Five Healthy Ways to Run Your Church Like a Business

One of the most common responses we receive at is something like this statement: “You can’t run your church like a business.”

I get it. Our goal is to glorify God. Our goal is to make disciples. Our goal is to be faithful to God’s Word.

Our goal is not to make profits. Our goal is not to adopt secular principles in place of biblical principles.

So, when someone insists we not run the church like a business, I understand his or her heart and intent.

But there are indeed some business principles that correlate with church practices and biblical truth. To say we don’t run our church like a business carte blanche may be a signal that we are ignoring sound and, at least indirectly, biblical counsel. Here are five examples:

  1. Healthy businesses are determined to spend wisely. So should churches. Sound business practices require a company to have systems in place to evaluate expenditures constantly. Frankly, I’ve seen many businesses that understand better why they spend funds than churches do. Too many churches just do things the way they’ve always done it.
  2. Healthy businesses have clear financial accountability. So should churches. Good business practices include clear and demonstrable accountability to owners and/or stockholders, as well as the Internal Revenue Service. Churches would do well to emulate some of these practices.
  3. Healthy businesses make tough personnel decisions. So should churches. Jim Collins, in his classic book Good to Great, uses the bus metaphor to describe personnel decisions of healthy businesses. He says they have to get the right people on the bus and in the right seats on the bus. Too many churches allow for poor and postponed decisions about personnel. To use another metaphor, they “kick the can,” hoping things will get better. They usually get worse.
  4. Healthy businesses plan for the future. So should churches. Many churches follow the same calendar and plans they have been using for years. The leaders and members often act like it’s 2005. Or 1998. Or 1975. Healthy businesses plan for the future and allocate their resources accordingly. While neither businesses nor churches have a perfect knowledge of the future, it only makes good stewardship sense to plan with the knowledge we have.
  5. Healthy businesses are constantly trying to understand their audiences. So should churches. A business will not stay in business unless it understands clearly its market and customers. While churches don’t have customers and markets as businesses do, they are commanded to go and make disciples in the community and in the world. It is hard to know where to go, when to go, and how to go unless we have at least a basic missional knowledge of our community.

For certain, there are both healthy and unhealthy businesses. For certain, there are both healthy and unhealthy churches. For certain, churches should not emulate businesses completely. But to say categorically a church should not run like a business at all can be both unwise and a poor practice of biblical stewardship.

Posted on August 19, 2019

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Just some random thoughts and questions re the comment stream: re 3000 churches closing annually? How many were actually teaching the truth (if not maybe God closed them!) How many were established churches? How many were underfunded, understaffed, and under peopled church plants that never got off the ground? (And maybe were truly not needed. I know of one town in the southwest with literally an SBC church on almost every major intersection. A Reformed SBC plant is about to go belly up. Question is, with both traditional and Reformed SBC churches in abundance was it just not needed?)

    And would any amount of good business sense help a pastor or church succeed in a town where the gospel is flat out rejected? (If you are Reformed, maybe the people are not elect. If you are Arminian, maybe they are exercising free will and just refusing Christ.) Somewhere in our supposing we have to allow for the idea there are some folks that will not be reached no matter what.

    Dr. Rainer’s post was spot on and very helpful. But sometimes we do need to separate “save the institution” from “win the world to Christ” because it IS possible to do the first and miss the latter, and to do the latter while letting some churches and institutions die.

  • After two failed attempts as a pastor, I took a position with a medical laboratory and became the I.T. Director. As I sat in meetings with men with excellent track records in business I was exposed to principles and ways of thinking that I had never seen before.
    After several years and being a part of a company with excellent structure and 20 years of continuous growth, I re-entered the pastoral vocation. Seven years later, I lead an incredibly vibrant, healthy, debt free congregation in our small town.
    I still preach and teach the way I did in those early years but I certainly don’t lead the same.

  • Tim Kezar says on

    I believe seminaries should offer entry level classes in accounting, business management, and marketing. And if the seminarian has an undergraduate degree that did not include those classes, they should be required courses along with bible and theology.
    My undergraduate degree was a B.S. in Business Admin. And it has been as useful to me as my masters in biblical theology.

    Understanding the movement of fiances, leading people, and presenting the church to the community are vital. I my opinion, just as vital as exegetic a passage of scripture for the health and welfare of the local church.

    • I remember hearing an Archbishop of NYC say that he needed to be Jesus with an MBA to do the job well.

    • Christopher says on

      Wow, according to you understanding finances is just as vital as understanding God’s Word. And you wonder why people decry running the church like a business.

      What will you do when the church is persecuted and the building is taken away and there are no more finances? What will you do when all the sound business principals are blown up by sin and false doctrine in the church?

      God’s Word will be powerful and active long after the finances have run out.

      • If you are going to manage a large congregation with budget, salaries, property, fixed expenses, etc. You better know finanace or have someone who does know it.

      • Christopher says on

        Fine, but how can you possibly put that on the same level as understanding God’s Word? I realize God’s word has a lot to say about financial responsibility, but the temporal concerns of money pale in comparison with the eternal truths of the Gospel.

        This is the problem with running the church like a business. Business principles may be important but they absolutely do not rise to the level of scripture.

  • “for mostly no NECESSARY reason” (emphasis mine)

    Most reasons that human institutions (a church is one) are not necessary. Even if they have a sound theological foundation it is possible that leaders allowed their humanity to get in the way of God’s success. Being a good church and having good business practices are not a zero-sum game, churches can be (and should be) successful in both functions.

