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Building a Smart Church

I have been thinking about how the church and business can learn from each other in my Quixotic attempt to realize the presbytery (local governing body of all ministers and elders; all churches within our geographic boundary, i.e. district, clasis). as a whole, not just the staff, as a learning community. Many critique those who espouse any business/church commonalities with Inquisitor judgement, defaulting to say, "if the world does 'this,' the church will do 'that' instead." Others may embrace inquisitive and synergetic resonance between business and church but sadly be dismissed by their critics of mistakenly applying so-called "business principles" which considered contrary to so-called "Bible-principles forgetting that all truth is God's truth from the start. So the Jesus-saves folks sometimes spend more time in saving "their" Jesus then leading salvific responses and market-place, town-hall Eucharistic responses to God's grace in the world through authentic actions of compassion and justice.

The church is unique, of course, and is unlike business in many, many respects, but at the heart there is something a smart church (referring to both the people and institutions) and a smart business (referring to both the people and institutions) should have in common: their persistent focus on others. I simply call this mission, or missional, but whatever the term, the inside of the church must get out! A church is not smart when it drinks its own Kool-Aid, focuses its self on its self, and hoards its content in inaccessible crypts and catechisms instead of giving away what it itself received free by the Grace of God.

I am particularly interested in the pastoral/congregational/presbytery opportunities during this financial crisis, so I am offering this as a blog. It would be easy to observe that the church has not conducted its mission with clear objectives or strategies or vision. The church is inextricably bound up with its own survival, taking everything in and holding its incredible content within its grasp. The church has been a ship, no, more like a boat, or sometimes more like a piece of barely floating sail-less plank moving with the water currents (as aquanauts), not where the Spirit-the wind (as pneumanauts) sends it, yet complaining along the way of their predicament. There are many full-sailed spirit-driven vessels out there, of course, but sadly, too few. To congregations with less capacity, impaired for one or more reasons, they view the sailed vessels as lucky or opportunistic betraying a deep hurt and pain of from years of decline and loss of meaning, and even more tragically, ignoring that a plank does not become a ship by accident nor the whimsy of chance, but from an intentional love for the sea, not the vessel they ride on.

There is no quick fix in economic or any other kind of down-turns or upswings. There are though many creative and proactive action steps besides putting off that second-home purchase, buying off-brand peanut butter, reducing mission giving, or turning the thermostat down; or once again, complaining about the pastor's salary relegated mistakenly to the last page of the budget as overhead instead of taking the pastor's costs and apportioning them throughout the budget coinciding with the value-add the pastor brings to the various categories of the budget, a/k/a the mission of the church.

In the real world, smart businesses use downturns to, yes, make strategic cost reductions where necessary, but more importantly, they refocus their mission on the key mission-critical tasks, even reaching out in expansion and extension of programs that would lead to optimized growth in services and/or goodwill to customers. Additionally, smart companies do not chase the decline or downturn, reducing where necessary in incremental bits of dollars thirty to ninety-days behind the reporting period. Instead, smart companies lead the downturn by drastically cutting from unproductive areas ahead of the indicators and drastically increasing line items and resources to the mission-producing parts of the business, the mission of the church.

Smart companies try to remain right-sized so they don't have to down-size when provoked by unexpected financial situations. There is no crystal ball, but the definition of a surprise is insufficient insight. Smart companies do not need to layoff staff in a knee-jerk reaction somehow admitting they did not need that staff all along. Or, maybe they simply were too arrogant to consider alternative future scenarios. Most churches and middle governing bodies and executives, me included, set a limited, artificial, local, horizon to craft our work when at the end of the day it is too little, too late to matter anyway. Smart companies take advantage of market bargains and opportunities they already had their eye on, consistently trying to increase their market value, market share, or just increased value to their shareholders and customers. For God so loved the world is a claim to a territory that God chose to make a difference in. We don't need churches to make a difference. We need smart churches to be different, to bring about different lives, different communities, and a different world.

Smart companies try to make good choices now that are in-line with their values and ideals. They are not pre-occupied with the past, with boxes of dusty trophies, or memorial plaques, or ruinous routines of resuscitation of that which should be brought back to life. Instead, moving forward with skills and competencies, a smart church and smart businesses will build on what was done before without longing for what used to be done. It is the living that need raising from the dead; from the death of irrelevance, the death of meaninglessness, the death of self-righteousness.

Churches have values and their people exemplify those values and ideals in everything they do. In crisis, companies and churches show their true values and commitments in their responses to the crisis. Their attitudes, their behaviors. Presbytery staff should look at this indicator in their churches very carefully. How a church responds in crisis reveals their default values at a DNA-level, their driving force of that church organization and organism. The insight gained after careful assessment can help presbytery staff and committees frame assessments on the move that lead to strategic transformational rebuilding during and especially after the immediate crisis subsides. History teaches us that every crisis subsides, though while experienced, it often renders us immovable. But our immovability is an illusion for the Spirit's wind of change knows no limits or boundaries it cannot push with us to the other side.

