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Shareholders or Stakeholders?

When a church takes its stakeholders seriously – and not just its shareholders – the circle of ministry grows and becomes stronger.

Real change involves both the way we think and the way we act. We have to think ourselves into a new way of acting, and act ourselves into a new way of thinking. Attitude and behavior go together.

One attitude adjustment churches can make that will change their behavior is to begin to think about stakeholders, not shareholders.

Shareholders own a share of a company or corporation. They have invested money and expect to get a return on their investment. The shareholder’s concern is “What will this company do for me?”

And it’s the shareholders who really call the shots in the business world. If they don’t like the way the company is performing, they pull out and take their investment elsewhere. A business’s number one obligation is to keep their shareholders happy.

Here’s an illustration. A few years ago, Tim Hortons raised the price of their coffee. They posted notices in their stores to their loyal customers, apologizing for the increase, but saying that it was unavoidable due to increased costs. You got the impression that the price of coffee had gone up. Not so. Tim Hortons had promised their shareholders a certain return in that year, and in order to make good on their promise, everyone had to pay more for their double-double. The shareholders’ interests came first.

Church members sometimes think of themselves as shareholders. “We pay for this church with our givings and our time and the church should put our wants and needs first.” Membership has its privileges.

I know of a minister who told his congregation that spending money on ministry with children and youth was a bad investment. It’s expensive, and any payoff in terms of money and volunteers won’t be realized for years, if ever. Better to invest in seniors who have the disposable income to support the church. That’s shareholder thinking.

Stakeholders are different. They are everyone who has a stake in how the business is doing. Shareholders are included among the stakeholders, but only as one group among many.

Take a mining company, for example. The shareholders are those who own stock. The stakeholders include the employees whose livelihood and safety depend on the company’s actions, the town whose fortunes rise or fall with the mine’s, the First Nations community down river whose health is affected by pollution, and so on.

In the church, it’s easy to think shareholders first. “What if people get mad and stop giving? We can’t afford for that to happen.”

If you don’t agree, ask yourself: What’s the first thing we do when it’s time to look for a new minister? Survey the congregation and ask them “What do you want?” We know that people who fill out those surveys are overwhelmingly older, long-time, regularly attending folks – the “shareholders.”

Now, please, please don’t think I’m dismissing the concerns of faithful, longtime members. I’m not suggesting for a minute that their views don’t count, or that congregations should not care for the needs of their members and contributors. They give sacrificially to keep the church going.

It’s about the reason the church exists – not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end – God’s end.

So what if we thought more in terms of our stakeholders – of all those who have a stake in the church? That includes those whose lives might be transformed by the church’s ministry. It includes the organizations and community groups that rely on the church to survive.

Some stakeholders aren’t here. In addition to the living, we need to count among our stakeholders the past generations who planted, built and sustained our churches so they could be passed on to us. I’m not talking about ancestor worship or refusing to change with the times. I’m not talking about stained glass windows, cemeteries or memorial plaques. I’m talking about treating the church’s ministry as a precious legacy of faith that has been bequeathed to us and for which we are accountable.

And, we need to count among our stakeholders future generations to whom we will pass on our faith. I heard someone on the radio the other day refer to the aboriginal belief that the true value of an action is measured by its impact on the seventh generation.If we included those not yet born in our churches, it could profoundly change the nature of the conversation about what really matters.

Perhaps the most important stakeholder in a Christian church is the one who has called the church into being – Jesus. The church exists as the Body of Christ, the physical presence of Christ and his vision of the kingdom in the world today. As church consultant Dan Hotchkiss puts it, the church is “owned,” not by its members, but by its mission – a mission given to us by the Lord Jesus.

Next time you have a discussion about the future of the church – maybe at this year’s annual meeting – make sure you talk about stakeholders and not just shareholders.

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