Can the language of leadership be redeemed? I find the language of leadership (developed in the business world) deeply problematic. When I hear pastors talk about churches as franchises, or businesses I cringe. The newest cringe inducing statement is a justification for online communion. United Methodist liturgical leaders urged a moratorium on online communion after it became apparent a church planned to offer it in a very public way. The Council of Bishops apparently agreed with the moratorium. The Wall Street Journal now reports a pastor will go ahead anyways with online communion. I find the pastor’s statements at the end of the article troubling:
“The way we operate now, if you want to receive [communion], you have to come to my church sometime between the hours of 9 and 12 on Sunday morning,” Mr. Langford said. “I don’t think there’s any other institution in our country that can survive on that kind of business model.”
Pastor Langford’s statement is problematic for two major reasons. The first is that its untrue. No one says that a church can only offer communion on Sunday morning in their facility. Churches can worship at other times and other places and have communion as part of their worship. A church can extend the table to those who were unable to be at the worship service where communion is offered.
The second reason is his language. He compares the church to a business by saying that no other institution in the country could have that business model. It should go without saying, but we are not a business. We do not have a business model.
We do use the language and values of the business world all the time though. Many of our leadership resources have their origins in the business world. Our words and values in terms of leadership often come from the world of business. As the church continues to struggle quantitatively, we start looking more and more to the leadership/business world for answers.
Instead of turning to evangelism, soteriology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, a robust theology of discipleship, theology in general, or church history, we look to how the world organizes itself and say that we want in. Rarely do we ever question though the values and premises these ideas of leadership are built on. What does it mean to say the church has a business model? Who are the consumers? What are we selling? Are we relying on human agency to survive, let alone thrive?
I attend leadership conferences. When my annual conference or district offers educational experiences related to leadership I attend. Many of the books I read pertain to leadership. Andy Stanley’s leadership podcast is a program I listen to. Yet, the more I delve into the world of leadership, the more I question if this is really the right language for the church.
Businesses depend on human agency. Leaders run businesses. Better leaders are believed to produce better results. CEOs of major corporations are compensated well because it is believed that even a small difference in leadership, can have huge consequences for the bottom line. The language and values of leadership are rooted in the individual.
The church though is not about individuals. Success in the early church, at least in the book of Acts, is not attributed to human agency. When people join the church God is given credit. Sure people like the Apostles are highlighted, but they do not take credit for the success of the church. God is seen working through them and they would give God the credit.
Words shape the way we think. When we use words they shape how we see and perceive the world. I question if we can use the language of leadership and not buy into the value systems that created it. Some might see the use of the words “business model” as a harmless similitude or metaphor, but I see it as the values of the world subversively undermining the underpinnings of our faith.