Review by Rev. Jeff Seaton.
“The Business of the Church: The Uncomfortable Truth that Faithful Ministry Requires Effective Management” (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, May 18, 2010).
In The Business of the Church, John Wimberly takes on what he terms “the uncomfortable truth that faithful ministry requires effective management.” With twenty-five years pastoring a congregation in Washington, DC, Wimberly seems to speak from long experience about the consequences of ineffective management, and describes in very practical terms a way out of the mess, and into a more effective future for congregations.
Wimberly approaches his task through the lenses of three overarching concepts:
- the church as a system, building on the insights of systems theory;
- the church as a business, taking seriously the secular world’s measures of transparency, ethical behaviour, and effectiveness; and
- the role of the pastor as manager.
In his description of the role of the pastor as manager, Wimberly quotes Peter Drucker: “Management is about human beings. Its task is to make people capable of joint performance, to make their strengths effective and their weaknesses irrelevant.”
Throughout the book, Wimberly works with a model of inputs and outputs of the congregational system, with people, facilities, and finances as the inputs that allow for the outputs of proclamation, pastoral care, program and mission. The key for Wimberly is the understanding of the congregation as a system, made up of smaller subsystems, and existing within larger cultural and societal systems. The systems approach is rooted both in the work of modern theorists such as Edwin Friedman, and in Paul’s description of the church as the body of Christ.
The benefit of understanding the congregation as a system is that it allows managers to get past the work of reactively putting out fires, and instead plan proactively to continually enhance the health and performance of the congregational system. A key insight of this approach is the need for anxiety management. When we understand behaviours and actions as responses to anxiety in the system, we can respond with appropriate tools.
Wimberly also highlights the importance of a strategic plan or vision as a key part of effective management. A vision and strategic plan help to guide congregational decisions, provide direction for the future, and serve as a matrix to judge performance – of individual staff, of teams, and of the congregation as a whole.
In his discussion of the pastor as manager, Wimberly says that “the closest thing a congregation has to a CEO is its head of staff—the pastor.” While noting the different approaches present in different denominational systems, Wimberly asserts that in every system “the buck stops on the head of staff’s desk.” What Wimberly is getting at here is the importance of having clarity in the system about who is responsible for what.
An important distinction in the book is the distinction between leadership and management. For Wimberly, the key element of leadership is the capacity to discern vision; while the key task of management is successful implementation of the elements of the strategic plan that will lead to the fulfilment of the vision. Wimberly notes that both qualities are needed, and that pastors and other leaders may indeed possess both qualities; what is important is the ability to know when leading or managing (or a combination of both) is the best response.
In three chapters devoted to personnel, facilities, and church finances, Wimberly moves beyond the theoretical foundations, to describe very concrete responses to the questions faced by congregational leaders/managers. In the chapter on personnel, Wimberly makes a strong connection between congregational vision and performance evalution, stressing the need for all of the ‘people’ parts of the system to be in alignment with the plan. In the chapters on facilities and finance, the book takes on the tone of a handbook, with detailed explanations on approaches to church cleaning services, and instructions on how to read a financial statement.
On the whole, I found this to be a practical, how-to manual for church managers. I think it would be a good book to give to members of a congregation’s governing board.
This review was presented as a paper by Rev. Jeff Seaton in the course “Introduction to Christian Leadership,” Doctor of Ministry Program, Duke University. © 2014.