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The Corporate Church in a Corporate Society

In today’s economy we hear about companies cutting staff and reducing costs, ostensibly on the idea that they are improving the health of the corporation.   A healthy corporation, we assume is a good thing.  Now ‘corporate’ comes out of the Latin for ‘body.’  For the purpose of the law in this country, a business corporation is an entirely separate entity from the people that compose it.  The bottom line is basically the only measurement of ‘health’ that matters.  You can wreck the lives of 5,000 of your workers and strengthen the corporation and it is considered justifiable.

Now, Christians talk about being part of a ‘corporation’ as well.  We are the body of believers.  We are the body of Christ.  There is something interesting about the modern day expression of this (I speak mainly of the Church in America) in that the ideas of the Church as corporate and businesses are corporate have melded in many ways, with, I’m afraid, the Church taking on the mindset of the business world.

This is evident in a number of ways.  Of course there is the structural aspect.  Most churches are organized with some sort of ‘board’ at the top with a number of committees beneath it to carry out the work of the congregation.  There are presidents, vice presidents, treasurers, secretaries.  These words carry ‘baggage’ that is unavoidable in implementation.  This structure more or less models the secular business model of what it means to be ‘corporate.’  It isn’t hard to understand how this has come about, for better or for worse:  in the US, if a congregation wants to receive tax benefits it must organize precisely the way the state tells it to, and this is the manner that the state dictates.

There is another way that the business mindset permeates the Christian churches.  The idea that the health of the ‘corporation’ can be measured by the bottom line is rampant.  For example, let’s say that a church is struggling financially.  Something must change.  The solution is to eliminate staff positions.  The staff members are turned out into the wind, their livilhood stripped away.  The bottom line improves.  Conclusion:  this is a healthy body.

But it is nonsense.  It is nonsense because in the body of Christ, unlike in corporate America, you cannot have ‘health’ at the expense of the brothers and sisters.   The bottom line is not the only measure.  Indeed, in that it is a measure at all, what it measures is entirely different.

Now, financial realities are financial realities.  The point here is not that you can’t have situations where you have to cut staff (or programs, whatever) the point is that you can’t just cut people loose and think that now you’ve improved the body or that you’ve ‘come through a rough patch.’  If the people who have been cut loose are forgotten by the congregation or body of believers and are abandoned by them, I assure you, you haven’t improved the health of the body.  Done in this way, you will likely have created very bitter former staffers and in some cases drive them out of the church.  But it is important to see that doing it this way is far from intentional.  It is the natural consequence of thinking of the congregation’s ‘corporate’ nature as essentially like an American corporation’s nature.

I know a man who was fired on a Friday from a Christian institution with no reason given with not even a single day’s notice.  I know a man who was invited to apply for a new position being created that would replace his own while in fact they never at any time meant to retain him.  This is proved by the fact that another is ready to take his place, effective the immediately Monday. How lucky!

Some kind of ‘sweetener’ was provided to entice this man to not raise a ruckus or press the matter, but it is doubtful that the deal is fair… it is offered as a take it and get something or don’t take it and get nothing.  the ‘deal’ is probably a cover-up of some other backstabbing behind the scenes finagling.  (Nepotism, perhaps?) Is this legal?  Yes, it seems so.  If you can get another guy to come in and do twice the work for the same amount of pay (after all, he doesn’t know better) isn’t that good business sense?  And if you wound the man you ‘let go’ is that any matter to you?  I mean, you have the corporation to think of…

This is the attitude at work in this situation- which is a true story, by the way- and I’m afraid seems to be fairly common.  In corporate America you can do stuff like this within the law and it’s ok.  Among Christians, what is legal is not always right, and mere ‘business’ concerns can never justify endangering a man’s immortal soul.  Never.

You ask me, “Ok, you think there is something wrong with the Church.  But what should we do?”

Here is an idea:  disentangle churches from the imposition from the state on how to be structured and behave.  If this means losing tax exempt status, so be it.  Don’t use ‘corporate’ labels and adopt ‘corporate’ models.  In a word, don’t take your cues from secular society as to what an ‘organic’ community is like.

These are just some ideas.  As always, my contention is that others might have other ideas, but first we must recognize there is a problem that demands a solution.  So agree with me at least on that and then get cracking.  In the meantime, don’t delude yourself into thinking that, in the church, you can dispense with people however you please and in doing so you have improved the ‘health’ of the body…

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