4 Crucial Lessons Pastors Should Learn from Entrepreneurs

Many pastors are uncomfortable with relating any ministry experience to business experience. You often see pastors reject leadership principles or management strategies that are gleaned from business leaders.

If you’re in that camp, skip to the bottom of this post. The rest is not meant for you.

Why Entrepreneurs, Specifically?

Among business leaders, entrepreneurs are a unique set. Many established business leaders were entrepreneurs at one point in their journey. Now, after launching their idea, they’ve evolved toward sustainable growth or maintenance of a healthy business.

Entrepreneurs who are still in the first several years of their venture face different challenges and often approach those challenges in creative ways. Those challenges and the mindset of successful entrepreneurs contribute to lessons that pastors can learn.

Let’s take a look at a few of the unique lessons that pastors can learn from entrepreneurs.

Love the Clouds and Dirt

The clouds and dirt” is a phrase made popular by an entrepreneur named Gary Vaynerchuk. The idea is this: you’ll find the most success when you split your attention evenly between the vision and direction of the organization (the clouds) and the details and core of what your organization does (the dirt).

Everything else will slow you down, distract you from what’s most important, or derail you from your mission.

Visionary pastors talk about vision and mission a ton. That’s the clouds. Pastors who love to dream about the future tend to be pretty good about paying attention to the clouds. They tend to be prophetically gifted.

Many pastors are more akin to farmers. They love pastoral care, Bible studies, and ministry programs. They love to get their hands dirty in the day-to-day of ministry, often never looking up from their plow long enough to notice the clouds.

The best pastors, the ones who see healthy church growth year after year, are the ones who spend their days split between the dirt and clouds, and ignore everything in between. They delegate financial matters, human resources, leadership development, curriculum choices, annual calendar planning, etc.

Those pastors who live for the middle, the space between the clouds and the dirt, are the ones who are neither visionary nor dirty. They’re out of touch with the dirt of their ministry where fruit grows (people) and the clouds of their ministry where God is leading (vision).

Everything Exists to Serve People, Not the Organization

As businesses age, bureaucracy creeps in. Decisions begin to hinge on organizational needs. You have big bills, lots of employees, buildings, liabilities, and structure. It’s natural for those things to factor into decision-making over time.

But entrepreneurs, especially early stage leaders, have the freedom to make every decision, shape every product, write every email with the customer as their only concern.

Pastors should take note. As churches grow and age, systems and necessary concerns grow, too. Decisions begin to be made based on how next quarter’s giving will be impacted or whether families will leave. In fact, vital conversations never even happen because those topics are too risky to even discuss.

Pastor, take an inventory of what your church does. Do you have ministry programs that exist to appease a cartel of big givers? Do you have staff that you haven’t fired because they’re too entrenched with too many people and firing them would lose too many families? Do you reject necessary training requirements because you’re afraid your volunteers will quit?

There are so many more examples of how ministry leaders can slip into decision-making that serves the concerns of the organization instead of what’s best for the people. It’s painful and scary to move toward people-driven decision-making, but it’s absolutely necessary for the future health of your church.

Innovation is a Red Herring

I’m naturally an early-adopter. I like to try new technology, new restaurants, new marketing tactics, etc. It’s usually the innovation in new things that’s most interesting to me. Innovation feels like it brings new opportunities.

But innovation can become a distraction from things that are more important. Innovation can be good, but when it means neglecting existing things that work, then innovation can be bad.

Most entrepreneurs are drawn to new ways of doing things. Innovative products and strategies always promise more growth, more revenue, bigger margins, or increased efficiency. Entrepreneurs tend to believe that innovating on their product or service will produce better outcomes because, naturally, everyone is attracted to innovation just like them.

The truth is that very little innovation is useful. Chasing new things is rarely fruitful. In church, like in business, innovation is only good if it serves the best interest of your people. Innovation that’s cool or cutting edge or interesting, but that doesn’t explicitly and tangibly serve your people, is a red herring. It’s a trap.

Instead of chasing innovation, pursue improvement. Get better at what you do. Serve your people better. Smooth out the bumps in your ministry’s interactions with your people. Tighten your staff’s focus on serving your people.

You’ll almost always have better ROI when you focus on improvement over innovation.

Competition is Always a Distraction

Much like focusing on innovation, focusing on your competition is a distraction. In business, competition is usually a similar business across the street. For internet businesses like ours, competition can come from anywhere in the world.

Focusing on competition takes your eye off the ball. The ball, in this metaphor, is your people. Focus on your people and serving them and you’ll do well.

For churches, however, focusing on the competition isn’t just a distraction. It’s a derailment of mission. Of course, the church across the street isn’t your competition, although focusing on beating them is super bad.

But worrying about real competition is just as distracting. In the summer where I live, the beach is our church’s competition. In many big cities, NFL football is the competition. In most of America, “spending time with family” or weekend traveling is actually competition.

These are the things that people choose other than engaging with their church family.

Focusing, worrying, and trying to beat these types of competitors is always fruitless. People don’t skip the beach because the pastor said to come to church. People don’t skip the game because the music at church is hip. People don’t decide on Saturday night to go make Sunday morning a priority because your sermon series is super relevant.

People make decisions to engage in their church community based on a hundred small factors. And of those factors, you may have a small influence on a half dozen. You can make their kids love church, their teens love the music, and the dad love the coffee, but you have little influence over their life priorities or their kid’s soccer schedule.

And, because you have such a small impact on those things, there’s no point in focusing on them. You can’t change them or move them. You can only serve them well, pray for them, and make it easy to engage with their church community by lowering barriers to entry or re-entry.

Why Pastors Should Learn from Business Leaders

I believe pastors can learn a lot from business leaders for the same reason that business leaders can learn a lot from pastors. In James 1:5, there is no qualification that God only grants wisdom to pastors who pray for it. There is a wealth of wisdom in the hearts and minds of business leaders.

As a pastor, you should seek out that wisdom and, through the Spirit, discern what is good to apply in your church leadership context. As you’ve heard before, “take the meat and leave the bones.”

What’s more, a significant portion of our modern American church structure and polity is taken from the business world. The traditional church committee structure is taken from from Rockefeller’s management style. Vision and mission statements are a recasting of the traditional business plan. Even our hiring of church staff is modeling after business department leaders.

Those are some of the helpful things that church leaders have learned from business leaders in the last century. I believe we still have more wisdom to glean from them.

Scott Magdalein

Scott is the founder of ServeHQ and has over a decade of experience as an Executive Pastor, Worship Pastor, and College Pastor. You can chat with him directly using the widget at the bottom of this page.

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