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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  • Nicolas

    Very interesting! Reminds me of this quote (which I may have picked up from your site elsewhere):
    “Christianity started in Palestine as a fellowship; it moved to Greece and became a philosophy; it moved to Italy and became an institution; it moved to Europe and became a culture; it came to America and became an enterprise.”

  • John Metz

    Excellent post, Roger.

    To follow a business model as you describe, ignores the organic nature of the church. We are not hired or recruited into the church, we are born into it. The church is a life matter.

    Although we may learn from business from time to time and, legally, there is the need for incorporation, we should never change the nature of the church from an organism to an organization.

  • I have a hard time seeing any one object against what you just wrote. Are there people who actually want a church to be runned like a buissness? That is just baffeling.

    • rogereolson

      Believe me….yes.

  • Tom Johnson

    I love your blog, Roger, and agree with you about 98% of the time, but, as you know, I was part of the same era and the same provost’s influence. Although he and I had some disagreements — as did you — this provost did go on to become a very successful president at a fine Christian institution on the West Coast. He clearly had some fixed ideas how to fix our institution, but most of us would agree that the adult and continuing ed. program has helped keep a strong Christian university with a weak endowment healthy for the twenty years that program has existed. We don’t call students customers anymore but we do implement lessons we learn each year from the business gurus Bill Hybels features each year in his Willow Creek telecasts.
    Maybe the only thing worst than adopting at least aspects of a business model in Christian organizations is total resistance to anything that smacks of business — focus groups, program review, or project management. Of course, we see things differently as I was teaching marketing at the same school where you and Greg Boyd were the star bible professors.

    • rogereolson

      Good to hear from you, Tom. Yes, we must have experienced things differently. I could tell you some things that happened that you may know about. But, then, you could no doubt tell me things I don’t know about. The provost had it in for me. I almost left because of that. I did leave later, after a wonderful 15 years there. I still miss the good times.

  • I’ve left churches myself because they insisted on the business model. When everything becomes about “the bottom line” instead of the Kingdom, and stinginess begins to be called, without irony, “good stewardship,” it’s time to have some leaders step down, or failing that, flee.

    I prefer the “family business” model myself. You know those mom & pop stores or restaurants where everyone’s a family member, so no one can ever be fired; and while the business isn’t making as much money as it could, it’s not doing too bad, and with a little discipline could do even better? That’s a lot closer to the family-of-God idea of the body of Christ than the customers/CEO idea.

  • As you know, Jesus spoke about power structures when he said, “Those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them” (Mark 10:42). Jesus then added the stinger: “Not so with you” (Mark 10:43).

    In spite of what Jesus said, you correctly point out that the corporate model is either totally used or partially used in almost every church I have ever been part of. To be fair, I think we have nearly zero cultural experience with power structures that are not based on defined roles and authority. We push free enterprise so hard as a nation that it pervades everything.

    Jesus is going to have something to say about the failure of our churches to obey him!


  • steve rogers

    It is a rare organization that can strike a healthy balance between “cross-bearing” and “one-anothering” and maintaining cash flow. My experience is that when a tug of war breaks out between these values cash flow usually wins along with the business model…. all in Jesus name, of course.

  • GeneT

    Yes, the institutional church has moved adopted the corporate model – some denominations embed that in the rules (pastor = chairman of the board). Hence, the institutional church no longer looks like the church of Jesus.
    Yet Jesus simply stated that He will build His church – I guess it’s our job to identify & support & participate in His church.
    For now, I’m simply trying to ignore the institutional church.


    “Some things work well at home and in our private lives. Some of those things work well in business. Some things work well at business and will work well at home and in our private lives.”

    Let us pray. Let us pray. Let us pray. It works well everywhere.

  • My guess is that the churches you refer to were already dysfunctional and simply found a way to express it. A good business model would not have led to what they did!!! But I get the point and you are by and large on target. The bottom line is nickels and noses. What brings in more money and puts more bottoms in seats is the bottom line, and this is the job of staff. Of course, the staff are critical to the equipping process that enables the church to evangelize and manage itself well. But increasingly the church is expecting staff to do this by themselves as the congregation watches, and then they will be judged by whether or not they do it. It’s a system that’s guaranteed to be gut wrenching and lead to body counts as staff move through revolving doors. I am not sure church was ever really a safe place for pastors and staff, but it is increasingly becoming less safe and ruthless. I am 62 and am not unhappy to becoming less and less a part of this culture.

  • Rev Dan

    I have always said that when the 501-3C status has greater priority than the functioning body of Christ its time to cease the functioning as 501-3c. It’s a privilege to have tax exempt status but it’s a greater privilege and honor to be a member of His body where He is the great Shepherd.
    Sadly, the time is coming where we will no longer be able to enjoy the tax exempt status if we continue to neglect our family status.
    I personally would enjoy meeting in my home and function as a true body than fall prey to the nonprofit predator. Don’t get me wrong I believe in the purpose of the 501-3c status but frankly it is increasingly superceding the body of Christ. It is becoming more of a headache than what it’s worth. Mostly due to allowing ANYONE to become members. We also bite the capitalism lure. We must remember that Jesus said He would build His church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. The 501-3c organism is not the church. Again, it’s a privilege to have 501-3c status, but it’s an honor to be a member of the body of Christ.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    You say that the provost seemed to be very much concerned with the “bottom line”. Surely someone in the college should be keeping an eye on that, but I would think that money considerations would not be the only (or even primary) factor in decision-making.

    A bit off topic, but what do you think will happen to such small Christian Colleges when the Education bubble bursts? The costs have really gotten out of control, and students are graduating (and sometimes not) with unsustainable debt. With that in mind, I’d fear for schools that didn’t regard their bottom line closely. What path do you see ahead for the small Christian Colleges/Universities?

