What Can Churches and Businesses Learn from Each Other?

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What can churches, nonprofits, and businesses learn from one another? Lewis Center Director Doug Powe interviews Randy Casey-Rutland, a theologically educated business executive, who shares insights about what the church can learn from the business world and vice versa.

Listen to this interview or continue reading.


Doug Powe: Can you share a bit of your journey from theological education to running a company? That’s not the usual path we see in ministry.

Randy Casey-Rutland: Well, even looking back at this point in life, I’m not sure my journey was planned and intentional. I often tell people, “I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do when I grow up.” I have meandered through the nonprofit world, the church world, and the business world. My early passions were in computer science. I’ve held executive positions in for-profit companies, not-for-profit companies, and in the church. And I’ve enjoyed the interplay among them. There are a lot of similarities and a lot of differences. Now I find myself running a company, Town Management. And one of the things that we’re about is building community. That’s different from what my competitors do, but I think it’s advantageous for the company. And my theological education is a big part of helping me understand and value community.

Doug Powe: In the business world, people are looking at the bottom line. The goal is to make as much money as possible. So community usually doesn’t play a role in that. But you’re thinking about this differently. You see community at the core of what you’re hoping to do and not simply as a way of making more money. Is that accurate?

At the end of the day, if a church isn’t making money — if it spends more money than it brings in and is poorly run financially and administratively — the church’s mission fails.

Randy Casey-Rutland: I think the church is about making meaning and being mission focused. And businesses are about making a profit. But at some level this is really very simplistic. Because at the end of the day, if a church isn’t making money — if it spends more money than it brings in and is poorly run financially and administratively — the church’s mission fails. Likewise, a business needs to make money. But at the end of the day, if that is it’s only goal, there’s nothing for staff, employees, clients, and customers to latch on to, to generate interest and passion. So, I think there’s actually a lot of overlap between the way nonprofits and for-profits approach the world, or at least the way good ones do.

In my company, I like building community. It’s important to me and I think it’s especially important in our world today. The trend in recent years has been for people to self-segregate into groups of people like themselves. That’s an unfortunate trend in our churches and in many other social institutions. My company provides a variety of services and, yes, we provide those services for a profit. But at the end of the day, we don’t want to provide just a laundry list of services. We want to leave the communities and groups we serve in a better place, and this shapes our approach to our clients and customers.

Doug Powe: You talked about the similarities between for-profit and nonprofit organizations. Can you say more about the similarities of leading a church and a business in your opinion?

Randy Casey-Rutland: Well, I think effective churches know that their financial and administrative work has to succeed. Church leaders need to pay attention to child protection policies, insurance policies, the roof, the HVAC system, the parking lot, the financial books. At the end of the day, if these elements of the church are run poorly, the church does not succeed. But it’s also true that, at the end of the day, if that’s the primarily focus of leadership, you’ve lost your focus on mission and passion and meaning making. So I think it’s extremely important for church leaders to have those administrative and financial skills or recruit and identify volunteers who can bring those skills into the life of the church. Businesses often focus on the financial and administrative part and miss the value of meaning and mission.

Churches often are reluctant to measure what’s important out of fear that expressing their mission and service in terms of numbers somehow diminishes its value. It’s challenging to measure a church’s mission. But measurement is an important marker for how churches can conduct their work and their mission.

Also, churches often are not good at measuring things. Churches are full of statistics — members, donors, Sunday school classes, funerals, and weddings. But churches often are reluctant to measure what’s important out of fear that expressing their mission and service in terms of numbers somehow diminishes its value. It’s challenging to measure a church’s mission. It’s more than just money in the bank account or people in the pews. It is something greater than that. But measurement is an important marker for how churches can conduct their work and their mission. Businesses are typically good at measurement. They measure all kinds of things. Nonprofits and churches particularly can strengthen their attention to what’s most important about their mission and calling by figuring out what they need to measure and how to measure that.

Doug Powe: You suggest there’s a tension between mission and meaning on one side and administration on the other side but also that they have to be held together. What can seminaries can do to prepare people to keep these things in proper balance?

Randy Casey-Rutland: My theological education helped me link and integrate my values. My understanding of God. My understanding of myself. Who I was. How I lived. And my understanding of my community, both my small community and the world at large. Bringing those together in an integrated worldview is a real gift of theological education. It also helps people gain a better understanding of themselves and their strengths and weaknesses. And it teaches practical skills. When Doug Lewis, past president of Wesley Theological Seminary, would speak in churches he would often say, “I can guarantee you one thing about the graduates from Wesley Theological Seminary. As they come to your church they will be inadequate. They’re not going to be perfect.” If you assembled a list of the qualifications for clergy leadership, sometimes I think Jesus himself wouldn’t even measure up.

A church is like a small business. And we expect our clergy to be excellent at running it. Dealing with staff. Running a facility. Getting the roof fixed. Running the finances. Telling good jokes. Having good bedside manner. Making visits. Being a nice coffee companion. That’s expecting a lot. So good theological education is challenging in all of these ways. And another challenge is to continue that education after the degree is awarded through ongoing continuing education and self-education.

Doug Powe: So as students complete their theological education and go into their first full-time pastorates, what is critically important for them to know?  Are there things they may not even know they need to know?

Randy Casey-Rutland: I don’t know that I have a clear answer to that question.  But I do think a good self-understanding is essential. It’s true in the business world and it’s really true in church leadership. You’ve got to know who you are. We all have flaws. We all have strengths and weaknesses. We do some things better than other things.  We really need to know who we are, what we do well, and what we don’t do so well.

