Churches as Businesses

Every so often someone will tell me that “the church is not a business and shouldn’t operate as such.” Just as frequently, I get the comment, “the church really is a business.” So, which one is correct? Well, let me say unequivocally, both are right. Here’s why and why not.

Churches are businesses in that they have the same basic building blocks of a business – every church has:

  • operating budgets
  • staffs
  • “products” (in churches it is “intangible religious benefits” in IRS terms)

Churches are not businesses in that they have a different purpose

  • Their goal is to give to people, not get from people
  • Their goal is empower people to give away more to other people

The foundational structure of every church is business-like. The programming of churches is not necessarily business-like. However, I need to clarify one area there where churches should be more like a company: evaluation.

Churches shy away viscerally from evaluating their programming. They hide behind the phrase “but if it helps just one person, it was worth it.” After 35 years in church work (I worked in a Christian bookstore as a teenager), I feel that churches must evaluate almost everything they do. They can’t hide behind the trite phrase of helping just one person – I do not believe God honors that (or better said, God blesses even more those ministries that are regularly evaluated and improved). The church today must evaluate its staff, buildings, and programming.

Staff: many churches do an acceptable job of evaluating staff but it is frequently a look back and not setting goals for the future. Staff (from the pastor on down) need to be assessed on what they did in the past 6 or 12 months against goals that were established for those staff. Too infrequently bosses fail to set expectations for staff so that there is nothing against which to measure the staff. Then you have the hard part, staff that is not performing need to be encouraged/mentored if they have potential. But if there is no chance that a staff member is going to succeed in your church’s environment, then that person needs to be terminated. Termination is very hard on everyone but in the long run it is beneficial to the rest of the staff and the church. In the words of Spock from Star Trek, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” Pruning is hard, but it leads to greater growth in the next season.

Building: this represents sunk costs. A church has already built and paid for those bricks and mortar. But the evaluation should be, “is what this building was originally built for still a viable option or should we change the building to meet future needs?” Buildings can be retro-fitted (for a price, yes) for needs that the church leadership feels is coming up. Do not be wedded to the past “just because we’ve always done it that way.” Years ago I learned how the new anti-termite pesticides work: the chemical inhibit the termites from shedding their old skin when they outgrow it. Thus, the termites strangle inside their old skins. Don’t let your church do that – change your skin as often and necessary to keep the church from killing itself.

Programming: by far, this is the most politic- and emotion-laden area of church work. People have invested their own blood, sweat, and tears in their pet ministries and feel that any mention of cutting them is a threat to them personally. Evaluation is not acceptable and they play their trump card almost immediately – “God is using this ministry.” My grandparents decided that a car was better than a horse and buggy; my parents decided that telephones are better than letters; my generation decided that computers are better than typewriters; the next generation is totally committed to the internet (which is replacing just about everything!). Change is painful but evaluation is an absolute necessity if a church wants to grow or not lose ground.

Evaluation is a matter of opinion – not everyone will evaluate the same program or person the same way. Church leadership needs to determine how the evaluation will occur and how the results will be implemented. That cannot be explained in a blog – every church has a unique culture and that culture must form part of the decision-making/evaluation process. But please heed this note of warning: to do nothing, to not evaluate things on a regular basis, is to ensure that the church will continue its present track with no heed to the future of the church. If you want a biblical example, read Acts 15 when the church in Jerusalem struggled with whether or not to permit Gentiles to be part of the church. Enough said.

Lead On!


  1. Great thoughts, I am glad to hear you say that the church needs to be looked at both as a business and not as a business. The foundational stuff has gotten far to many of my clients into trouble (which is why they are now my clients). I look forward to reading more from you in the future.