We are truly “strangers in a strange land.” In Robert A. Heinlein’s Hugo Award winning science fiction novel by that title, the main character, Valentine Michael Smith, returns to Earth as an adult after being raised on Mars. His return starts a transformation of society that had both good and not so good results. After eight months of being a “corporate refugee” turned Executive Director in a Colorado church, I am feeling a little more like Mr. Smith everyday. Some of the changes that I am authoring in our church have been received as very positive. But others are not being so warmly received and causing me to wonder if the end that befell Mr. Smith may be my ultimate destiny as well. If you have not read the book, in the end he was attacked and killed by a mob!

Of course I am being factious and dramatic to make a point. But I still wonder at times what the long-term impacts will be of this latest chapter in church history, when leaders look back on this season of change. When I asked David Fletcher what he was hearing from his network regarding the influx of ex-corporate leaders into senior leadership roles in local churches, he replied, “Not enough.” I mentioned some of my conversations with other Executive Pastors and senior leaders and suddenly found myself volunteering to write an article for the website. But as I sat down to write some initial thoughts, I found myself with more questions than answers and the story that I referred to earlier haunting the process. I think we are still too early in the process to really know how it will end for some of us. But I would also add that Romans 8:28-29 gives me hope; that in the end, God will bring all things together for good … and the angry mobs won’t actually get me!

I would be willing to bet that my story is probably similar to all of you who sit in the same second chair that I do. I have twenty plus years of experience at different levels in corporate America and have the scars (both psychological and familial) to prove it. I have a Bachelors in Business Administration, a Masters in Management, and 24+ years of leadership training from Willow Creek that helps me negotiate some of the issues and challenges facing my church today. But none of my experiences, either church provided or from higher education, could have prepared me for the radical differences between the corporate and church worlds. Of course that did not stop me from thinking that I could make the transition with a minimal amount of trauma—to me and those around me; so far I think that has been mostly true. But we are only a few chapters in—eight months is not enough time to be able to tell if what I have done so far is going to be positive or negative, long term.

When the Elders interviewed me, they asked what my personal calling was. Without hesitation I promptly answered, “To make the church the best place on earth to work, because it is not and should be!” Most, if not all of you are probably shaking your heads knowingly at my naiveté—and maybe I can’t blame you. But I believe that God has placed this calling in my heart and He will give me the ability, grace, patience, wisdom, discernment, and, of course, the strength to see it through. What does the best place on earth to work look like? That is a work in progress at this point, but I believe the main focuses should be the standard balanced scorecard attributes of a healthy and spiritually-growing congregation, stable and audited finances, people treasuring ministry processes, and a staff that loves Christ first, their family second, and feels appreciated and fulfilled by their service at the church. How that looks in your church is up to your Senior Pastor and Elders to decide, so I won’t clutter this article with those details. But how do we, the ex-corporate, stand the best chance of helping God bring a new wind of change to His church using our training, experience, and desire to serve God?

As I reviewed my 8+ month adventure in this strange new world, a series of observations and questions flashed to my mind. I wonder if you, other Executive Pastors, have experienced the same and have come up with better ways to adapt that I can learn from? Below I have printed my initial list to ponder; I then broke down a few of the points that stood out the most to start the ball rolling. Hopefully this can start a conversation that we all can benefit from and God can use to make this season of change in the church world the most positive that it can be. Here is my starting list:

  1. The church is full of people “under construction” and, in some ways, is worse than corporate.
  2. Corporate is church code for wrongness and heartlessness.
  3. The church needs to define what Hard-Doable vs. Hard-Undoable is.
  4. I don’t have to fear failure because there is always grace and forgiveness.
  5. Change is great…until it changes something.
  6. There is an enormous amount of broken people in the world and helping them is part of the job.
  7. This is “Corporate Jungle 101” level stuff…
  8. People are more important than the right choices, processes, and procedures.
  9. There is no inventory for sale, we just have feelings.
  10. Success is not defined by people, margin, market share, or advancement. Only by God.

The church is full of people “under construction” and, in some ways, is worse than corporate. 

Just the other day another ex-corporate person joined our staff and her reaction to this harsh truth hit me again like a ton of bricks. As I watched her process the fact that church people are still growing in Christ and that they sometimes say nasty things to each other, I was reminded of the first time it happened to me. I have been around church staff and members for over 25 years and have seen some stuff that took my breath way. People were terminated suddenly and families were impacted in deep and long term ways. So I was not completely naïve to the possibility or even likelihood that it would happen again. But when it did, it still floored me. Now it was happening to this “newbie” and it hurt my heart to see her misconceptions about working on a church staff blown to pieces.

As I switched hats into my role of mentor and shepherd with her and her husband, I found myself reminding her that this side of Heaven, things did not always work like God wants them to. We are all fallen people, saved by grace, who have the gift/bane of free choice—and sometimes we use it wrongly or hurtfully. But thankfully, God is there to step in and help us desire to not hurt others and to serve them first, instead of ourselves. That seemed to help a little, but the hurt and shock of reality was still fresh in her eyes.

