I have been watching an interesting conversation over the past few months between fans of the church as an institution and those who are worried that we are becoming so institutionalized that we are at risk of churches merely becoming franchises of a brand.
The real risk of churches becoming franchise operations is that they start to become run more like businesses than churches, Usually because in a business you have to ‘build your brand’ and advertise. One of the cues of this is when people start apologizing for interrupting you when they walk into your office. As if they; the sheep of the pasture are the ‘interruptions’ to the day to day running of the church. Another one is when people feel trapped by the various things that ‘have to be done’ to keep the institutional side of the church ticking over; when ministry to hurting people is put on hold in order to deal with pressing administrative concerns by ministry staff.
It’s one of those things that can sneak up on you without knowing it. Obviously, no one plants a church looking forward to the institutional demands that increase as it grows. The reality is though, that the New Testament word for ‘Church’ simply means gathering, yet as Skye Jethani points out, we’ve made it mean 5 things. 1. the gathering, 2. the institution 3. the building 4. often its projects 5. the universal body. (I’ll grant that the N.T. makes room for the 5th meaning too.
What’s crucial is that how we understand and define the church, impinges on how we define (and what people expect from) church leadership. As far as the N.T. is concerned, having a ‘ceo’ style pastor is a complete misnomer in the same way as a multinational company needs a shepherd. But the real risk I’m seeing is this; in modern denominational structures, the tail wags the dog when it comes to the education of its future leaders. In short, as/if churches fall in love with a secular style of leadership based on a franchise understanding of church; leadership and ministry units in seminaries will teach this style or risk departing from their denominations.
Ministry is not building a brand or an institution. They’re two completely different things as I found out…….
At this point, I need to come clean. More than once I have wrestled with the realities of the space I find myself in. In case you weren’t aware, Waratah Church also owns a 30 unit retirement village. I technically serve here as a full-time senior pastor but I would be lying to you if all 40-whatever hours a week goes into ministry to the people of Waratah; whom I love. This is because by virtue of my position in our current structure I am also the chairman of the village board of trustees responsible for overseeing the strategic health and direction of this non-for-profit organization. (It is not for profit in the sense that the profits gleaned are put towards ministry and community projects.)
Simply put, one foot is in the ministry world (whatever that is), the other in the world of business. This is because, at the end of the day, Waratah Community Village is a brand that is competing with multiple other villages in the Mandurah area for sales. I can tell you this, they are very different worlds. Two separate masters.
We have traversed situations in the last 8 months that I never, ever thought I would be dealing with and I have seen first hand; the real risk of being overtaken with a business mentality whilst leading a ministry. This all came to a tipping point about 2 months ago when my wise wife sat me down and basically told me that she was worried for me and what the stresses of the village were doing to me.
It forced me to stop and think: “what are we trying to achieve here?”
As I have pondered this more and more, I can’t help but remember this text from the gospels, we’ll use Matthew’s account:
Matthew 21:12 12 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.”
Isn’t interesting how we seem to be able to run anything, even the worship of God, like a franchise? If you’ve heard any sermon on this, you’ll know that what these people are doing is perfectly acceptable in their day and they would even say (hear this) “we are only doing this in response to God’s commands.” Ie; where else are folks going to get a dove or whatever from to fulfill the sacrifices that they are commanded to make? I would even wager a fiver that Mary and Joseph bought a pigeon from one of these folks to fulfill the necessary sacrifice prescribed for the dedication of a Jewish son for Jesus.
There can be a lot of what happens to get called ‘church’ because there is some biblical precedent for it, yet if the heart is not in a certain place it is just consumerism. Moreover, it’s as much of a risk in a house church as it is in a mega church.
I wonder why Jesus calls the temple courts a ‘den of robbers’? I can’t see any actual report of stealing from one person to another in this text. My guess is they are robbing from God. Robbing him of his glory and robbing others from the opportunity to worship him in their own freedom and unforced way. When you read on to verse 15 it seems to be saying that with them out of the way, the children were able to pour in and shout for joy.
I’m constantly confronted by our bent towards materialism and the development of a product. I noticed after a few months dealing with various village situations that my language stated to shift from pastoral to business like. I was setting up money-changers in my heart, thinking in terms of spreadsheets and forecasts rather than bible passages and prayer. Except of course when I preached.
Meanwhile, it seems that when you listen to thinkers like Simon Sinek in the business & entrepreneurial world, many top companies are realizing that better productivity actually comes out of happier people and thus there’s a strange push back towards a lot of ideas that I would call the basics of ministry, like fighting for a culture of care rather than apathy.
We tend to get sucked into KPI’s and process when those that are firstly institutions are falling over themselves to learn how to think beyond KPI’s and process before they end up with an even more toxic culture. The grass is always greener on the other side I guess. Because we’re so concerned about the mission of God (add a touch of our self-deception and vulnerability to idols of narcissism) we’re at risk of falling in love with what anyone’s doing as long as it seems to get results. Especially if we’re (wait for it) building a brand. This so stupid because it’s the kingdom that needs to be built and only God can build that.
So, I guess I made a decision. I’m not going to let us become an institution more than a family. This decision has multiple facets.
- I realized that the idea of a pastor chairing a village board is fundamentally unsustainable. Not least because it affects your vocabulary and goals. I know what I’m talking about because I know what it started doing to me and to my relationships. Some months ago, I informed our Church that this would not be a permanent arrangement, that I would be working on a recruitment and training structure (funnily enough, that I’m rehashing from my youth ministry leading days) so that I would be able to step down from chairing the trust and appoint a new chairperson accountable to our eldership. The maximum time I have allowed myself for this is 24 months. In short, I put an end date on it.
- Meanwhile, we are in a process of eating the monster before the monster eats us. That is, before our business affects how we do church, we have decided to instead allow how we do church affect how the ‘business’ side of things. I’m not a manager, I’m a pastor, (and a pretty undereducated one at that) so we have gone out and gotten the best darn management team we can find and they are worth every penny. Meanwhile, I’m back to walking around our village having conversations with our residents, planning fun activities like the busy bees and car boot sales where church folks can meet and engage with our wonderful residents, just to build relationships. We are choosing to NOT see it first and foremost as an asset, but a theatre of ministry. A ministry that every member of Waratah is personally responsible for. It’s not about the villas, but the people living in them. I believe when we put people first, God will take care of the rest. On the other hand, If I’m reading revelation right, I think Christ would be disgusted at the idea of a church ‘supporting’ international missions whilst failing to cultivate relationships with people who live on its own block of land.
- In a sense, no matter what the village ‘earns’ in the future…it doesn’t matter to the church. Literally. We are not looking to utilize any sponsorship from the village to keep church stuff going. I’m looking forward to having conversations about how we can use our resources to impact some of the biggest issues that we face in our area and partner with folks that are already making a difference out there. Of course, by that point, I’ll be watching it all from a distance, someone else will be in charge of steering the village ship.
Basically, I have realized that we can think of a church like a business, or we can conduct and structure any business that we inevitably have to be involved in…like a church would. Ie; family first.
As mentioned above, the point of this pushback is not just for the health of the village nor simply for the health of the church, but because I recognize that the real reason why we so easily slide into treating church like a franchise is that we forget that no man can serve two masters. I realized the greatest risk of me as a pastor is being so heavily involved with a ‘business’ was not that I might fail miserably at it, but that I begin to really get good at it, and start to fall in love with the thinking and language that comes with that space.
No one, no one can serve two masters. Why? because loving the one leads us to inevitably hate the other.
The last thing I want is to grow to hate the beautiful, messy, immeasurable and unpredictable nature of the body of Christ and serving within it.