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Business and Ministry

Is it possible to do ministry in a businesslike way . . . and to see business as a ministry?

The question seems important because, even though nonprofit and profit-making efforts are different, both have a lot in common.

To survive, both need a clear mission. Both need to know their public, adapt to change, and focus on meeting the needs of those they serve.

But business and ministry are not the same. In fact, the differences are so significant that . . .

Some believe ministry and business are mutually exclusive. I’ve seen the sincerity in the eyes of those who are convinced that one of the biggest problems in the church today is that we see pastors as CEOs, congregations as consumers, and focus groups as a substitute for prayerfully seeking the will of God.

The concern needs to be taken seriously. Over time, as small, family-like ministries grow and become more complex, relationships change. Simplicity gives way to systems and group policies designed to assure fairness and accountability.

Annual plans, budgets, and organizational goals become a necessary means of counting the cost and measuring progress.

In the process, however, there is always a tendency not only to count assets, revenues, and human resources, but to begin counting on them.

Without realizing it, those of us who are involved in church and parachurch ministries can be tempted to think that a business plan, as important as it may be, is something to rely on.

In one of the earliest letters of the New Testament, James, the leader of a growing Jerusalem church, warned about a kind of business mindset that is not becoming to followers of Christ.

James wasn’t even talking about trying to do ministry in a businesslike way. He was writing to businesspeople who were using the equivalence of annual plans, schedules, and projected revenues without a sense of dependence on the Lord (James 4:13-15).

If the Bible warns about the misuse of business assumptions even in commerce, it’s understandable that some spiritually sensitive co-workers would like to remove from ministry terms like “return on investment,” “human resources,” and “the metrics of measurable results.”

Others go so far as to suggest that if we want to do real ministry, we need to replace conventional business wisdom with a faith that is so real that unless God intervenes, we will fail.

Even the Bible shows us, though, that there is no virtue in throwing common sense to the wind (Luke 14:28-30). Red flags need to go up in our minds when spiritual talk is used to avoid accountability, or to promote presumption in the name of faith. 

The mark of a real “faith” ministry cannot be that it counts no costs, makes no plans, spends beyond its means, and resists accountability. The Bible makes it clear that God does not call His people to ignore the wisdom of counsel, criticism, or the needs of those we serve.

The book of Proverbs shows us that there is a time to count the material resources that have been given to us. The purpose of counting our numbers, however, is to help us avoid the mistake of counting on them in an ever-changing world (27:23-24).

In both ministry and business, principles of faith and good management can work together rather than being a substitute for one another.

There’s plenty of room in both business and ministry to trust the Lord even when we are using annual plans, budgets, and projected goals. The apostle Paul talked about how he did the ministry of church planting. Speaking figuratively of what it takes to plant and grow a ministry, Paul wrote, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:6-7).

By application, whether we are doing the hard work of planting a church by faith, or overseeing its organizational growth with gifts of administration, there’s plenty of room to trust the Lord.

In a parallel way, James has already reminded us that if we are doing business, the same principles of faith apply. Everything we have has been given to us by the Lord. All that He has entrusted to us comes with circumstances that are beyond our control. 

So, whether we are trying to be good stewards of the ministry entrusted to us, or whether we are trying to do business in a way that reflects our relationship to God . . .

What matters is whether we are using good business principles as a way of serving others while remembering our reliance on the Lord. Annual plans, budgets, and measurements of progress are morally neutral tools. Whether they help or hurt co-workers, customers, or church members all depends on the motives and ways in which they are used. If bottom-line business formulas are given more consideration than the people who are affected by them, it’s an indication that we are forgetting not only our reliance on the Lord but also the personal values of good business.

Business, in and of itself, is no more wrong than ministry is right. The value of both depends not only on what is done, but why, with what purpose, and with what confidence.

For followers of Christ, business and ministry are both ways of serving others, in reliance on God and with a sense of being good managers of what He has entrusted to us. 

Father in heaven, once again we acknowledge that all we have is Yours, and that apart from You we can do nothing. Please help us to be faithful in whatever You have entrusted to us, and help us to see the work before us today as an opportunity of being about Your business and ministry to others. —Mart De Haan

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