As one of the primary shepherds of the staff, I find books like Ken Sande’s The Peacemaker useful for giving me tools—like the proper use of Matthew 18, guidelines for prayer-saturated conversations focused on reconciliation, and basic arbitration techniques. This is helpful as I encourage the staff to keep short accounts with each other and not settle for fractured relationships.

I believe that there is a critical time, shortly after a new person joins a church staff, when we have to be very intentional in conversations with them to make sure they understand the reality of life behind the shiny weekend services. Since we have already navigated our exposure to the reality of church life—compared to the nastiness of life inside corporate America—and still found it to be much better to work at a church, we can help them process what they will experience. We can come up with ways to set boundaries, ask God for help in prayer, and find trustworthy friends to process any hurts with before they fester into a long term infection.

The church is chock full of sinners (us included) who are under construction, trying their best to follow Christ in a really messed up world. If you take the normal relational friction that occurs between impassioned and focused people and add in the accumulated junk that happened to us as we grew up in a fallen world, is it any wonder that we get along with each other at all? But hopefully God’s grace is at work in your heart and your staff’s lives and will help us deal with the countless soap operas that happen behind the scenes each day. This one area of our new world may have the highest potential to shipwreck our ability to positively impact God’s church.

I believe the key is to focus more on ourselves and our ability to absorb grace. We need to give out grace first, and then we will be equipped to model it for our people—sincerely and in life-giving ways. If you bale out prematurely due to a lack of patience, you will be short changing God’s chance to use you in a powerful and life-giving way in His church.

Corporate is church code for nastiness and heartlessness!

“You are taking the heart out of church with your corporate-ness and I don’t like it” was another of those statements that just about knocked me out of my high-backed fake leather chair! I truly believe that God has called me to serve Him in this church and that I was helping Him make the church run more efficiently, manage our money and people better, and preparing us to better accomplish our strategic goals.

But after this statement was made, I began doubting myself—and even God, to some extent—and questioning whether I belonged here or not. Was I really making the church a cold, unfeeling place like a corporate business? That was the last thing I wanted and one of the biggest reasons I had done the “Jonah thing” for over ten years. I had run away from serving the church with my corporate training and experience. But according to this person, the very gift I thought I was, my true value, was, in actuality, the thing that was destroying our church—and I was the author!

To some of the people in my church, the term corporate has become a politically correct cuss word that church people use to describe something that has the potential to destroy, instead of a methodology to bring renewal and much needed improvements. In a lot of ways, I really cannot blame them, considering the world they are immersed in for 50+ hours a week. The last place they want to run into corporate-ness is in their local place of worship and grace-centered community. So helping people redefine this dangerous word has become a major part of my thought processes each week.

One of the strategies I have found to be successful has been to remind the wounded that our Lord is a God of excellence and perfection. Everything around us speaks to His desire that things are orderly, efficient, accountable, and not the least bit wasteful. Why should that be any different in His church?

The parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 is a story that Christians recognize. The parable is a useful way to help people see why some corporate practices are good and actually help us invest God’s resources wisely. That works for items like finance policies and redesigning sloppy or outdated ministry processes.

However, it grinds to a halt in areas that pertain directly to dealing with people who may be hyper-sensitive to anything that seems like the cold-hearted policies of a law and rule driven corporate HR department. In those circumstances, I have had to defer to my “ministry professionals” and long-term staff leaders, whose church DNA helps them see the person’s side much quicker then I would. There have been several instances when I have stalled a much-needed change or policy in order to season it with the softer language or mind-set of church professionals. That strategy has served me incredibly well and kept me out of some real hot water.

In these instances, the brilliance of Romans 12—how the body of God works when all the pieces are allowed to engage properly and according to their giftedness—is an incredibly powerful tool for us second chair leaders. The policy or change will still be able to make its positive impact. Except now it will be in the proper parlance of the new kingdom you are trying to help, and not in the uncaring efficiency of the one you left.

You may say: “But it still hurts my feelings when they accuse me of being corporate, as if that is a bad thing!” And I agree with you and share your angst. But don’t let it get to you. Instead, use the emotional energy you would have put into stewing into helping you continue growing and adapting to your new surroundings. Corporate America’s refugees have been sneaking into the church world for a very long time and making a positive impact, despite the reputation that taints them. So instead of flashing to anger, which is a secondary emotion to hurt, choose to channel your emotional energy into educating the ill informed and helping them see you as a positive influence.

John McEnroe was a master at this redirecting process and used it during thousands of tennis matches to hit killer passing shots. The game you are in is far more important. It has life or death consequences. Focus on redirecting, instead of wallowing. God will be greatly honored and people treasured.

The church needs to define what Hard-Doable vs. Hard-Undoable is

Bill Hybels explained these terms once in a leadership setting; defining them for a completely burned out and disenfranchised leadership team has incalculable value to your church. What we do for church is really, really hard! Besides the fact that we are trying to lead stressed and overly busy volunteers and staff, there is an evil force in this world who is bent on stopping us with whatever means possible! Sometimes what we have started believing is impossible may just be appropriately hard. Helping people see that simple truth is another value-add that our corporate experience can bring.

