Parson to Person: “The Business of Church Or the Church of Business?” Oct. 23, 2020

Every once in a while someone will refer to the church as a business, as in “UCN has a product to sell” or “We can’t ignore our budget’s bottom line when we’re talking about how to expand our ministry.”

There is some truth to the church-as-a-business metaphor (e.g., I couldn’t continue to be your minister if I didn’t get paid, and my salary depends largely on pledge contributions). But like all metaphors, it has its limitations too. For example, although you can look at our UU faith as a “product” to “sell”–we don’t charge a uniform price for this “product.” That is, involvement at UCN is not dependent on a usage fee. (If it were, we would be more like a country club than a congregation.)

Also, although my ability to be your minister depends on being paid a liveable wage, I don’t parcel out my time or counseling ability according to the amount of money people give to the church. (In fact, I don’t actually know what individuals give to UCN unless they tell me.)

The problem with relying too strongly on the church-as-a-business metaphor (or, worse, not recognizing that is a metaphor) is that it’s so limiting. (I’ll never forget the time a lay leader in my former congregation told me he thought the minister’s role should be CEO, or boss: Tell the congregation where it should go, and lead them there. When I told him I didn’t see my role that way, he said, “Oh, so you believe the minister’s role should be employee of the church.”  I told him, “No, a minister is neither boss nor employee. But relying solely on the church-as-a-business metaphor cuts out all the other possibilities.”)

When religion is seen primarily as a business, the church community begins to be viewed as a commodity, the members begin to think of themselves as consumers, and the Sunday service becomes a performance. Eventually, people think more in terms of “What can I get out of this?” rather than “How can I give to something larger than myself?”

I don’t say that a church has nothing to do with business–they do share certain features (as I mentioned above). But there are other–equally valid–metaphors too: church as educational institution, church as “hospital,” church as artistic/creative clinic, church as social-justice incubator, church as support group, church as ethical think tank (to name a few). UCN has similarities to many other organizations; but it’s not exactly like a single one of them.

In that way, of course, it’s sort of like each of us.

Uniquely yours   (with peace and unrest too),

tony