Ministry Today | Serving and empowering church leaders

Some of the most successful pastors in America were once businesspeople—but what happens when you try to blend business and ministry?
A restaurant, a bookstore, a school for young children, a catering service and a record label. The list looks more like a rundown of the businesses on a city block than the ministries of a large church. That's exactly what this church's pastor wants. A.R. Bernard, pastor of the Brooklyn-based megachurch, Christian Cultural Center, also wants a 4.5-acre commercial plaza—a gathering place with a Starbucks, an IHOP, a full school and a sense that God has set up shop in New York's largest borough.

"When we're demonstrating a genuine interest in the community and its welfare, the church is an institution that brings stability to the community," Bernard says.

A former operations specialist for a major New York bank's lending division, Bernard is representative of a new breed of church leader: the entrepreneurial pastor. More and more, former business leaders are jumping into the pastoral ranks and bringing a new, more business-oriented outlook with them. While some question whether the sensibilities they bring to the job are good for the church, no one can doubt that entrepreneurial pastors are making an impact, particularly as they tackle a wide range of commercial and community development initiatives.

Eternal Rewards

Redemptive Life Fellowship in West Palm Beach, Fla., is one of the many examples of churches using entrepreneurial business tactics to develop the community.

The church runs a real estate business through a subsidiary. In 2006 it finished the last of 22 homes in a new neighborhood designed to improve the community's economic and physical condition.

"Our goal would be to see at least a 20 percent reduction [in crime] over the next three years by bringing stable home ownership in there," says Bishop Harold Ray, Redemptive Life's pastor.

Ray, who has a background in law, says that according to residents the new development is already making a positive impact. He plans on creating even more homes and expanding into commercial real estate to continue to influence the area's physical appearance and mental mindset.

Redemptive Life is accomplishing this with a congregation that draws 1,200 people a week. Bernard's Christian Cultural Center, by comparison, sees 15,000 a week.

"I think a great part of stewardship, including the stewardship of your personal intellect and educational background, is to manage, direct and influence the resources of the earth to manifest the will of God," Ray says.

Both Ray and Bernard say their backgrounds prepared them for ministry.

"Once I realized that the church is somewhat of a business as well as a ministry and we need to be organized for effectiveness, I said 'OK,'" Bernard recalls. "God is a God of order. Having that business background, I was free to think in terms of operations."

However, it wasn't all smooth sailing. Bernard had to overcome customary Pentecostal taboos and shed some standard business practices. Unlike traditionalists, he sees nothing wrong with a church operating a business through a separate corporate entity. Yet, the New York pastor had to ensure that anything he pursued lined up with God's purposes.

"The motivation changed," Bernard explains. "In business it was a profit motive. In church it's the motivation of transforming lives. That's why, even today, with 27,000 members, our success is measured by the lives that are transformed."

Ray sees his sometimes-rocky path to ministry as part of a divine plan. He says he came to appreciate how God guided him through a diverse background to prepare him for the challenges of being a church leader. Ray's experiences helped him devise an economic theory to help urban communities thrive from within.

"We need economic generating mechanisms that allow people to have a fair shot at building lifestyles of excellence," he says. "We have to create in our local community what I call a self-actuated, self-sustaining local economy."

Crossing Over

None of these developments surprise Louisville, Ky., businessman Tom Harper. In a survey three years ago, he discovered so many former business leaders among the pastoral ranks he wrote a book about it. Career Crossover: Leaving the Marketplace for Ministry is slated for release in May.

Harper is an executive with NetWorld Alliance, producer of a series of specialty publications and Web pages, including the church leaders' resource site, While conducting research for the latter, he discovered a surprising statistic: 44 percent of 350 pastors he surveyed (gleaned from a larger sample of 5,000) and 38 percent of ministry staff had once been in business.

Thus, it isn't surprising to see churches pursuing ambitious developments when so many ex-businesspeople are in their ranks.

Harper says that leaders who come from a business to a church typically bring the skills and desire to launch fund-raising campaigns, start new buildings or additions, and plant new churches (which he terms an entrepreneurial activity). However, his research identified weaknesses as well, such as evangelism, ministry to church members, fellowship and budgeting matters.

"They're so used to battling for budgets and doing everything in their human strength, they're not used to relying on God," says Harper, who contemplated entering the ministry before God directed him to stay put. "Pastors coming out of seminary training might be better in having faith in God."

Harper's book includes a chapter on dealing with challenges in ministry, such as the need to develop a tough skin to face the harsh criticism, unrealistic expectations and unending to-do lists faced by the average pastor. He says former businesspeople also have to develop an appreciation for spiritual warfare, focus on managing time and people, and not lose their sense of humor, their vision or their persistence.

However, for those who question churches being involved in business, Harper refers to a friend who runs a business in Africa while discipling Islamic converts.

When they are ready, he sends the new Christians out to reach other Muslims. The endeavor is growing so fast that Harper's friend is looking for ways to generate additional revenue to help support these new missionaries.

"If that were transplanted to the U.S., people would say, 'Why are you doing this when you ought to be out feeding the poor?'" Harper contends.

But they're doing work to generate revenue for ministry so it can feed the poor," he continues. "I wish all business enterprises were sponsored by the church. The combination of biblical accountability and services would be powerful."

Influencing Other Leaders

This entrepreneurial trend is even influencing pastors who don't have business backgrounds.

Nevada pastor John Jackson is one of those. A former denominational executive with the American Baptist Church, Jackson is the founding pastor of Carson Valley Christian Center, an inter-denominational congregation.