In corporate America, saying that you cannot do whatever you were asked to is generally a one-way ticket to an extended unpaid vacation. When I was approached with seemingly unrealistic time frames, slashed project budgets, and insufficient people resources and then told to make it happen or else, I did because I did not have a choice! But in the church world, we are reluctant to hassle people too much or burn them out; that causes us to modify expectations too quickly.

Maybe we are missing out on some truly creative ways to address hard situations because we didn’t push long enough before throwing in the towel. I think church leaders don’t always explore new, different, or crazy ways to get things done because they are not always driven by the fear of losing their jobs. That is not to say that I agree with that tactic or mindset, but rather to pitch the question as to whether or not we should stick with a deadline a little bit longer. Perhaps if leaders were pushed by a new definition of what hard is, then we will see stalled ministries get launched, low performers replaced and churches grow. I know with myself, some of my most creative answers to tough problems came during a time when I was challenged more than I was normally comfortable. That growth would not have occurred if I had thrown in the towel and declared the challenge impossible.

I am not advocating introducing fear as a motivator as a way to jump start growth and change. But I am wondering if we could rethink the way we approach setting expectations. We help our people understand that just because something is hard, it still can be do-able at the end of the day.

Hard-Undoable is more like stuff that permanently damages people’s relationship with Christ, their families, or their health. Hard-Doable may mean that for a season they will be pushed and stretched beyond what is normal for them. Some additional stress may be felt by their families as well. But the time frame is temporary and things will return to normal, soon.

I think Hard-Doable is defined as something that draws the very best out of you and calls you to a new level in your personal growth. It allows God to use you for bigger and better things. Hard-Doable also forces you to your knees in weakness so that God can supercharge your gifts and use you in new and more powerful ways for His kingdom.

Finally, Hard-Doable causes you to seek out new sources for techniques or strategies that will help you accomplish the seemingly impossible. During times of extreme challenge, I have found myself seeking counsel from others or wisdom from books. I would not have taken the time to research if it had not been for the pressure I was under. I had to look outside myself or my current skills. Hard-Doable has a way of knocking down my pride and causing me to be willing to admit that I need help. Just plain Doable doesn’t.

What we do in the church is just too important to the furthering God’s grand plan! To quote the ancient Jedi Master, Yoda, “There is either do or not do, there is no try. That is why you fail.” If failure is not an option in corporate America, and all they focus on is selling widgets and such, how can it be for us who are talking about people’s eternal souls!

This is an area that I believe can bring serious value to the church, as long as we properly modify the techniques and thought processes to include a healthy amount of people-treasuring in our strategies and techniques. There is serious upside potential to helping our leaders not look at impactful ministry as Hard-Undoable. Instead, we can provide them with encouragement to stay engaged and mindsets that leverage a mighty God. This gives Him a chance to work in and through them before they are stymied by the seemingly impossible.

I like to think of it as the shepherding side of me coming out, as well as a desire to help my staff become all that they can be. It is not always comfortable or a warm fuzzy to push people a little bit more than they are comfortable. But once you have, and the results grow your church and the staff member in new and exciting ways, the little bit of relational friction that resulted becomes a small price to pay for the positive end results. People want to grow and be challenged. Some respond to the extra pressure well and some not so well. If you are careful to be sensitive to the individual and their tolerance level to pressure, I think you will be amazed by the new ministry opportunities that are wrought during these times of personal growth.

For a while the ideas that Valentine Michael Smith championed seemed exciting and innovative. Some people even thought that his ways were better than the current norms that they were experiencing. They held greater hope for the collective future of human society. I cannot say that I agree because he had some really wacky ideas about morality that do not jive with my Christian beliefs. But I have to say that the process of change that he started (although wacky and not Christian based) has a lot of parallels to some of things we are experiencing in our new roles. I also think the analogy breaks down pretty quickly when you compare the good people we are working for with the corruption that surrounded and tried to take advantage of Valentine Michael Smith. We are not in the same situation because we are promoting changes and enhancements that are for the true betterment of people and part of the plan of a Holy God.

This first set of observations is probably unique to me and my circumstances and may have little value to you. But if they strike a note in you and you have some different strategies for how you have dealt with them, I would be thankful if you would share them. At the end of the day, the local church really is the hope of the world, to coin one of Bill Hybel’s favorite statements. Helping make sure the church reaches its full redemptive potential is now one of our biggest responsibilities as the second chair leader.

You and I are uniquely and powerfully gifted because of our corporate-ness to be an agent of either positive or negative impact in our specific environments. As for me and my house, I am committed to maximizing the positive side of my impact and minimizing the negative. In isolation, the potential can be very high for me to do some incremental good and possibly some really negative stuff. But, if we band together and encourage one another to lean into our strengths, I believe that our churches will celebrate our arrival in leadership roles and not spend time lighting torches and sharpening their pitchforks.