options he probably has. (We can’t know for sure, since he’s imaginary).
    Seriously, Sam, ask yourself this — why is it that you have so little faith in the ability of an /imaginary character/ that you are convinced beyond doubt that he will die homeless of disease unless the government intervenes in his life? If you treat fictional characters with such appalling disdain, imagine how destructive your mentality is to actual living, breathing people!

  • EllieMurasaki

    Six unemployed people per job opening. Sixty applicants per job opening, at least. And you honestly expect us to believe that it’s as simple as ‘get a job that isn’t ideal’? Our hypothetical technical writer can’t actually take a job at Burger King, because overqualified.

  • Maniraptor

    There are far fewer jobs than there are jobless people. (To say nothing of people who have a little work, but not enough to make ends meet, but I don’t know how well underemployment is measured.)

    This is the actual problem. Please stop acting like it is not.

  • Jeff

    A lack of jobs is the current /problem/, but it isn’t the subject of Fred’s /post/. Again, please stay on topic.

  • EllieMurasaki

    What in hell did you read? Because it bears little resemblance to what I read.

  • Lliira

    Jeff, dearie, did Fred appoint you moderator of his comment section? Please do tell us if he did, Jeffy-poo, so we can know if you are acting this way legitimately, or if you’re just an ass.

  • Jeff

    Lliira, the problem is that I’m talking about subject X, and people like you show up and say, “yes, but what about tangentially related subject Y, Z, P, or Q?” You and your friends are conflating a bunch of different things. Staying on topic would help the discussion go somewhere, instead of just veering off in a bunch of random directions that mostly amount to “we don’t like conservatives.”

  • AnonymousSam

    As someone living this experience who has applied to fifty different businesses in the last month without so much as the decency of a conclusive response to in-person and telephone inquiries about the status of the job, who has been faux-coddled informed that letting the government help carry my slack would be “far more destructive” by making me dependent and irresponsible — no, eat a bag of it.

    I’m a writer. It’s pretty much my only skill, and it’s not a reliable one. I’m not allowed to draw unemployment because unemployment requires a recent income of at least a certain amount, and I haven’t had a job in years (much less one which paid me that much). I will, in fact, probably be homeless within the year. I will probably die there.

    Just thought you should know.

  • Jeff

    Sam, I’m in no better position to trouble-shoot your situation than I am our imaginary writer, so I will simply say that I’m sorry for your struggles, and wish you the best in the future.

  • Lliira

    Jeff, mon petit chou-chou, I’m a writer who was on-track to make a living wage from writing before disability. It’s fucking hard. Oopsie, I mean it’s terribly difficult, will you permit that? It also takes the following: 1) education 2) a basic amount of talent 3) knowing your audience very well 4) being able to write what your audience wants while sticking to your own voice 5) the ability to self-schedule rigorously 6) a head not just for writing, but for business, or close association with someone with a head for business who’s willing to help you with it. And that’s just off the top of my head.

    My dearest Jeffy-poo, I very much fear that you are not quite as educated on this subject as you believe you are. Oh dear, I hope I have not offended your delicate sensibilities. However, may I humbly suggest for the future that you attempt not to enter a battle of wits unarmed, especially here? Farewell, sweetie-lumpkin.

  • EllieMurasaki


  • Jeff

    Lliira, of course it’s hard, and on top of that, it probably doesn’t pay well, even if you’re good at it, unless you’re extraordinarily lucky. None of that changes the core structure of my argument — that, if you want to be a writer, you, and not the government, are the best-positioned to actually make it happen. If it doesn’t work out (or while you’re waiting for it to work out), maybe you take a different job to make ends meet, or consider other options. I don’t think this is exactly shocking.

  • Invisible Neutrino



    I think you may have juuuuuuuuuust missed something a little bit.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    No, OBVIOUSLY that writer needs to be retrained (on their own dime, OF COURSE) to a new trade!

    Hope they like scrubbing toilets.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Whose job is it and why don’t we want it to be the president’s job or the government’s job? Because it has to be somebody’s job, otherwise we end up with a bunch of people being nonproductive the vast majority of whom would be productive if only they had the opportunity, and the private sector doesn’t want them because they’re not as good as the people the private sector’s already got.

  • StevenAppelget

    Based on your later posts, I think you may be misreading the article. Fred isn’t arguing for the state to determine the “right role”; he is arguing for the state to help individuals determine that themselves.

  • Elizabeth Coleman

    This reminds me of the production of Alice in Wonderland that my friend’s daughter was in. First off, there were two separate shows with completely different casts. They definitely made a point to find roles for every single child (there was something like fifty kids up there) So you’d get little toddlers running around stage dressed like flowers. Then there was The Executioner and The Executioner’s Assistant, who were played, respectively, by an older guy pushing around a mentally disabled guy in his wheelchair, who was very obviously having the time of his life.

  • Chris Doggett

    Warning: Wall O’ Text

    I’m an accountant. My mother is a retired minister. The church she attends has had between three and five such ministers in the membership. Why so many preachers in the audience? Because their own attempts at running a church failed. They didn’t fail because of lack of faith or conviction, for a shortage of compassion or theological education or wisdom. This church with its many ministers itself struggles with fiscal solvency on a regular basis. Why?

