Church is Not a Business

When I was in my second year of seminary expressing the desire to purse a call to the pastorate, I was told by more than one person that if I wanted to be a senior pastor I needed to start either as a youth minister or an associate pastor and then “work my way up.” I have to admit I was taken aback by the corporate rhetoric they employed and the way pastor positions were treated as promotions.

I was confused. Did call to one type of ministry just change? I didn’t feel called to youth ministry and yet I was being encouraged to look for that type of position to gain experience. Sure, I knew former youth ministers who were serving as pastors, but did that mean no church would consider a recent graduate to be their pastor?

The more I’ve thought about this advice the more I have thought about the pastors who claim they are the CEOs of their church. I’ve realized that although from their pulpits pastors proclaim that we need to be in the world, but not of the world, the church itself is not operating outside of the world. In fact, the church is running like a well-oiled machine (yes, I’ve heard that one too) i.e. a business.

Churches are treating the church as a business, which means that the senior pastor or the CEO is empowered to make decisions on behalf of the church. For our baptist polity, this is a dangerous precedent. As we empower the pastor to make more and more decisions, we lose our congregational polity. We lose the power of every member being a minister. We lose the very essence of what it means to be baptist and what is means to be church.

I know the reasoning behind this shift in churches. “It takes too long to make decisions. People disagree and there’s conflict.” Yes and yes. This is church. The messy conversations and discussions of the working out of what God is calling us to do. The wondering about whether we are going to meet a budget or whether we are going to have to figure out something else. The tension. The discussions. The active participation. This is church.

When I, as the pastor, submit to our congregational polity, I am recognizing that God wants God’s people involved in the life and the work of the church. Do I guide and shepherd as we consider what God is calling us to? Absolutely, but I let go of controlling where we end up.

We, as ministers, lament the fact that we don’t have enough volunteers to have events or ministries, not recognizing that we are the ones who have taught congregants to be passive consumers of church rather than active participant as church. We have become staff-led churches rather than God-led churches. We did it because it’s safer to be a manager than it is a minister. It’s more predictable to operate as a business rather than a church. It’s safer and more predictable except it isn’t church. It’s a business.

I didn’t pursue my MBA. I pursued my MDiv because I was called to be a minister, not a business owner. Becoming what it really means to be church means losing power as a CEO or Executive Pastor. It means submitting to God and submitting to your congregation. It means modeling the very actions you’re asking your congregants to do, but it’s not very popular.

Until pastors model what we preach, our churches will continue to become irrelevant. Business doesn’t work the same way it did 20 years ago. Our churches will continue to decline and close because we are in the midst of a recession that is impacting all businesses and since churches have been structured like businesses, they too fall prey to the recession.

Until churches start acting like churches instead of businesses, we don’t have a chance for church to survive the next 20 years.