the shape of leadership

Why Corporate Principles Don’t Always Apply to Ministry

Seven ways church leadership differs from business leadership

The Church can learn a great deal about leadership from the business world. Many of the principles are transferrable, and I’ve personally benefited from countless leadership authors and experts within business contexts. I believe the opposite is also true: The business world could learn valuable leadership lessons from the Church.

Though many principles are transferrable in both directions, there are some unique aspects of church leadership that ministers must keep in focus. Church is more than a business, and how we lead requires more than just business tactics. Here are seven differences between leading a business versus a church:

1. Businesses are organizational enterprises; churches are part of a spiritual family. Churches certainly have a business side to them. After all, most churches are incorporated as nonprofit organizations. They have bylaws, boards, and buildings, and they generate revenue and pay salaries. But churches are much more than organizational enterprises. They are part of a spiritual family.

Scripture refers to the Church as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 1:22–23), the bride of Christ (Revelation 21:9), the flock of God (1 Peter 5:2), and the household of God (Ephesians 2:19). In the Book of Acts, we see the Church gathered in the temple courts and in homes for prayer, teaching, fellowship, and Communion (Acts 2:42–47).

Church is more than a business transaction. It’s a spiritual family — the very body of Christ. Pastors must lead with that reality in focus.

2. Businesses attract consumers; churches make disciples. A common accusation against churchgoers is that they are more interested in being consumers than contributors.

In business, the customer is a consumer, and the customer is king. Customers purchase a good or a service, and the business exists for their benefit. When that mindset makes its way into the local church, however, it can undermine our highest priority: making disciples.

Of course, we should still serve one another with excellence. After all, Jesus said, “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). But in healthy churches, there must also be an outward focus. The mission of the Church is to reach people who are far from God.

We are in the business of making disciples who are fully surrendered to Christ (Matthew 28:19–20), not creating consumers who “shop” for the best experience. Our leadership should reflect that priority.

3 Businesses are results-oriented; churches are relationship-oriented. Businesses keep a close eye on sales revenue, profit margin, growth, the cost of customer acquisition, net promoter scores, and more. These are important metrics to ensure the right results.

We are in the business of making disciples who are fully surrendered
to Christ.

While churches generally track results as well — including attendance, giving, and baptisms — the healthiest congrega- tions prioritize relationships. They understand that life change usually happens in the context of community. These churches understand that disciple making is relational, not transactional.

Again, healthy churches don’t ignore results, but they do focus on relationships.

4. Businesses are financially driven; churches are missionally driven. Businesses care most about the bottom line: money. After all, if the bottom line disappears, so does the business.

Churches obviously require money to function as well, but they exist for a greater purpose: fulfilling the Great Commission. The biggest win for the church isn’t collecting a large offering but reaching and discipling people. Finances are simply a tool to accomplish the greater mission. Church leaders should always keep the mission before the money.

5. Businesses are ownership-minded; churches are stewardship-minded. The greatest beneficiary of a business is usually the owner.

Healthy pastors have a different mindset. They don’t “own” the church. They are simply stewards. These pastors recognize that everything they have has been entrusted to them by God. Therefore, healthy pastors lead with a stewardship mindset as they wisely manage resources with the true Owner’s interests in mind (Matthew 25:14–30).

6. Businesses focus on sales and service; churches focus on faithfulness and fruitfulness. Businesses have a product or service to sell. The measure of success is the number and size of sales.

Healthy churches operate from a different metric that keeps them spiritually grounded. Yes, pastors want to see their churches grow. And yes, reaching more people and impacting the community are essential. At the same time, healthy pastors know they are called to produce fruit that lasts (John 15:16).

What matters most is one day hearing, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21). Faithfulness and fruitfulness are the true measures of success for healthy pastors, and both measures are usually evidenced by obedience and disciple making.

7. Businesses are culturally relevant; churches are countercultural. Businesses must remain culturally relevant if they want to keep making sales. Therefore, they continually release new iterations of their products and services to keep customers engaged.

Healthy churches have a different approach. They understand that the gospel is not only applicable to everyday life, but it is also an invitation to take up our cross and follow Christ (Matthew 16:24). Therefore, pastors don’t bend the gospel to conform to the culture. Instead, pastors lead people to conform their lives to the gospel.

These are not the only differences in leadership between businesses and churches, but this list is a good starting point. Again, I love reading and learning from business leaders, but I also understand that the Church is much more than a business. That truth must guide our leadership and our decision making.

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