Episode 82: “What Can Churches and Businesses Learn from Each Other?” featuring Randy Casey-Rutland

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 82: “What Can Churches and Businesses Learn from Each Other?” featuring Randy Casey-Rutland

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

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What can churches, nonprofits, and businesses learn from one another? In this Leading Ideas Talks episode, Randy Casey-Rutland, a theologically educated business executive, shares insights about what the church can learn from the business world and vice versa.

Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I’m Douglas Powe, the director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is Dr. Randy Casey-Rutland, 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. His ministry is running a company. Our focus for this podcast is what are some takeaways from a theologically trained business leader for the church? Randy, I’m excited that you’re going to be joining us today and thinking about your unique ministry.

Randy Casey-Rutland: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.

Doug Powe: I want to begin, Randy, by having you share a bit of your journey from being in theological education to running a company. That’s not the usual story we see for ministry.

Randy Casey-Rutland: Well, I’m not sure my journey, even at this point in life, looking back on it and trying to make sense of it, was a planned and intentional journey. I often tell people, “I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do when I grow up.” So I have meandered through the nonprofit world and the church world and the business world. My early passions were in computer science. I actually have a computer science undergraduate degree, actually it’s a math degree before there were things like computer science degrees, so that gives you an idea of how ancient I really am. So I’ve worked both in executive positions at for-profit companies and in not-for- profit companies and in the church. And I have enjoyed the interplay of both. There’s a lot of similarity in both and a lot of differences in both. But I find myself here now running a company. And one of the things I talk about in my company here, Town Management, is that we’re about building community. And that’s a different tack from what my competitors do. And 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: Let’s talk a little bit more about that focus on community. In the business world, of course, particularly when you’re in for-profit, people are looking at the bottom line. The goal is to make sure we can make as much money as we can. So community often doesn’t play a role in that unless, of course, it’s advantageous for profit. But I get the sense that you’re thinking about this differently. That community really is at the core of what you’re hoping to do and it’s not simply a way of making more money. Is that accurate? And can you say a little bit more about it?

Randy Casey-Rutland: Yeah, I would certainly say that’s accurate. I think the church is about making meaning, about being mission focused. And I think many nonprofits are mission-focused organizations, and the church is about making meaning. And it’s easy to think that’s what nonprofits and the church are all about. And that businesses are simply about making a profit. And that’s the separation there. But I find that to be really very simplistic. Because for a church, if at the end of the day, the church isn’t actually making money — I mean, if the church spends more money and is poorly run financially, poorly run administratively — these are some of the skills and interests of the Lewis Center — the church’s mission fails and it doesn’t succeed in its mission. Likewise with a business, the business, too, needs to make money at the end of the day, just like a nonprofit. But if all the business is working on is money, then there’s not anything here for the staff or the employees, for the clients or customers to latch on to, to have some interest and passion about. I think there’s actually a lot of overlap between the way nonprofits and for-profits approach the world, or at least good ones do. And in my company, I think part of it is just my own interest. I mean, I like building community. That’s an important thing to me and for me. I think that’s especially important in our world. In recent years, there has been a trend for us to self-segregate into groups that are like us, whatever that means. And that’s true in our churches. I think that’s an unfortunate trend in our churches. It’s certainly an unfortunate trend in many of our social institutions. My company, we provides a variety of services to communities and to groups. Yes, we provide those services for a profit. But we also want to, at the end of the day, leave these communities and groups with something better than they started with. And not just a laundry list of services. That’s something we try to do. And it helps shape our thinking in our approach to our clients and our customers.

Doug Powe: Thank you for that. You brought up something that I want to hear your thoughts on as we move forward. 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? What are what are those similarities? Can you sort of tease those out for us?

Randy Casey-Rutland: Well, I think churches at their best know that the financial and administrative work of the church has to succeed. Church leaders need to pay attention to the child protection policies, the insurance policies, the roof, the HVAC system, the parking lot, the financial books. At the end of the day, if those elements of the church are run poorly, the church does not succeed. It’s also true that, at the end of the day, if that’s primarily what church leaders are focusing on, then you’ve lost your focus on mission and passion and meaning making. So I think it’s extremely important that church leaders bring to the leadership of the church those administrative and financial skills, or recruit and identify volunteers who can bring those skills into the life of the church. I think the nice thing about a church is that there often are a lot of volunteers who are really good at this. And with a little bit of training and orientation and theological or meaning nurturing, can help refine their administrative and financial skills to help lead a church. Businesses often focus on that money and administrative part and can undermine the value, or miss the value, of meaning and mission.