While involved in various business endeavors through partnerships with his entrepreneurial brother, Jackson's church doesn't have any commercial initiatives. However, as the author of Pastorpreneur—a book that challenges pastors and business leaders to work together—he appreciates the strengths businesspeople bring to ministry.

One positive Jackson admires is their clear orientation on the bottom line. He's not talking about money, but a centering on purpose: Why does this church exist? What are we trying to do?

While they may not have a wealth of biblical background, theological training and expertise in church history, Jackson thinks businesspeople have a passion for defining success in terms of making disciples.

"Pastoral folks like me will often times simply be content to do laps, to 'do church,' " Jackson explains. "As a denominational person, I used to tell pastors, 'Having 52 bulletins a year is not success.' "

In addition, Jackson thinks businesspeople bring a concern for efficiency to a system badly in need of it. Like any bureaucracy, he says churches can be quite shoddy operations.

The veteran minister also sees former business leaders concerned with devising inventive ways to reach the lost instead of falling into a pattern of only communicating with the "already convinced."

"A lot of the time church people say, 'We did everything we were supposed to do. We had services, music, preaching and classes. How come the people aren't here?'" Jackson says. "Business people who come into ministry will be much more focused on saying, 'We've got to reach people where they are.'"

The Almighty Dollar?

This isn't to say everyone is pleased with the new entrepreneurial pastorate. In his book, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, Minneapolis pastor John Piper objects strenuously to this trend, saying that the professionalizing of ministry is killing pastors. Piper writes that the mentality of the professional is not the mentality of the prophet or the slave of Christ. Nor, he adds, does it have anything to do with the essence of Christian ministry.

"The more professional we long to be, the more spiritual death we will leave in our wake," he writes. "For there is no professional childlikeness (Matt. 18:3); there is no professional tenderheartedness (Eph. 4:32); there is no professional panting after God (Ps. 42:1.) But our first business is to pant after God in prayer. Our business is to weep over our sins" (James 4:9).

Among Piper's other objections: professionalization threatens the gospel's offensiveness and the profoundly spiritual nature of ministry while promoting entanglement with worldly goals.

But, according to Shayne Lee, entrepreneurial pastors aren't a modern phenomenon. The Tulane University professor, who spent two years researching his 2005 book, T.D. Jakes: America's New Preacher, says that pastors have always walked the line between business and preaching to reach people.

Lee points to the 18th century, when popular revivalist George Whitefield sold books and sermon manuscripts. He also points to the Second Great Awakening, in which Charles Finney drew thousands to his preaching tours, showing religion could compete with entertainment in attracting crowds.

His theory: to become an effective national leader one must embrace American sensibilities. Lee says just as moguls such as Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump have captured the public's imagination, so have religious leaders.

"It's why I'm not surprised at seeing black church leaders become entrepreneurial," the African-American author says. "[There is] a connection with the Word of Faith movement. The prosperity gospel does play a role in the black church."

The sociology professor says the ascension of leaders such as A.R. Bernard also illustrates the failings of seminaries. While most theological schools teach students how to navigate the challenges of modernity, the world is increasingly postmodern.

Yet, for all their expertise in meeting needs, Lee calls himself "conflicted" over the success of entrepreneurial pastors. Many have made the gospel their most valuable commodity, which he calls the hazard of mixing God's anointing with commercialism.

"It leads people to viewing God as a cosmic genie, as a way of self-actualizing rather than a life of sacrifice," Lee says. "Most people who go to church have limited resources, yet are compelled to give a lot to the ministry. If they feel compelled to give with the promise of a [tangible] reward, that can be dangerous."

Walking the Line

Lee is not alone in his concerns about mixing commercialism and ministry. Boston community activist and pastor Eugene Rivers, who used to have a very dim view of a marketing ethic in ministry, admits to moderating his opinion.

In fact, he sees a general move in the non-profit sector at large, not just in the church, to embracing a more entrepreneurial ethic in promoting causes and initiatives.

On the positive side of this trend, Rivers, pastor of Azusa Christian Community, sees a way people can grow their ministries to improve their effectiveness. Not only are many recognizing the value of business plans and collaboration, but he has seen people build entrepreneurial ministry models that maintain ethical integrity.

"You [can] bring some of the tested, tried and true business practices to building a ministry, even in cases where you want to serve the poor," says Rivers, a 40-year veteran of inner-city ministry. "Especially in cases where you want to serve the poor, because you need substantial resources."

The Pentecostal pastor also thinks churches should be on the front lines of promoting economic development. At the same time, he sees dangers, such as failing to emphasize the spiritual or blurring lines between church and secular endeavors.

"It is very easy for the tail to wag the dog, morally and practically, where wealth accumulation becomes an end in itself, where one competes for stardom as opposed to servanthood," Rivers says. "In some corners of the church, we do risk losing a thoroughly biblical understanding of the gospel because of the attempt to fetishize financial success, material acquisition and consumerism."

Regardless, entrepreneurial pastors show no signs of slowing down.

"Critics have always been around," Bernard says. "No matter what you decide to do, you are going to have a critic. The fruit of it is that the more empowered the church is financially, the more it can do to spread the gospel and carry out the mandate of Jesus to minister to the community."

Whether one admires or frowns on entrepreneurial pastors, it's highly likely you will be hearing more about them in the future.

A freelance writer in Huntington, West Virginia, Ken Walker is a regular contributor to Ministry Today and Charisma magazines. To see more samples of his work, go to

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