Ministry as Business or Business as Ministry?

We get suspicious when faith and money are mixed.  Thoughts of a greedy Judas Iscariot, gold in the Vatican, or Jim and Tammy Baker’s Heritage USA Theme Park come to mind.  Add the prospect of business and you come up with New Era, the investment/fundraising pyramid scheme fraud of a generation ago. Or we might think of an honest but failing religious thrift store, job training endeavor or private school that always seems to operate in the red in need of donations to be bailed out.  Best to keep faith and business separate. Far away from each other to avoid contamination of either.

One of the most exciting stories in the gospels is in John 21 when Jesus tells the disciples to throw their net on the other side of the boat after catching nothing all night.  Immediately they had a catch of 153 large fish.  The excitement was not just the pleasure of catching fish, but the income Jesus produced for career fisherman who had gone back to work after the crucifixion. In the book of Job, God rewarded a rich man, Job, with twice the wealth he once had, after going bankrupt.  The apostle James writes that God takes an interest in business endeavors when he teaches us to say, “If God wills”, then we will go into this city or that city, do business there and make a profit.

So God seems to have the courage to mix business and faith, even though the human heart is sorely tempted to love mammon or God, to pursue one or the other.  He allows the freedom for us to go off base and fail in business or in our faith as each seems to operate by different rules.  Divine guidance even seems to enjoy leading us into that very conflict.

Maybe so we can learn.  Learn what’s important and what’s not, what we need and what we don’t, what is right and what’s wrong with us.  We may even learn something of God’s nature as the One who marries our own desires, strategic planning and hard work to Divine blessing and provision.

One point of wisdom is recognizing the difference between doing ministry as business and doing business as ministry.

When we do ministry as a business, the bottom line is financial sustainability and profit.  When business principles determine the final decision as we are dealing with human lives, spiritual values, personal relationships and God’s reputation, our plans often fall short of both business and spiritual goals.  Compromises may include management and presentation of facts in a way that promote a successful material outcome.  It might be advantageous to cut off questions or demand order/compliance as a condition of participation in order to make a venture prosper.  Common kindness, generosity, sacrifice and honesty may cost too much.  We can’t allow some ministry practices or principles of justice and mercy because they might jeopardize the support needed to carry on ministry at all.  That’s ministry as a business endeavor.

When we do business as ministry, however, principles of justice and mercy, honesty, compassion and stewardship determine what must be done.  St. Paul was in the tent-making business.  His preaching made him unpopular enough to be stoned and put in jail more than once.  This doesn’t help your brand or maximize human resources.  Choices are made to do business in a way that enables and encourages ministry.  What will create the best social/spiritual environment?  What decisions result in the multiplication of good works and increase wisdom of the community?   Which practices reveal faith and hope by example?  These aren’t simple questions to answer, but they are in the forefront rather than the typical concerns a board of directors might have.

Doing ministry as ministry and business as business may be less complicated, but doesn’t follow the stories of fishermen, tentmakers, farmers and businessmen recorded in Scripture.  Doing business as ministry requires the creativity and courage to find wholeness in all we do with clear priorities.  It demands freedom from fear and tradition.