Doing Business from the Church

Sam Wells argues that business offers important keys to church transformation. At least that’s his own experience. His Anglican parish, St Martin-in-the-Fields in central London, in normal times employs 200 people. In the last 35 years, several commercial initiatives have been started from the church. This influential theologian has published 40 books; he reflects on their approach and on assumptions surrounding business in his book A Future that is Bigger than the Past. (Recommended!). On Friday, November 4, Sam will speak at the BAM Congress in Dordrecht. An introduction:

Born of necessity

The business activities at St. Martin-in-the-Fields started in the 1980s. The idea was born out of necessity, because there was not enough money to maintain the expensive buildings and the activities of the congregation, such as the mission to the homeless. The Vicar at the time, Wells’ predecessor, saw the importance of job creation and started businesses. Sam looks back: “It’s obvious for a business person, but we still had to learn to develop a market-minded-approach,” and continues with a touch of humour: “We were rather paternalistic back then about what we thought someone should buy in a shop. But a Canadian tourist is usually looking for something other than a thick theological book to take back home – much as we might have wished otherwise!”

Profit was suspicious

Nowadays St Martin’s has business activities related to catering, events, retail and music. St Martin’s approach is based on four Cs: Commerce, Culture, Compassion and Congregational Life. Sam does not minimise commerce, including financial profit: “We are beyond that shame. There was a bit of that, because generating profit was a bit suspicious for a church. Now we speak increasingly with healthy pride about our profitable businesses.” This broadly supported appreciation also has to do with substantive growth: the companies are no longer just ‘instrumental’ (to solve money shortages), but church members realise that they are part of the core of being church.

Discipleship in the workplace

Sam explains: “People get the chance to contribute. Many want to participate instead of just sitting in the pew to receive. In addition, many people are more practical and less meditative. Especially men. We have channels here for such people to offer their talents. Think of a commercial advisory body or event management. Connection and discipleship follow from involvement in such activities.” Also, not all employees are Christians, and in this – close cooperation with other believers – they see a mission in the sense of working together and sharing life with each other. In addition, a number of business activities have grown more in line with the mission of the church in terms of content, for example the concerts. For many years external promoters organised classical concerts for a broad audience. St Martin’s has recently taken promotion into its own hands, enabling it to offer concerts more aligned with its faith and social commitments. Meanwhile it’s still attracting a broad public through the 300 concerts that are organised annually.

Regarding its business approach, it has recently entered a new phase, shares Sam. To make the growth of their business approach clear, he asks to think of a clock: “In the beginning the pointer was at nine o’clock (instrumental): the company simply helped to cover the costs. Then we went to eleven o’clock (exemplary): we became a good employer and developed a healthy corporate culture where we started taking good care of people through wages and conditions. After Covid we have entered a new phase and the pointer is now at one o’clock (aspirational): we are taking steps towards greater sustainability.” A next step (three o’clock) could be more conventional social business activities, but Sam is realistic: “It is difficult and often not possible to generate a profit when you aim to employ marginalised people, like those coming out of  homelessness among us. People often think too naively about this. If making money was easy, everyone would do it and be an Elon Musk. But it is not easy.”

‘We stopped doing interesting things…’

Witnessing his many books, Sam is reflective; regarding business activities as well as regarding the context of church in our present time: “As a church, after the introduction of the Welfare State in the late 1940s, we stopped doing interesting things. A church that stops doing interesting things stops being an interesting church. But these times offer unique opportunities to do interesting things again” is his conviction, and continues: “I am not that familiar with the Dutch context, but here in the UK the government took over education and health care from the church around 1948. Since the 1990s though, the government has been shrinking and it has become clear that the idea that the state should provide for the common good is no longer sustainable. This provides new opportunities for the church, also in the field of business.”

Fail and grow

Improve, try, fail, and try again—it’s in the DNA of this church leadership. The concept of the lunchroom was improved in terms of profit and concept: a buffet turned out to be more efficient and the concept that people sit together at the table promotes social interaction. The management decided to start an outdoor cafe in the garden, but in rainy London it didn’t catch on and it turned out to be a flop. But then the epidemic broke out; they tried again and it was a success with 300 visitors a day.

A God of plenty

“I used to have a scarcity mindset; of ‘not enough’,” says Sam. “I still remember the moment, it was in January 2000, when I realized this this is not right theologically. We have a God of plenty; a God of ‘too much’. God gives us everything we need, but we are frightened of being overwhelmed and create barriers to receiving what God has to give us. I started to imagine what it would be like to enjoy ‘too much God’. That’s also much more fun. It starts with seeing assets, of what is there, instead of what is not there. An example: We have hundreds of congregational homes, we have migrants who need support, and cleaners who are usually poorly paid and with little contact. What if you put those things together, make a good business plan with fair wages, look for investment and attract a good seller? Then you get a win-win situation and positive energy.”

The energy seems to be there. During Covid, online participation in St Martin-in-the-Fields grew by eighty percent, and that growth is also in the area of deepening faith. For example, the ‘Nazareth Community’ has doubled in size. They seek depth under the heading ‘God is with us’ on the basis of seven pillars: Silence, Service, Scripture, Sacrament, Sharing, Sabbath and Staying With. In various ways, Samuel Wells is an enterprising theologian who has something to say from a theological perspective, as well as about the present times and has business experience. As Business as Mission Netherlands, we want to encourage entrepreneurs, also in the desire for transformation within the Body of Christ: whether that happens in or out of a company, or in and out of a church. Because we believe that entrepreneurs can help ignite transformation. Sam is a living example and therefore consider it a privilege that he will speak at the BAM Congress (this year 3 and 4 November). Make use of this opportunity and sign up now!

More about the BAM Congress in Dordrecht, The Netherlands >>

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