    Because a church is a business. It’s a non-profit organization, but there are basic fundamental principles it must operate on in order to keep its doors open. I agree with Fred if ministers are reading about ISO9000 or Lean/Six-Sigma or kaizen, because business fads are no better than fashion fads or dance fads. (“Heeeeeeeeey Macarena!”)

    But ministers and preachers and pastors need to understand the difference between the goals of a church and the business of a church.

    What is the church’s role?
    “To provide spiritual education and guidance.”

    What is the role of a minister?
    “To tend to their flock, to provide comfort and direction to parishioners.”

    Both of those sound good, but neither of those is what is necessary to keep a church running. Failing to understand what is necessary results in well-researched sermons delivered with passion to a dwindling congregation.

    The basic business of a church can be expressed in a fairly simple formula.

    The cost of running a church is mostly fixed expenses. It costs mostly the same to have a Sunday service for a full church as it does for a half-empty church. It costs a little more to have two Sunday services instead of one, but not twice as much. So we have our costs. (C)

    Churches earn income by tithing, and it’s not hard to figure out how much the “average person” tithes (P). So the church’s attendance (A) has to be large enough based on tithing to at least cover the costs of running the church.

    A x P >= C

    Church attendance is a mix of new visitors (V) and some percentage of the church membership. (M x %) Not every member will attend every week, and that’s OK. So now our formula looks like this:

    (V + [M x %]) x P = C

    All of the necessary duties of a minister tie in to one or more of those five variables. The business of a church is to get people to visit, get visitors to become members, to get as many members as possible to attend each service, all to meet costs. Church choirs and music, guest speakers, Sunday school? All aimed at putting butts in pews. Outreach and other activities? Get folks to try out the church and visit. Sermons to enlighten, saving souls? That’s what you do after you have all your bills covered. If you can do both at the same time, great, but the greatest spiritual lessons will be lost if you can’t get enough people to cover your rent.

  • curtismpls

    If you can’t get enough people to cover your rent, maybe you should find a cheaper place?

  • Chris Doggett

    That’s one option, but it’s not the best option. The best option is always to increase attendance and grow the congregation. Not enough people? Get more people!

    Every congregation loses people every year, even if it’s only to death or relocation, and those people need to be replaced to keep the church going. A church that isn’t always thinking of ways to add more members is a church that is slowly dying.

    Cutting costs is tempting because it’s “obvious” and easy, but that doesn’t make it good or right. Yes, getting rid of the music director saves a salary, but some folks go to church for the singing. The obvious savings is matched by a less-obvious drop in attendance. It’s a sugar-rush effect: you get the quick boost in what you see in one month, but the loss bleeds out over time.

    That annoying saw about “you gotta spend money to make money” applies here; choir directors and Sunday School teachers cost money, but they also draw visitors, increase membership, and boost attendance. Cutting costs has the unfortunate effect of reducing the tools you have to increase membership.

  • Lliira

    That’s true of any kind of organization, really, up to governments. If you stop providing services and good products, people who are able to will leave. They will go to a competitor who does provide those things. And people who are able to leave are the very people any country (or business) should be doing its best to keep: the educated, the inspired, the young and healthy.

  • LMM22

    The business of a church is to get people to visit, get visitors to become members, to get as many members as possible to attend each service, all to meet costs. Church choirs and music, guest speakers, Sunday school? All aimed at putting butts in pews. Outreach and other activities? Get folks to try out the church and visit. Sermons to enlighten, saving souls? That’s what you do after you have all your bills covered.

    Huh. Notice the footnote about the difference between a church and a parish? I suspect a lot of modern denominational issues can be traced to individual mobility — people can drive across town to get to their church of choice! — but I wonder how much of it *also* can be traced to the fact that churches no longer operate as a community institute and so they’re stuck trying to compete for members.

    Not in a good way, either. Take away community, and what do you have to sell yourself?

  • stardreamer42

    If you’re running your church like a business, then it needs to be taxed like one. Around here, churches have ADVERTISING BUDGETS and put up giant billboards on all the freeways. How much good would that money do for the poor in their communities?

  • curtismpls

    Maybe pastors should read more books about how to run a community theater?

  • FearlessSon

    And if I were running a community theater, I’d be happy to have them — Quince and Starveling especially, because every theater needs a good tailor and a good carpenter.

    That hits pleasantly close to home. My father is a set designer. He worked on productions like Harry and the Hendersons, Sleepless in Seattle, the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Maurice Sendack-designed The Nutcracker, and Stephen King’s Rose Red, among many other things. Being located in Seattle he is pretty far from mainstream Hollywood, so a lot of the stuff he does is for more local productions, though more often he is working for specific local theater production companies than community theaters.

    Still, as a set designer he does a lot of woodworking, and that overlaps a great deal with carpentry. He sometimes makes furniture from scratch, though usually it is very utilitarian in service of some need he has to fill (such a building customized work benches and chairs or unique toolboxes for carting around the tools of his trade.)