  • Bob G

    It seems that your concerns relate more to poor “business” decisions than to the church’s organizational structure itself. Any organization can do dumb things (like clean-slate staff firing, or dumbing-down of class names). You don’t need a business model to be incompetent. The real problems, as you describe, are uninformed or dictatorial choices weak leaders. The organizational structure, or lack thereof, may just be irrelevant.

    • rogereolson

      I think there’s a difference between a community and a business. For example: Suppose a church gets into an economic crunch and doesn’t have enough money to meet payroll. Should it lay off some staff or give everyone a percentage-based pay cut (temporary, hopefully)? I would say the latter.

  • Jonathan

    How timely that you post this. Just yesterday, I (a staff member) attended our church’s deacon’s meeting – which, in essence, was run like a company board meeting. I’ve noticed at our church the deacons (just the fact that the term “deacon board” is somewhat commonly used is appalling, in my opinion) function like the executive board of the church, seemingly viewing the ministers as the peon cube monkeys. I don’t know of a more backward way to run a church. I think one of many differences from the business world that makes this church model dysfunctional is that deacons typically aren’t equipped to lead a church. It is the ministers who are seminary trained and called into ministry. Why control them with people who are likely just power-hungry and seeking their selfish desires for the church? It’s a recipe for disaster.

  • I received less professional treatment as a professor at a Christian college (I think the same one to which you were referring) than I did at state and secular colleges I have been affiliated with. It had to do partly with the business model. I think it had more to do with respect for professional standards. The christian college didn’t think it had to follow the standards of the profession. I saw this serving on the tenure and promotion committee, and in other more personal ways. I remember being at a professional conference where word had gotten around the profession a bit about how I had been treated there (I was surprised others knew of it), and several asked me if what they heard was accurate. When I told my story, confirming what they had heard, several responded with incredulity, “Isn’t that a christian college?” Had I had your vocabulary then, I could have responded (perhaps cryptically): “It is saved, but not very christian.”

  • I have always found that churches and ministries I have worked for are really good at spinning things how they want. When they want to pay you poorly and have you work long hours they remind you that you are part of a ministry. When they need to watch their bottom line and cut benefits and salaries and lay people off they remind you that they are a business.

  • Laura Flanders

    Dr. Olson,
    This is a thoughtful post. I’ve worked in non-profit management, church pastoral ministry and in academia. It was a struggle in all three contexts as we worked to organize ourselves towards a common purpose and vision. This has been especially the case in pastoral ministry and academia.

    Thank you especially for highlighting the difference between hiring a pastor and calling a pastor. It is often the former, unfortunately.

    I am curious about one thing: What is a “degree completion program”?

    • rogereolson

      A “degree completion program” is normally (there may be other kinds) a program offered by a college or university in which a person may receive academic credit toward a bachelor’s degree for life experience. The student usually has at least two years of college credit already. He or she may receive up to a year’s academic credit for life experience based on papers he or she writes evaluated by one or more faculty members. If the life experience is deemed worthy of college or university credit, the student may proceed toward graduation by completing approximately a year’s worth of courses–usually in what is called a cohort. A cohort is a group of students who begin the program together and proceed through it together–usually in evening and/or weekend classes. Of course, this is the design I’m familiar with; there may be other designs.

  • Nicolas

    which reminds me of the innocent child’s prayer:
    Dear God, Make bad people good, and make good people kind. AMEN.

  • I have experienced the negative consequences of the business influence on the local church. I attended a midwest bible college out of high school because the Lord had called me to ministry at age 16. I had numerous pastors, elders, deacons and lay leaders independently (and unknown to one another) affirm my inward call. I knew God called me to be a pastor. I also knew I needed training and education, so I earned my BA in Theology from a well-known and respected school. I also spent four years being involved in all kinds of ministries – I even started a ministry (unsolicited by anyone with a few other friends) on-campus to our fellow students that lead them in weekly worship. But, when I graduated and began searching for a place to serve – from urban to rural and small (~50-100) to mega (2000+) – every church (and school and organization) had the same response: too young, too inexperienced, too uneducated. I never had the proper “credentials” or trangible ministry results to prove that I was called and equipped by God to serve his kingdom. Forget being called, confirmed, trained and educated for ministry.

    I now serve part-time at a small local church. The experience has been highly formative and has taught me so much. But, I am still convinced that the most experienced person ought only be in ministry if they have been called and equipped by God. Experience is important, but it is – at best – secondary to calling and Holy Spirit equipping.

    It was a very difficult and defeating time for me. It felt like my own people had rejected me. It created a lot of cynicism and heartache that I am still working through with the Lord. It breaks my heart to see so few churches being true communities of faith and so few pastors being shepherds rather than CEO’s or managers.

  • Evangelist

    …i have struggled with the need of ones name connected with a ministry and most certainly with the things of God. Business models, to me, I view as Owner examples(my opinion). It can’t be denied the disgusting almost copper taste that is left in your mouth when you sense business going on in church. I thank-you for the start of confirmation, in which, this struggle that you sacrificed much to get this taste out of your mouth. God bless what he has next for you.

  • Aragond

    A friend belongs to a church that runs just like this, replete with mission statements and growth targets. **Growth** targets. I’ll let that one perculate. Of all the presumptious, business-speak clap-trap, I find this the most infuriating.
    Needless to say, my friend doesn’t see anything wrong with this setting themselves a target like they were some common sales organisation. If it’s good enough for business… Once, people tried to make the world look like the Church (the Augustine one, mind, not the institutions), but we’ve done a 180.