Learning how to deal with difficult people and challenging situations is something we all need to learn. I think it’s difficult to teach because you have to have those experiences. But having some skills for working with difficult people is important in our world today.

I also think people need to know how to work with difficult people. In the business world the line is, “The customer is always right.” Well, I don’t know anybody who leads a business who actually agrees with that. It’s a great line. But I’ve had lots of customers and clients who were not right and were very troublesome and very problematic. But I see these most difficult and troublesome customers as an opportunity to learn. Difficult people are part of our community. In the business world, difficult people are customers. They provide us with an opportunity to look at our business model. How we can be successful and perhaps help them as a person? And in the church, there are going to be difficult people, perhaps difficult staff people, perhaps difficult volunteers, perhaps difficult people in the community. Learning how to deal with difficult people and challenging situations is something we all need to learn. I think it’s difficult to teach because you have to have those experiences. But having some skills for working with difficult people is important in our world today.

Doug Powe: So in some ways, trying to run the congregation like a small business or a small non-profit can be helpful. But there may also be some dangers. What are some of the limitations of thinking of the church through a business lens?

Randy Casey-Rutland: I think in a church that works well, the leadership of the church, clergy and lay, share a common sense of mission and calling. That doesn’t mean they agree on everything. And it doesn’t mean they’re all alike. But they have a common passion for their sense of mission. And good leaders find ways to cultivate that among the volunteers, many of whom volunteer for particular, narrow areas of church work — teaching Sunday school or bringing flowers and communion to the church or being an usher. It’s important that these people understand what we’re being called to do. That’s important in businesses, too, but in businesses you’re not often trying to cultivate a sense of understanding among all your clients and all your customers. So, it’s a different focus. And I think the church has got to be run well. Maybe that’s just one of my biases, but I like things to be well run.  When things are run poorly financially and administratively, it erodes the success of the mission. And that’s true in business and in churches.

Doug Powe: I’m sure at some point in your career, you’ve found yourself in over your head. You knew you were in trouble but you weren’t quite sure how you got there. For someone in congregational leadership who finds themselves in over their head,  whether it’s with finances or staff or volunteers, what can they do?

Randy Casey-Rutland: Well, in either the business world or the church world, one of the things to do is to reach out to other people. Who am I connected with? Who can be a resource or provide advice? Sometimes I can find myself simply unloading to a trusted friend or colleague who can help me think through things. Sometimes it’s extremely valuable to have an expert in the field who can say, “Oh yeah! Of course. This happens all the time. You just need to do A, B, and C.” Connectionalism is one of the strengths of our United Methodist Church. Many denominations and seminaries offer resources, like the Lewis Center or denominational agencies. There are situations in the business world and in the nonprofit world where you need an experienced legal professional, an experienced insurance professional. If you don’t have those resources, you need to reach out through trusted colleagues and find people who can help you in difficult situations. It is just really critical.

Doug Powe:  Do you have any more thoughts about what the church can teach the business world? You’ve talked about the emphasis on meaning and mission. Are there other aspects of the church world that businesses should pay more attention to?

Many churches excelled in these unusually challenging times responding to the pandemic in varied and creative ways. And I think businesses can and should learn from that.

Randy Casey-Rutland: For me personally, my life in the church informs, educates, and uplifts my life in business and vice versa. This year, we’re just coming out of a pandemic and it’s been a struggle — for my businesses, for the church, for everyone. In my business, one of the struggles of the pandemic was to continue nurturing community and a sense of caring among the staff and also among clients. That community work becomes really, really hard when you’re wearing a mask and doing things remotely.  Churches faced the same challenge. During this time, I saw how my church was trying to deal with the challenges of a life-threatening danger while also remaining attentive to ritual and meaning and relationships. Many churches excelled in these unusually challenging times, responding to the pandemic in varied and creative ways. And I think businesses can and should learn from that.

Doug Powe: As you know, in both the church world and the business world the idea of “adaptive leadership” has become a catchphrase. But, as with all things, concepts and catchphrases come and go. What trends do you see that might point to the next leadership catchphrase?

Randy Casey-Rutland:  This last year of the pandemic has been extremely challenging, and I think churches, nonprofits, and for-profits are all going to come out of this year understanding leadership differently, understanding success differently, understanding failure differently. We’ve all had successes and failures. We’ve all had to adapt in unimaginable ways to just survive, much less succeed. I don’t have a catchphrase for it, but coming out of the pandemic most organizations face the challenge of doing “both/and.” It used to be church was in-person. Then this last year, virtually nothing was in-person. And now that we’re coming back, I sense that everyone expects us to be effective and efficient at the in-person stuff and equally effective and efficient at the remote stuff — to do both simultaneously and equally well. I think this is challenging to the church and the business world, as well. The organizational challenge is finding ways to continue what we did well pre-pandemic and what we’ve done well in the pandemic. And that’s going to continue to tax our resources and our leaders.


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About Author

Randy Casey-Rutland

Randy Casey-Rutland is president of Town Management in Williamsburg, Virginia. He has a Ph.D. in ethics from Emory University and an M.Div. from Candler School of Theology. He is a member of Wesley Theological Seminary’s Board of Governors.

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is the author of The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020), available at Cokesbury and Amazon. He is also co-author with Jasmine Smothers of Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations (Abingdon Press, 2015), available at Cokesbury and Amazon. His previous books include New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.


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