I would also say that churches often are not good at measuring things. On the one hand, churches are full of statistics — members, donors, Sunday school or whatever it is, funerals and weddings, and that kind of thing. But I think the churches often are reluctant to measure what’s important in the fear of that kind of reducing their mission, their calling, their theological orientation to numbers somehow diminishes the value of that. I do think measuring a church’s mission is challenging. It’s not just money in the bank account. It’s not just people in the pews. It is something greater than that. But there is a great reluctance among churches to measure things that are important, to figuring out what’s important. And measuring that is an important milestone, 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, all kinds of stuff. They kind of over measure. And you can and I think that’s one of the ways in which nonprofits and churches particularly can strengthen their attention to the most important things about their calling and their mission. Figuring out what’s important to measure and figure out ways to measure that.

Doug Powe: I’m fascinated about how you talk about mission and meaning together and then administration sort of on the other side. And there’s this tension that exists between the two. And, of course, theological education focuses on meaning and mission, not so much on administration. But as you say, these two have to be held together. What is it that seminaries can do to better to prepare people to not lose the meaning in the mission? But if we’re not doing the administration well — and it seems like in our culture today because of decline, particularly in mainline denominations — the administrative piece is becoming even more important. So how should they think about this? If you are running a business, if you have this struggle going on, how do you get yourself back in balance?

Randy Casey-Rutland: Well, I think the theological education is an extraordinarily valuable period, a tool, a period of time. And I went to theology school many years ago. And I’m not quite sure why I was there. I mean, looking back, I think there was a sense of call in the sense of there are a lot of clergy in my family. But I realized after I had been there, particularly after I graduated, that for me a theological education helped me link and integrate my values, my meaning, you know, 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. And bringing those together in kind of an integrated view is a real gift of theological education. I think one of the real challenges of theological education is that it works both in shaping and linking those things together. It helps shape and it helps people in theological education to gain a better understanding of themselves and their strengths and their weaknesses. And then it also teaches practical skills. I can remember Doug Lewis often saying when I would hear him speak at churches, he would say, well, “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.” And, you know, if you put together a list of things you want in your clergy person providing leadership, even Jesus would fail at that list frequently. And we do expect our clergy to be excellent at running a small business. A church is a small business with staffing, with, you know, running a facility, getting the roofing fixed, running finances, you know, telling good jokes, having good bedside manner, you know, making visits, being a nice coffee companion. That’s expecting a lot at first. So good theological education is challenging in all of those ways, I do think the skill sets of running a small business and doing that well and all those kinds of things are very important. And I think one of the challenges of theological education and clergy leadership is to continue that education after the degree is awarded — the ongoing continuing education and self-education, formally and informally.

Doug Powe: So I’m going to stay in this line of thinking. So for individuals coming out today, because obviously you’re still very active in the church, what do you think would be critically important for students to know that they aren’t getting enough of right now as they complete their theological education? So if you could say they need to know these two or three things, even as they go into their first full-time appointment as the lead pastor, running their “small business”, what are the things that they need to know — that they may not even know they need to know?

Randy Casey-Rutland: Yeah. That’s a great question. I don’t know that I have a clear answer about that. 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. And if you’re not comfortable with that … I mean, we’ve all got flaws. We all have strengths and weaknesses. There’s some things we’re going to do better than others. And we really need to know who we are and what we could do well and not well. I think people need to know how to work with difficult people in the business world. The line is, “The customer is always right.” Well, you talk to anybody who leads business, I don’t know anybody who actually really 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. Now, I think one of the ways that I try to work with people like that is, when I’m at my desk, which is certainly not always, I see those most difficult and troublesome customers as an opportunity to learn. I mean, difficult people are part of our community. And in the business world, difficult people are customers. Now, sometimes they’re not profitable customers. And sometimes they are wrong. But they provide us with an opportunity to look at our business model, how we can be successful and perhaps help them as a person, even if you don’t help them in the context of our business. 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 about working with difficult people is important in our world today.

