The business of managing a parish

Why business matters and what priests need to know

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The idea that managing a church is like managing a business may make some of the faithful’s skin crawl.

But with church attendance in a general free fall and budget cuts requiring some pastors to do more with less, business principles put to good use in a church setting could be the answer to prayers.

Educators and priests explain:

Simeon May, chief executive, National Association of Church Business Administration, Richardson, Texas

Why Business Matters: “A church isn’t out to make a profit like a business, but that doesn’t mean it can lose money,” said May. He suggests that having good business practices in place, such as internal financial controls, budgeting and a social-media marketing plan can mean the difference between a congregation expanding its membership or shutting it doors.

What Priests Need to Know: “If you want to spread the gospel of Jesus, you need to market your church,” said May. He went on to explain that at the very minimum, it means having a website that’s attractive and easy to use. It also means embracing free social media such as Facebook and Twitter to spread the news of your congregation’s events and connect with potential members. “Like it or not, people are using those mediums, and you may miss them if you don’t,” advised May.

The Rev. Buddy Stallings, priest-in-charge, St. Bartholomew’s Church, New York City

Why Business Matters: “The notion that ‘God will provide’ is a spiritual truth, for me, but not a very good business plan,” said Stallings, who was previously the executive vice president of a management company that owned and operated a chain of more than 50 nursing homes. Stallings believes this kind of thinking is a result of viewing religion as something that’s different from the rest of life, rarified somehow, not subject to business principles. “The result is that religion isn’t subject to the demands of real life, such as paying the bills and living within a budget,” he said. Ignoring these financial realities can have serious negative financial consequences for a congregation, he cautioned.

What Priests Need to Know: “Entrepreneurialism always involves risk and is a requirement for innovative church management, but it only works if it’s rooted in good, reasonable planning,” said Stallings.

Charles Zech, director, Villanova University’s Center for the Study of Church Management, Villanova, Penn.

Why Business Matters: “No church has enough resources, and we can’t afford to waste any,” said Zech. He pointed out that rectors who don’t understand finance will waste financial resources. Similarly, pastors who don’t understand marketing or evangelization will not only have difficulty in growing their congregations, they will be unsuccessful in understanding the various segments of their congregations and meeting their differing needs. He warned that not having an understanding of human resources could also put a rector and a congregation at risk.

What Priests Need to Know: Zech said the most telling “aha” moment in a civil-law course for church management comes when students learn that practices they had taken for granted were in fact illegal. For example, churches may hire only members of their faith, but they can’t discriminate on the basis of age. “They’re subject to the same laws governing negligence that everyone else is,” Zech warned.


(Veronica Dagher is New York City-based reporter and an Education for Ministry graduate. She is a recipient of a Religion Newswriters Foundation Lilly Scholarship and a parishioner at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City.)

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