Sunday, 5 June 2011

What business is your congregation in?

My background is in business. One important question for businesses - a question which, when answered unwisely, has meant the demise of many businesses - is this "What business are you in?"

In the US, there was once a massive and thriving ice business. The clever and industrious organizations in this industry harvest ice from fresh water sources in the winter and stored it until the warmer weather when it would be delivered to households around the US - and even overseas - where it would be used to keep food from spoiling in the heat. There was, of course, no mechanical refrigeration at the time.

When refrigeration was invented and began to be commercialized, it was not initially the smooth, quiet, reliable, and adjustable appliances we now know.

It was noisy. It was large. It was very expensive. It was easy for the ice producers to laugh it off as no threat.

Of course, refrigeration began to improve. And as refrigeration improved and become more competitive, the ice producers had to respond. They did so by finding ever better, more effective ways to harvest and store ice. They invented great equipment for transporting and cutting blocks of ice. They developed every more efficient ways of insulating the ice in storage.  They were certain of one thing - they were in the ICE BUSINESS and they needed to remain competitive.

Well, you know the end of this story. You are unlikely to run into someone at a cocktail party today who proudly announces "I am in the ice harvesting business." Refrigeration won.

The ice business was successful in continuing to improve what they did in the face of the threat from refrigeration. They failed to make a key shift however that could have made them business titans still today.

They concluded that they were in the ICE BUSINESS rather than the COOLING BUSINESS.

What business is your congregation in?

Many congregations would produce answers to this question that reflect what they do today - such things as sermons and hymns, committee meetings, church buildings, members, pledges, organ music. They have been so resistant to change that I can only guess that they firmly believe these ways of doing things to be their "business."

What business is your congregation in?

Is it not in the "life transformation" business? The "meaning-making and purpose-finding" business? The "gratitude-building, connection-revealing, justice-seeking" business?

If we come to these kinds of answers and we begin to think beyond our equivalent of the ice business, how then do we do things differently?

Look around your world. Who is doing your business well? They may be at early stages and still be noisy and inefficient, but this may be tomorrow's sleek stainless steel refrigerator!

What business is your congregation in?

The answer to that question and your response to it will determine the fate of your congregation.


  1. A good way of looking at it!

  2. Love it, and having spent some years in the corporate world, too, appreciate it all the more. Allow me to expand it, because I think the whole UU movement right now is (not) wrestling with this same issue. I think we have defined our work as something like "the most liberal version of doing church," due partly to our U.S. American history and partly to the fact that most of our members come out of churchy histories. AND, I think that is like considering ourselves to be in "the ice business."

  3. I suppose my question is how do you transition from one business to the other? If one week you just stopped doing "sermons and hymns, committee meetings, church buildings, members, pledges, organ music" and did something else (whatever that might be) then the shock would be too much and the congregation would collapse.

    And what about things that are perfectly nice and pleasant, but not related to the core business of "life transformation"? Do you ban them? Let them die out? Change them?

  4. Stephen - it's really a question of how you understand your core business. The ice industry - had it understood itself as the "food preservation" industry - would have paid close attention to emerging alternatives. They would have made investments in refrigeration and might have brought out a side-line of food drying and pickling supplies.

    For congregations, we have a tendency to ignore the other things going on. It's not a matter of making an overnight switch, but not allowing ourselves to be blissfully unaware (or dismissive) of other ways of doing "church" or the other ways (e.g. spiritual "colleges" and centres) by which people are meeting what are essentially the same needs.

    So, it's not about making an overnight switch from ice and whips to refrigerators and leather cup holders, but rather an awareness and openness that prepares us for the future...

    Hope that helps...


  5. This is a great and thought-provoking analogy. It also brings up the question: who is your competition? Some (staff) members at my church seem to think our biggest competitors are area evangelical mega-churches. But isn't that the equivalent of a scenario where the ice industry laughs off the refrigerator industry because they're too busy focusing on...stove producers?

  6. Thanks for this! I KNEW there was something stale and disappointing about "doing church" just for the church's sake.

    Now to navigate this chasm between fresh understanding and congregational reality ...

  7. Good stuff. Even with your lens, it's still a difficult task. What is our "business," as you say -- I might say mission. If we can agree on that, how to best implement it? It's a difficult business, this church thing, but you make a good point about how we think of it.

  8. @afreefaith - I agree completely. It's still a difficult business even if you have a helpful understanding of what yoir business is. Ice harvesters would not necessarily have become successful refrigerator manufacturers... But had they recognized that their refrigeration was their business rather than just ice, then they would at least have had a chance. As it is, they are a historical curiosity.

    How much of modern religion will end up as nothing more?