What do you think about using secular business principles in the church?

My first ministry internship was at a large church with a popular radio preacher where we ran out of seats in the auditorium every Sunday. There was no evangelism happening. Where would we put more people? Our church’s relationship with our neighborhood was primarily a war over parking spaces and traffic noise.

When it came time to pursue a full-time ministry job, I wanted to find a church that was serious about fulfilling the Great Commission. That led me to a seeker-driven church that designed almost everything in the church around the needs and preferences of the unchurched. We attended endless leadership conferences, held endless strategy meetings, and consumed endless books by secular business authors.

I was burned out within a year. I discovered that a dogmatic pursuit of secular strategies won’t work in a “business” that’s wholly reliant on the grace of Jesus through the power of the Spirit.

When Paul thought about church ministry he said, “Who is adequate for these things? For we do not market the word of God for profit like so many. On the contrary, we speak with sincerity in Christ, as from God and before God” (2 Cor. 2:16-17). The strategies that lead to corporate profits can’t substitute for ministering “from God and before God.”

Still, there are many nuggets of wisdom in business books that apply just as much to churches as they do to corporations. For example, over the years I’ve particularly appreciated Patrick Lencioni’s books.

It started with The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, where Lencioni points out how many leadership teams are fearful of conflict and therefore avoid accountability. Then it was on to The Three Signs of a Miserable Job, where he shows how many leaders fail to give people concrete standards for success and failure. Then it was The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive, where he shows how many leaders worship “flexibility” at the expense of their organization’s core values.

What Lencioni’s really doing is identifying various aspects of man’s fallenness as it’s seen in organizational leadership. And that’s why his books (and others like them) can be so valuable in church ministry. Fallenness is fallenness, and Christian leaders are not immune to any area of fallenness that corporate executives fall into.

Authors like Lencioni can help us see the pride, selfishness, and fear that drive all humans and organizations, but there’s a point where we need to be careful about application: when the authors start recommending solutions. It’s the unquestioning adoption of business-book remedies that’s led too many churches to worship corporate-style pragmatism and measures of success.

Example: in The Five Temptations of a CEO, Lencioni argues that a leader should “make results the most important measure of personal success, or step down from the job.” This advice stems from the observation that leaders too often “make decisions that protect their ego or reputation or, worse yet, avoid making decisions that might damage them.” While the observation is absolutely true, the remedy just doesn’t work for Christian leadership.

Why? Because corporate executives are aiming for easily-measured results: greater productivity and profits. Here are the results Christian leaders are aiming for: “We are afflicted in every way but not crushed; we are perplexed but not in despair; we are persecuted but not abandoned; we are struck down but not destroyed. We always carry the death of Jesus in our body, so that the life of Jesus may also be displayed in our body” (2 Cor 4:8-10). It’s pretty hard to plot those results on an Excel chart.

When Jesus commissioned his disciples for ministry, he commanded them to be “shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16). We can shrewdly learn principles of team dynamics from experts who’ve dedicated their lives to studying them. But then we need to innocently depend on Jesus to use that team to transform lives and build his church.