Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the variegated ways in which churches are similar to businesses. Furthermore, as one who adheres to a gospel-centric perspective on ministry, I’m interested in the nexus between the gospel and the so-called “human resource” policies of our churches. Admittedly I have more questions than answers at this point. For example, how does the gospel shape our hiring practices? How does it influence the way we manage our employees? Is the word employee even the right word to assign to a church staff-member? What happens when the welfare of a staff-member is at odds with the organizational welfare of the ministry? Which gets priority, the individual or the organization? Professor of Applied Theology R. Paul Stevens attempts to answer this final question when he writes,
In a business or other organization, the manager uses people with skills and abilities to accomplish a goal. The manager’s dilemma arises when nurturing his workers comes into conflict with accomplishing the goals of the enterprise. In the church, however, the goal is the body and its upbuilding. Therefore the nurture of each member is more important than the function and task of the member.
As someone who has spent a significant amount of time in corporate management, the idea that a manager “uses people…to accomplish a goal” is intriguing to me. Depending on the meaning one gives to the word use, this idea is either harmless or extremely disturbing. A quick look at the dictionary on my laptop points this out. Use can mean “take, hold, or deploy (something) as a means of accomplishing a purpose or achieving a result.” In this sense, to use somebody seems rather harmless. It is likely that the employee recognizes that she is being used to accomplish a particular objective, and perhaps even derives great satisfaction from doing so. However, use can also mean to “exploit (a person or situation) for one’s own advantage,” and it is this use of the word that is problematic.
The question I have is this: How does one know when one has crossed the line from the first to the second of these two definitions? Furthermore, what bearing does the gospel have on this question? Also, how does/should the church differ from a business when answering this question? I think Stevens provides a helpful point of departure when he asserts, “In the church…the goal is the body and its upbuilding. Therefore the nurture of each member is more important than the function and task of the member” (emphasis mine). In other words, people, according to Stevens, are not to be seen merely as a means through which the ministry objectives of the church can be accomplished. People are not cogs in the wheel of the ministry machine, nor are they the “tools” through which the visionary pastor accomplishes his strategic goals. When they are viewed in this manner, they are no longer being “used” in a healthy sense, but rather are being exploited for another’s selfish gain.
According to Scripture, however, people are not inanimate objects, but are first and foremost fellow Christians–Christians who are vital members of the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12ff.). Consequently, the needs of people should always come first. That is, people and their Christian nurture take priority over the organizational needs of the ministry. And it may be the case that what might be a good decision for the organization, is actually a terrible decision for the employee. Nevertheless, when the needs of the organization and the needs of the employee conflict, a gospel-shaped answer places human needs and the needs of the other person first. Philippians 2:4 speaks to this well when it says, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (ESV). This “other-centered” perspective might be the key way in which churches differ from private sector employers. Of course one could likely find some sort of nuanced exception to this, such as a case of employee negligence or gross misconduct that is harmful to the ministry, but in general, it seems safe to follow the biblical practice of considering others as more important than ourselves. Regardless of their 501(c)3 status, churches are not businesses; they do not have shareholders to please. Instead, they have a self-giving God to please, a God who cares enough about people to humble himself to the point of death, “even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).
 R. Paul Stevens. Liberating the Laity: Equipping All the Saints for Ministry. Vavcouver, B.C.: Regent College Pub., 1998. Print, 30-1.