    Looking back to the post by Thom, the argument being critiqued is the statement “you can’t run your church like a business.” The fact is, you can – for all the reasons provided by Thom.

  • Before I left the corporate world,I was involved in the creation of business plans and budgets in excess of $500 million dollars.

    Imagine my shock when I learned that the church I was attending not only did not have a business plan,but they also did not have a budget. How is that even possible in 2019?

    Perhaps worst of all was leadership’s dismissal of my offer to help in getting a plan and a budget in place.

    Believe me,I am the last guy to think God’s house should be ran like a fortune 500 company. I’m also the last guy to think it should be ran by shooting from the hip.

  • The ultimate objective of all groups of people of any kind is: still to exist tomorrow, in order to achieve our reasons for being. That objective is accomplished in certain well-thought-through ways rather than haphazardly or not at all (for churches, also with considerable amounts of prayer and guidance from the Scriptures). On average during the past couple of decades, about 3000 local New Testament churches have ceased existing (the people composing them did not die–the organizations did)–mostly for no necessary reason (Thom probably has exact stats). Logically-speaking, these 3000 annual occurences either took God by surprise or they did not. Everyone reading this blogsite believes God never is taken by surprise by something that happens on the Earth–which appears to mean that He has known 3000 churches each year would close AND He still let it happen. The congregations held to sound biblical doctrine but probably not to the sound practice of it? And God cares for the sound organization-sustaining practices of our congregations as He does for our holding the sound biblical doctrines of them? It is time for this debate to be put to rest, for 3000 local churches annually to stay alive for Christ’s sake, and for the kingdom of God to advance with the Gospel as it can under His complete leadership.

    • Brian Cordell says on

      When our doctrine and message cease to be connected to the realities that people in our communities are facing each day, we cause many to wonder if we love as Jesus loved. We look at all of the practices of the past as if they were the only valid expression of our faith, rather than an expression that was valid for the time. I’m not suggesting we neglect scripture, prayer, service, or any of the biblical disciplines, practices, and doctrines of our faith. I am suggesting that we reconsider the “packages” we use to present these disciplines and doctrines. Do they make sense for our community? Is there a better way of communicating the eternal truth we have been given? Are we willing to realign our programs and budgets to ensure that we always communicate clearly in the context of our culture?

  • John Bedford says on

    I think it is pathetic that we need the world to show us how to do church!

    • Marguerite Colson says on

      John Bedford –

      I think it’s pathetic you did not read the article closely.

      If you don’t want any help from the “world,” turn off your electricity. The “world” taught you to use it. Get off the internet. That’s the invention of the “world.” And stop using your building. It was built by “the world.” I could go on.

      Your knee-jerk reaction is why “the world” often thinks Christians are ignorant and angry.

      A few, like you, are.

      • I took John’s comment as agreeing with the thoughts of others blogging prior to him this morning, not as opposing or being unrealistic about the nature of things. The one other time I can find that he posted a comment at this site, it was on-topic and agreeable.

      • I’m not sure how you arrived at that conclusion. Even if there was a lot of support other places in this blog, his statement was loud and clear – (in his words) it is pathetic that we [I must assume this to mean Christians and churches] need the world to show us how to do church.

        Being on-topic and agreeable are not signs of endorsement.

      • Let’s permit John to speak for himself. I wasn’t willing to attribute a sour attitude to him based on what he typed this morning (but maybe despair for the current state of churches).

      • Marguerite~

        Little “Monday morning growly? Ease-up, its open discussion, not
        a war on words!


    • What do you mean? I don’t think this is what Rainer is advocating for.

  • Jerry N. Watts says on

    “Businesses state their purpose and then strive to fulfill that purpose – SO should churches.” – Candidly, whether we admit it or not, every person, church, business, or entity, lives for THEIR PURPOSE, Biblical or not. Some churches have the purpose of ‘preserving the past’ (and I’m not talking about Biblical fidelity) while sadly others have the purpose of ‘survival’ and still others try to preserve the programs which are so dear. In each of the churches, it only takes a few minutes and a few questions to uncover the purpose. My remarks are not a ‘pitch’ for Rick’s “Purpose Driven Church”, but rather, for the church to discover their purpose – and work hard to fulfill it.

  • Businesses are or at least should always be looking for new talent, new ideas, and generally have to bring it in if they want to grow. You can try to future-proof a business but no one knows where the business will be in 5 years or which direction the sector will have gone. You have to be nimble enough to make the necessary changes. You also need some polling data and people who keep up. No stagnation allowed.

      • RE: Polling. An important point. I have marveled at how some of my pastor clients boasted of how blindly they fly their church, depending on the Lord. After they discount my point about leading and lagging indicators as concerns of worldly-minded businessmen, they grumble about tithing faithfulness, which is what a business would call a lagging indicator (and a leading indicator of eventual demise.)

  • Pastor Abraham Gondo says on

    “You said like a business”
    Yes,i totally agree with you on that. Not has a business but like a business. In fact, running a church “like”a business give you a sense of self-discipline and standard even accountability to God. That’s my thoughts.
    Pastor Abraham Gondo

  • Another timely word. We have our annual planning meeting today, and I have already forwarded this to our team.

  • Healthy business also start with “why” and filter all ministry, facility and outreach initiative through that “why”.

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