Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Ministry ROI

Having a career in business as well as participating in ministry provides me a unique perspective on the similarities and differences between the two. Both companies and ministries must make decisions about how to use the resources that they have. Both must prioritize goals and objectives in order to ensure that time and resources are not squandered on non-value added activity. One of the keys to being a good manager whether in business or ministry is the ability to choose well how to use the available resources and to coordinate all those activities to support a unified goal. This is one of the reasons why the best leaders in both ministry and business tend to be effective communicators who can get a group of people “on the same page”. Because of these similarities the last few decades have seen the growth of a movement that seeks to define the pastor as CEO. This model of ministry leadership, however, ignores important differences between the Biblical view of ministry leadership and business management.

The fundamental differences between management and leadership in a business verses a ministry context are so substantial that a number of books and articles have already been written and yet the subject has yet to be exhausted. The fundamental assumptions about everything from labor, resources, strategy, and risk are substantially different between the two. Even many of the specific tasks that seem similar are really quite different. For example, there is a huge difference between giving a sermon and giving a 30 minute speech, or selling an idea to a board of directors and building consensus with elders or deacons. If a pastor handles these things like a business they will eventually find themselves forced to adopt business rather than ministry strategies. Each of the approaches builds a certain momentum that is difficult to change midstream without a lot of pain involved.

Of course, ministries must be as responsible as any well managed business with their resources but the goal is something much more difficult to measure. As a result, we must be very careful that we do not assume that business type measurements are adequate to truly capture the effectiveness of a ministry. The cost equation is much more subtle in a ministry context and the process cannot be measured by an output as simple or tangible as profit or stock price.

Businesses do not want to divert a single dollar to anything that will not generate a measurable return on investment. When faced with the decision to invest time, resources, or money good managers want to know if that investment will increase revenue, reduce costs, or increase throughput. If so, a good business manager will then assess the value of what needs to be invested against the expected return on that investment and the amount of time required to generate that return.

Many “good” ideas are rejected because the expected return either is not great enough or not fast enough to justify the risk of putting the time, money, or resources into the project. Though financial people often make it sound complicated the analysis is fairly straightforward. You can think of it using the metaphor of a candy machine. When you put money in a candy machine you expect the candy to drop out of the bottom. You are not going to put money in if you do not believe that you can get the candy when you want it or not at all. If you end up putting money in and do not get any candy (or cannot get it fast enough) you have wasted your money.

Therefore business managers generally try to quantify the return so they can reduce the number of projects to only those that have a high probability of paying off for them. They try and model plans in advance and then closely measure the progress of those plans once employed. The general approach is to formulate a plan, implement the plan, measure to see if you are getting the results you planned, and then act on that data to modify the plan as necessary. Empirical data drives the process. The management approach is as Dr. W. Edwards Deming once said “In God we trust, all others must bring data!” Emotions and assumptions can end up costing a lot of money so it is vital that opinions are double-checked with data wherever practical. In business if it cannot be measured it probably isn’t worth doing.

In the context of ministry, however, this kind of modeling and measurement often leads to pragmatic rather than Biblical decision making. In Biblical ministry, God has determined the strategy. It is His plan and He has told us what we need to “do”.  While there is a lot of variation on how we can go about it we cannot simply modify the approach it if we are not happy with the results. For one thing we do not always have the ability to properly evaluate all of the aspects of ministry effectiveness. By its nature, empirical data is focused on the things that are visible and yet much of ministry involves things which are somewhat less tangible. After all, how much is a single individual soul worth? How would you quantify the value of a person growing from an immature to a mature believer?

Of course, one might say that we should focus our resources on activities that are likely to lead to the most evangelistic results over those that are likely to have fewer results. That might sound good but it is an impossible case to make. To begin with, it is a hopelessly short term view from a Biblical perspective. One soul won in a low return program might turn out to be the person who leads a Whitefield or a Spurgeon to Christ. How many teeming thousands might hear the Gospel through such a person who only counted as “1” on some administrative report? Furthermore, it ignores the reality that the Holy Spirit is the one that brings forth repentance and conversion. Our part is to preach and live the Word and trust God for the increase. Choices of course have to be made but we should always be careful to keep in mind that we are simply stewards and that God is building His Church. Ministry resource decisions are difficult and I know that Churches cannot afford to do everything. We need to focus efforts on Biblical priorities and trust God to work though we may not see all the results.

As an illustration of this point I would like to share a story that a pastor friend told me a few months ago. His church was located near a park that hosts city sponsored events. Each year during these events the Church allows people to park on their property and they provide water, popcorn, and other snacks. As a result there is a lot of cross-traffic between the park and the church property. A few years ago a woman walking across the lot during a festival noticed the pastor’s name on the sign and began looking around to see if she could find him. When she saw him some distance away she hurried over to him and expressed her surprised delight that he was still there after so many years. She explained to him that many years earlier she had been a child that was not headed in a good direction. Then one summer she was invited to that church’s VBS program by a friend. She only attended one night but she heard the Gospel and later accepted Jesus Christ as her savior. She wanted to tell him that through her witness God had also saved her parents and she was able to find and marry a Christian man and was now raising children who were also believers. She was excited that after all those years she could thank the man who had led her to the Lord.

How many times have ministry leaders struggled to decide if they should continue programs where only a few guests visit or where they only get limited feedback? Ministry leaders have to make managerial decisions and wisdom and discernment is required. Let us pray that as they do so they would be encouraged by God’s promise that His word will not return to Him void. It may be many years, perhaps not until heaven, that we will ever know the true results of our ministries. It is likely that many discouraged brothers and sisters have laid up many unexpected treasures in heaven. I pray that our leaders have the strength to set Biblical priorities and then trust God for the increase.

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