Should Christian organizations adopt the business model?

Should Christian organizations adopt the business model? October 29, 2011

This has been one of my pet peeves for a very long time.  I’ve worked in or with many Christian organizations over the past thirty to forty years.  One thing I’ve noticed is a largely unnoticed tendency for Christian organizations such as churches, denominations, colleges and universities, etc., to adopt their organizational structures and behaviors from the business world.

Let me offer a few examples.  The provost of a Christian college where I once taught insisted on referring to our students as “our customers.”  He came out of the business environment and brought its language and ways directly into the college almost without alteration to fit the different environment.  I and my colleagues argued that our students are more and less than “customers” to us (and should be to him).  First, they are more because, unlike most businesses and their customers, we genuinely care about them as persons and seek to have personal relationships with them, nurture them and correct them.  Second, they are less (in some sense) because they are not “always right.”  (Of course, no business really thinks its customers are always right, but they do often tend to cater to customers’ wants and complaints.)

The provost in question did not just call our students customers; he treated them (in some ways, anyway) as if we, the college, were purveyors of a product and the students were our market and clients/customers.  For example, in one faculty meeting he declared that there is no department in a college or university, even a Christian one, that is necessary; if the students don’t ask for a department’s “product” (e.g., philosophy) the department must be shut down or combined with another one or something.

The same provost insisted on developing a “degree completion program” even though most of the faculty (I’d say every faculty member!) did not want it.  We had noticed how these programs, though cash cows for many institutions, tend to sink into academic oblivion with lowering standards both for admission and success.  Grade inflation is rampant in these programs and college credit is often granted for “life experience” that doesn’t have anything to do with academics.  But the provost insisted on it, brought in outsiders to create it and, eventually, it did (in my opinion) sacrifice academic standards to competitiveness with other college’s programs.

This provost functioned much like the CEO of a corporation; his main concern was always the “bottom line.”  Sure, every organization needs to be fiscally sound, but not at the expense of academic standards.  In my opinion, it would be better for a college to close its doors than to sacrifice its academic standards or (in the case of a Christian college such as the one where I taught) its community spirit, its community ethos.

Fortunately, that provost did not last very long and the head long rush toward the corporate model he tried to impose was slowed down.  However, it seems to me that not only that college but most have gradually adopted the business model where almost any program is invented if there’s a demand for it.  Along with that has come a gradual disempowering of faculty.  Originally, universities were faculty-run; that is not the case in most colleges or universities in America anymore.  My experience is that faculty have come to have very little power and are often ignored even in academic matters such as curriculum.  At one “Christian” university where I taught the president simply hired faculty members and imposed them on departments without those departments having any say whatsoever in the hiring process.  The president viewed himself as the “owner” of the university because his name was on it.  That may be an extreme case, but I have observed many colleges and universities drifting in the same direction.  (That same university president ironically unilaterally changed the titles of courses; “homiletics” became “oral interpretation of the Bible!”)

What about churches.  Oh, please, don’t get me started.  Okay, I’ll go on!  I have been a member of about 12 churches in my life and I have attended and served as interim pastor (etc.) at others.  Both my wife and I have served on church staffs.  Increasingly I hear pastors referred to as “employees.”  And the process of acquiring them is called “hiring” rather than “calling.”  And they are expected to function as presidents of the organization underneath the church moderator (for example) or chair of the deacon board or whatever who functions as the CEO of the church.  Look at these churches’ organization flow charts and you’ll recognize the business model at work.  One church was run by a group of three trustees who could override any decision of the “Executive Council” (elected by the congregation) or pastor or deacons or congregation!  (This was because of a state law that mandated that every corporation, even nonprofit ones, have trustees; somehow this church’s group of trustees gained total power over the congregation.)  An elderly widow died and left many thousands of dollars to the congregation.  The trustees took the money and tied it up in an endowment to pay choir members who were not members of the congregation.  Only the interest could be used.  In the meantime the church could not afford to pay its youth pastor and let him go.  Needless to say, the church was dying.

Of course, most churches are not that dysfunctional, but my point is that following a business model (which may even be outmoded according to the latest business “gurus”) changes a church from what it was intended to be into something else.  The congregants often become the customers and the pastoral staff, including the lead pastor, report to a “personnel committee.”  I was a member of one Baptist church where the personnel committee and the “Board of Stewarts” asked the entire pastoral staff to resign without charges against them.  They simply wanted to “start over with a clean slate.”  The congregation demanded to know why and very little response was forthcoming.  When the congregation threatened to vote against it, the “stewards” (like deacons) lined up in a row, facing the congregation and said they would all resign if the congregation did not approve their plan.

Again, not all churches following a business-like model are that dysfunctional.  (My wife and I walked out of that business meeting and never returned to that church after the congregation reluctantly voted to fire the entire pastoral staff including the youth pastor who had just moved his family from Hawaii to that Midwestern state months earlier to be youth pastor of that church.)  However, my argument is that “church,” “ekklesia,” was never intended by Christ or the apostles to be a business in the modern, capitalist, consumer-oriented sense.  (Of course they have to be businesses in the strictly legal sense to have papers of incorporation for tax purposes.)  Theologian Emil Brunner wrote a wonderful little book entitled The Misunderstanding of the Church where he argued that the church should be “fellowship” rather than “institution.”  The institutional side of the church should be its “outer side” driven and determined by its “inner side” which should be the fellowship.  Something goes terribly wrong when the institutional aspect of the church drives everything.  That may not be the case yet in most churches (or Christian organizations), but if the drift toward the business model continues it may become the case to the loss of many things essential to being Kingdom of God driven communities.

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