It is often said, “Ministry is nothing like business.” “A situation can’t be handled the same way in ministry as you would handle it in the business world.” These phrases have caused great conflict in my life over recent years.
Before I went into full time ministry, I spent 17 years in retail optics. While in college, I spent a few years as a music buyer for a small Christian bookstore. I’ve worked on home install crews for an energy conservation company, and like many other people in life, I worked in fast food, call centers, and even had a few paper routes.
In the world of retail optics I had to manage, physical, human, and environmental resources. I had to lead several different teams simultaneously. Balancing the needs of a doctor’s office staff, a lab and retail management team, a retail sales team, and a manufacturing team, can prove challenging. Each team has a different set of goals they are trying to reach. Often these goals were in conflict with another team’s goals. Getting all of these people to work in harmony was a great challenge, a challenge that I absolutely loved to take on. I failed often, especially as a young leader and manager. I was also very successful. When everything finally clicked, it was beautiful, magical, and fun. It meant our team overcame differences in gender, generational gaps, culture, work ethic, religious and sexual preferences, philosophy, ethics, education, personality and politics. We served as one unit for one purpose. How did we do it? It wasn’t ministry, or was it? It wasn’t business, or was it? It was personal. We made it personal, and that is when the magic happened.
In the business world you constantly hear the phrase “It’s not personal it’s business.” In the world of ministry you hear the phrase “It’s not business, it’s ministry.” However you usually only hear the phrase, “It’s personal” in human resources when someone is getting in trouble. I’m reminded of a scene in the movie Erin Brockovich, where her boss says, “It’s not personal.” She fires back, about the time she spends away from her kids, how she personally won over these clients by getting in their lives so they would trust her, and how a stranger is watching her children. She screams back “Don’t tell me this isn’t personal.”
In retail optics it was always personal to our customers. It was their hard earned money we were asking them to spend with us. Customers would come into our space. Our stores was designed completely with them in mind. How they shopped, what they wanted to see, how they waited, where they sat, stood, took time to think, and how they interacted with our staff. We sold eyewear. Was that really all we were selling? No, we were selling us to them. We were trying to get a second date, we were trying to earn their trust, gain their confidence, and prove we knew what we were doing. We were trying to convince them that we could competently serve them. It was a tough sell.
We were trying to get people to invest in something that we were experts in. We knew they needed our services. Many didn’t want what we were offering. Our staff waited patiently and continued to engage them. The toughest customers were those that didn’t want to need us. They had the hardest time surrendering to that. They worked against us reluctantly, not able to do this on their own. They had to surrender a part of their will to us in order to receive help. If you have ever surrendered to someone, a doctor, a personal trainer or weight loss coach, or maybe a professor, parent or boss, you know what I’m talking about. A little piece of you has to die. Once the surrender happened it was personal.
We made sure we took them straight to what they needed. We clearly explained options. We took time to get to know them, to understand how they lived life, so we could meet their needs. We earned their trust, gained their confidence and respect and had to tailor our approach to not scare them away. It was personal, and when it’s personal, both of us were vulnerable. That’s when we had to protect them from us.
The temptation to sell them whatever benefitted us, was there. The temptation to take advantage of them was there. The opportunity to use this person to advance our personal sales agenda was there. The underlying ethos was, we made it personal.
We made sure we treated them like family. They got what they needed. We never took advantage of them. We needed and wanted them to come back, and not so we could hit em’ up harder the next time. We wanted them back because they were now family. We trusted each other, we served each other, and we made disciples out of them. They would leave and share their experience with others, often escorting their friends and neighbors back to our stores to ensure they had similar experiences. It was personal.
After being in full time ministry for almost a decade now, I see more similarities than differences. People come to our church, some reluctantly. They don’t want to need us and they don’t want what we have to offer. We are asking them to invest their hard earned money so we can continue to serve people. They just want to see clearly. They want their vision back. We earn their trust, gain their confidence and respect. We tailor our weekend services and ministries so we don’t scare them away. We want a second date. Our physical spaces, environments, staff and volunteers are all here to serve our guests. It’s personal, and both of us are vulnerable. We know just like in business, if they have a bad experience the company we represent earns that entire reputation. We are representatives of Christ to our community. Every encounter carries the weight of how a person perceives Jesus.
Once surrender happens, we have to protect them from us. We know the stories of Jim Jones and David Koresh, but surely they don’t think we are like that. They know those stories too. They also know the stories of fallen pastors and TV evangelists that stole millions. We are going to ask reluctant skeptics to invest in what we are experts in, but we are not experts. We’ve all been those wounded reluctant and skeptical souls. We are just a bit further down the road then they are. We know what they need, Jesus. That is when the magic happens.
We don’t have to figure out how to fix them. We leave that up to the relationship they develop with Him. He’s the expert. We walk with them until they want to have a personal relationship with the expert. Then we simply point the way and hold the door. Then we walk life out together in community like family.
The opportunity to sell them on our agenda is there, that’s what religion is. The opportunity to manipulate their situation to enrich us exists, that’s how empires are built. Finally, the opportunity to prey on there deepest wounds to empower us and enslave them exists. That is how cults are formed. Making it personal is how we protect each other. If we do our jobs well, they will leave us, share their experiences with their friends, family and neighbors, and in some cases escort them back to ensure they have the same experience. We don’t do this to grow a church, we do this because we are the church. It’s not business, and it’s not ministry, it’s personal.....and we are family.