Doug Powe: So let’s sort of flip it a little bit. If you were to think about congregations sort of taking on some of the nomenclature of business, and trying to run the congregation sort of like a small business or a small non-profit, that can be great. But there also could be some dangers in that. So what do you think are the limitations of adapting this nomenclature of thinking of it through a business lens?

Randy Casey-Rutland: Well, I think that the church does have some unique needs. It’s got to run quite successfully, financially and administratively, and we talked about that. The key people in the church are often your volunteers. I mean, your staff are important in both business and in the church world, but it is the volunteer leadership that is it’s just really important. And I think in a church that works well, that the leadership of the church, the clergy and lay leadership have a common sense of mission and calling they share. That doesn’t mean they agree on everything. And it doesn’t mean they’re all alike. But they have some common passion and vision for what is our sense of mission. And I think finding ways to cultivate that. Among the volunteers, some of whom are volunteers for particular narrow areas of the church work — teaching Sunday school, or are bringing flowers and communion to the church or being an usher or whatever. I think it is important for people in the church to have cultivated a sense of understanding of what we’re being called to do. I think that’s really important and challenging for church leaders. That’s important in businesses, too, with in a smaller group, I mean, with staff and that kind of thing. But with 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 on that. I think the church has got to be run well. I mean maybe that’s just one of my biases. I like things to be run well. And I think when things are run poorly — financially, administratively — all those kinds of things, when they’re run poorly, they do erode the success of the mission. And that’s true in business and in churches.

Doug Powe: I like that phrase. Run well. And I’m wondering, and I’m sure this has happened to you at some point, either with a client or in a situation where you get the sense that you’re in over your head, and you’re not quite sure how you got there. But, you know, I’m in trouble. So I wonder again, for someone who’s in a congregation and they may realize that, you know, I really don’t understand finances, but I’m expected to figure out the budget. Or I may not understand a person now, but I got to figure out how to make this happen with volunteers and the staff that we do have. When you find yourself in over your head, how do you resolve that? How do you think through that?

Randy Casey-Rutland: Well, in the business world and the church world as well, certainly one of the things I do is I reach out to other people. You know, who are we connected with? Who is someone I can see as a resource to get advice from or sometimes it’s just helpful to unload. You know, “God, how did I get here. And what a message?” Sometimes I can find myself simply unloading to a friend or a colleague, a trusted friend or a colleague who can help me think through things and can help me figure something out on my own or in conversation. Sometimes it really is extremely valuable to have an expert in the field who can go, “Oh yeah! Of course. This happens all the time. You just need to do A, B, and C.” That can be helpful, too. I think one of the strengths of our declining denominational church is its connectionalism. That’s a United Methodist Church. But our connectivity in our denominations means that at our best, the denominations and our seminaries offer resources. You know, like the Lewis Center, or like someone in another church, in a denominational office that provides resources, skill sets, training, education. You know, there are situations in the business world and in the nonprofit world where you need an experienced legal professional, an experienced insurance professional, those kinds of things. And it’s really important when you are in a difficult, challenging, dangerous situation that you have trusted advisers, trusted legal advisers, trusted financial advisers. And if you don’t have those on your own, you need to reach out through known colleagues and sources to find people who can be of help to you in your difficult situation. It is just really critical.

Doug Powe: You’ve touched on this a little bit, but I wonder if you have any more thoughts of what the church can teach the business world. And you’ve hinted at this particularly through talking about meaning and mission. But are there other things that you think would be helpful? What’s taking place in the church world that businesses should pay more attention to?