  • David Baer

    I am broadly sympathetic to Fred’s argument, but I am having some difficulty convincing my clergy friends. Does he, or anyone else, have a specific example of a secular leadership principle, widely adopted by pastors, which is harmful to the mission of the church?

  • FearlessSon

    “The customer is always right.”

    Or the parishioner, in the case of a church. A church exists to help guide and inspire its parishioners, I think we can all agree on that, but if all you are doing is trying to make that “sale” and be willing to tell them anything to make it, you are doing them a disservice. A church has to be at least a little critical of behaviors which are harmful to others and harmful to the person doing them, and if instead the church turns apologetic for them, providing spiritual justification for such behavior, then it turns into something that allows a parishioner to continue to be harmful with their conscience clear, which will not in turn help them be better people.

    On the other hand, telling the congregation what it wants to hear is a great way to get donation money. Megachurches are based on a kind of lowest-common-denominator appeal with this type of thing in particular, being the “big box store” of churches.

  • Chris Doggett

    a specific example of a secular leadership principle, widely adopted by pastors, which is harmful to the mission of the church?

    “Maximize profits”

    I commented earlier that the driver of income for a church is attendance.

    More people showing up leads to more tithing.

    Sermons that are catchy, hook into pop culture, and appeal to tribal fears and anxieties are very effective at getting attention and drawing in visitors.

    “Pokemon is Satanic!”

    Such a sermon is indeed harmful to the mission of the church, as Fred has illustrated many times in the past.

  • Randy Owens

    Don’t forget, “maximize profits” as a principle doesn’t just lead you to want to get more people in the pews, but, taken too far, tells you what kind of people you want in those pews, i.e. the rich ones.

  • Turcano

    If you want to see two creepy guys preaching the evils of children’s toy’s in the most unintentionally hilarious manner possible, check out Brad Jones’ review of “Deception of a Generation.”

    Part 1
    Part 2

  • We Must Dissent

    Gain is the goal of all interactions.

  • Lunch Meat

    A business wants customers so it can make money. A church (ideally) wants members so it can change their lives and make them better people. Seeing church as a business means believing more people who just show up and give money is better than fewer people who are actively growing, learning and serving.

  • LL

    Yeah, I agree. Good points, which I had not given much thought to. I mean, I always thought the idea of running a country like a corporation sounded like bullshit, but wasn’t entirely sure why. And now Fred has articulated it very nicely and logically.

    I’m not sure exactly where this “president/governor/mayor as CEO” bullshit came from or when, but it’s long past time for it to go away.

    Unfortunately, it’s a really shitty idea, and it’s amazing what long shelf lives really shitty ideas seem to have.

  • Alethea

    On a related note, some of our relatives are attending a local megachurch and they’ve been trying to get us to join as well. We keep turning them down because the church isn’t a good fit for us. For me, it’s not just because the church’s style doesn’t suit me (the sermons are superficial “motivational speaker” fare with almost no theology).* It’s also because the pastor has BA in marketing, and something about that just bothers me. We visited the church once and I checked them out online, and I could see all kinds of clever marketing tricks at work. They have church merch with the church’s logo, and they encourage members to wear t-shirts, put bumper stickers on their cars, etc. They even hand out swag bags with t-shirts and other items with their logo on them to first-time visitors and encourage them to wear the shirts in hopes that it will get the word out. The church has numerous franchises, and they all watch the same live streamed or pre-recorded sermon from the pastor, so the message (and the brand) is consistent. They also use clever and flashy marketing campaigns for upcoming sermon series. I give them credit for getting a lot of people — even those who dislike church — into church, but the church, the pastor, and the highly commercialized evangelism are very off-putting.

    *For the record, we have our hearts set on joining a local UCC church that has a reputation for being very progressive. It has almost no marketing, but pours money into its community programs and even donates a small percentage of its collected money to the local Planned Parenthood. We’ve been out of church for more than a decade after a church hurt us, so we’re working up the nerve to attend church again.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    …”church merch”….?

    …This is a thing now?

  • nomuse

    As someone who makes his living in small theater, I think Shakespeare intended the reading that our last production gave to the “Rude Mechanicals” performance. Thisbee’s final monologue goes on just a little too long, and is a little too well written, to be only humorous. I like to think that he meant, and the lines from Thesus that follow are meant, to acknowledge that art that moves can come from any setting, even one so humble in talent.

    That said, the analogy holds. More for children’s theater (which is usually a class first, a production second; rather more like a congregation I’d think) and a certain kind of insular community theater. Not all small theater is so ingrown.

  • Jeff D.

    This is at best an outdated comparison to community theatre vs broadway. While “community theatre” has all sorts of pre-conceived notions as to it’s supposed quality, I’ve been involved in community theatre for about 30 years, and even though they are non-profit (while Broadway is profit-driven), community theatres generally do not throw everyone who shows up to an audition up on stage. That sounds more like a school production. Community theatres also start with a list of roles to be filled and try to find the best possible talent possible to fill them – for the least amount of money, which is for the most part, volunteer. Quality of talent is still the main goal, for both non-professional and professional theatre, within their respective budgets.