Smart companies pick up the pace, not cut back and see what happens. There are seasons to life, to economies, and to social ecologies and communities too, and smart people try to prepare for the eventualities, and when a true outlier, something unexpected, comes along they still pursue the opportunity and position themselves for the eventual upswing. In other words, even in crisis, a congruent, authentic company or individual will continue to pursue their previous corporate or life goal, modified or scaled appropriately. This line of thinking has enormous implications for middle governing body work we can explore later.

For now, let's consider a shopping experience I had in a shopping mall last week. I saw store front after store front with signage that spelled out: big SALE, 50% OFF, 10% off, REDUCED PRICES, 2nd CHRISTMAS CELEBRATION GOING ON NOW!, and the like to woo shoppers inside. From the GAP to GUCCI to RITE-AID, merchants were actually reducing their product's perceived value evidenced by the price by inadvertently admitting on that big 50% OFF sign that the products for sale now were actually never worth their full asking price prior to the sale at or before Christmas. Not every store had a discount sign, but almost all did. And in spite of the discount-mania, almost all the stores were empty. Their sales strategy for the downturn was to reduce their content's value, but the content was not worth even the lower price, apparently, or the product was just not needed, or people just had too little money to spend even on a supposed bargain. You can't save money on something you don't want and don't actually purchase.

In stark contrast, while walking that shopping mall, the Apple store had no discount sign posted in its big windows. There was nothing on sale, no price reductions, just photos hanging up of their products, and on display were countless computers, iPhones, and iPods on the tables ready to touch, feel, play with, and helpful staff to answer questions. They didn't have cash register lines because store clerks walked around with little computers in their hands ringing up the purchase and printing the receipts out on the store floor. And by the way, there was a line of shoppers out the door trying to get in! Why? Insanely great products. You don't have to discount great products to attract people because they are worth the price, they add value, they meet many people's needs so perfectly. They fit right, they work out of the box and they work the way you would expect they should, they maximize and honor their users talents. Price points are important, but people are drawn to great content and they will exchange their money, time, talent, and resources to get what they want and need.

So if a church, for example, put a sign out front and said NO MORE OFFERINGS COLLECTED, or NEW PEW CUSHIONS, or NEW BOOK OF ORDER ADOPTED, or WE REDUCED OUR BUDGET, or OUR PASTOR LEFT, would have little effect on the community's response. Maybe a smart church or group of churches would get together and learn practical tips on growing not merely surviving during our immediate financial crisis. Learn easy to apply lessons and techniques or develop new products or program content that would help others. Maybe the front sign of the church building might read:



Wednesday: 7:00 AM and 7:00 PM

30 Minutes could save you $30

Of course, you need the content, the solid practical advise that can be put into practice. No fluff. No end times of doom and gloom. Content that will work for others. Spiritual things and even more, a way to stop compartmentalizing spiritual living and instead, offer a way to integrate one's whole life around something and someone who really matters.

Hey corner church! Instead of cutting back on the pastor's pay, giving out tracts, and putting new rubber tips on the legs of your folding chairs, why not give something of real value to the community instead? What difference does it make that the church is there? Each church decides, smart churches decide strategically with other faith-based groups in town together, collaboratively, what resources a smart church has and what a community needs.

Here in the Newark-New York area, we have not only lower income, working poor, folks, with food distribution, jobs, housing, and clothing needs to meet, but some of the highest paid executives in the world live here. And many are loosing their jobs, too, and their $2M home is now worth $500K but the mortgage is twice that. For the executives now looking for work, I am thinking of offering free workshops of how to market yourself in tough economic times, or a session on how to help your resume zoom you into an interview for a new job, or how to give yourself fully to a lower paying job, or a 10-minute seminar on the web with a simple message: It's YOU not what you DO that will get you through, or how to give your Lexus as a charitable donation to a church and a whole consortium of other churches helps the giver negotiate a great deal with a bank down the street for a cheaper downsized car at a great rate. Instead of a repossession, you get realigned with what is authentic and true.

The church needs to be offering something worth living for since Jesus gave his life on the ground (incarnation) in trade for us, (substitutionary atonement) so that everyone (God loves the whole world), can know they all worth dying for (sacredness of life) and to choose to be in a position to give what you have but can't keep (grace) to others (mission) in response to God's love (praise). Nothing's for sale or on sale in the church. We have "product" content that is of eternal worth that has already been paid for. How can we "charge" for such a gift? We all have something to give away to help another human being cope with enormous life stressors; job training, how to keep your mortgage, partner with CVS to freely deliver medications to elderly shut-ins, start new, ambitious programs for youth that further the mission of the church, acquire property assets that can later house future and expandable ministries in neighborhoods of need.

A smart church, like a smart business, will choose to offer quality content during this financial crisis and opportunity that government, communities, or other organizations can't give. Content that fits into people's lives of every language, race, location and age, that just might serve someone what they need and make the message of the Gospel simple, workable, powerful, practical, visible, attractable, meaningful, and transferable. Transformation must be transfer-mational if its to be authentic and real. Its got to be something that one can give away in relation to another person. After all, that's how the church grew smart in the beginning by giving themselves away one to one, one to others, others to many, to many, many more yet to come.

How smart is your church?

Kevin Yoho

General Presbyter

Newark Presbytery