Randy Casey-Rutland: You know, for me, there is a lot of overlap. I’m very active as a volunteer in the church. And I’m obviously active in my business. And so for me, there is just a lot of fluidity going back and forth. My life in the church informs, educates, uplifts my life in business and vice versa. This year, we’re just coming out of a pandemic. And it’s been a struggle. It’s been a struggle for my business, a struggle for my church. And it’s been a struggle everywhere for everyone, personally, financially, spiritually. In my business, one of the things that I realized was important through the struggle of the pandemic was to continue to find a way to nurture community, to nurture a sense of caring among the staff, but also among clients. When you’re wearing a mask and you’re only doing things remotely, that community work becomes really, really hard. That’s really true in our churches. This was a time for me when looking and trying to see what my church was doing, how my church was reaching out, trying to deal with the challenges of a life-threatening danger in our world, but also continuing to be attentive to ritual and meaning and relationships. At our best, our churches excel in the unusually challenging times. And our businesses can learn from them. And I think at our best, our churches have done the pandemic well in all their different, creative ways. And I think businesses can and should learn from that. I don’t have a list yet because I haven’t have a look back on it. I’m still in it.

Doug Powe: I understand. But I think that was a helpful answer. And I appreciate the way that thinking about you didn’t name it as pastoral care, but the importance of sort of pastoral care and what that can mean, I think you’re on target. That’s important. As we get ready to draw to a close, I’m going to have you think about a question that you really can’t completely answer. But I’m curious to get your thinking. As you know, in the church world and this comes out of the business world, this idea of adaptive leadership, and that’s become the sort of catchphrase —adaptive leadership. But as with all things catchphrases change, and you catch a new phrase that becomes the new thing. I’m curious, are there any trends seeing of where we’re headed in terms of the next catch phrase for poor leadership?

Randy Casey-Rutland: Well, my first thought is, I’m relieved to think that this is the only question I have fully answered. So I you know, the last year has really, as you know, the pandemic here has been challenging. And I think we all — churches, nonprofits, for-profits — are going to come out of this year understanding leadership differently, understanding success differently, understanding failure, in new ways. Because we’ve all had successes and failures. We’ve all had to adapt in unimaginable ways in order to just survive, much less succeed. So I think that notion of adaptive leadership is still good. I think one of the things that’s going to come out of this this year, and I don’t have the catch phrase for this, I think most organizations — for-profit and not-for-profit, churches and volunteer organizations — are going to be challenged with doing “both/and.” It used to be church was in-person. You could videotape, but “real church” was in-person. And, you know, a real dinner at a restaurant was in-person. You know, of those kinds of things. And then this last year, nothing was in-person — or virtually nothing — even medical care. I went to my doctor, you know, like this, right. I did go to a dentist in person. So we went from this in-person world. In my business there are tons of meetings and all these meetings were impersonal. I’m kind of an extrovert. And I enjoy the opportunity to shake hands. And, you know, coffee hour at the church is the highlight of the ritual on Sunday morning for me. I don’t tell the preacher that! I hope the preacher’s not listening to this. And now we’re coming back. And of course, my sense is that everyone expects us now in the business world to be effective and efficient at the in-person stuff, and equally effective and efficient at the remote stuff, and to do those simultaneously, equally well. I think we’re going to have challenges like that in churches and in businesses as well. I do I think there are some genuine advantages to doing services remotely. I attended the funeral of a dear friend, an older gentleman, and it was online this last year. It was wonderful because you lingered. I was not looking forward to it, but it was a wonderful experience. And I think churches are going to be challenged to figure out how to do “both/and” well. For our young people, for our children, for our older adults, for people who can’t make it to church on Sunday mornings. I don’t have the leadership word for that. But I think the organizational challenge is to find ways to continue to do what we did pre-pandemic well and what we’ve done well in the pandemic. And that’s going to continue to be taxing for our resources and for our leaders.

Doug Powe: Randy, thank you so much. I’ve enjoyed this conversation. And hopefully people will pick up on some of these themes as they start thinking about what it means to, as you say, run their own small nonprofit. And it’s important to think about the skills you need to make that happen. So thank you for your time today.

Randy Casey-Rutland: Thank you, Doug. I appreciate this opportunity. Thank you for what you’re doing at Wesley Theological Seminary and for the Lewis Center. I appreciate that very much.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks, we speak with Lovett H. Weems Jr. about Nehemiah and leadership.

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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 also co-editor with Jessica Anschutz of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024) and coauthor with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress, 2022). His previous books include The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020); Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations; 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.