“I Love My Church.” It was the slogan for a capital fund drive at the little church where I belong. I turned to our treasurer, sitting in the pew behind me—he is, like me, a bit of a grump—and said, “I have mixed feelings about my church. What should I do?” To my great pleasure, he replied, “Get over it. Give money anyway.”
That’s the spirit! A church is more than a buyer’s club, a co-op that delivers maximum religious benefit to members at the lowest cost. A good congregation puts its shoulder to a bigger wheel: transforming lives in ways no one can predict, in harmony with the congregation’s purpose. Our success is measured by the good we do, not by how satisfied we are.
We all know this at some level. But every day our culture teaches us to be consumers. Ask most people why they chose to join a congregation (or chose not to) and you’ll hear a litany of likes and dislikes. If you ask people how belonging to a faith community has changed their lives, the answers often take the form of likes and dislikes:
- “We have great music. I love singing in the choir.”
- “Our preacher gives the kind of sermons I enjoy—uplifting, Bible-based, and full of comfort for the week ahead.”
- “My Zen teacher helps us to meditate but doesn’t push a lot of old-world Buddhist concepts that don’t fit my way of life.”
But keep listening and eventually you’ll hear—especially from seasoned leaders who have stuck it out through times of pride and disappointment—answers with a different tone:
- “I was successful in my work, but in listening to our pastor, I began to wonder whether that work was my calling. Eventually I quit and found a new job where I could serve others and have time for my family.”
- “I’ve spent thousands of hours as a volunteer at the soup kitchen, Meals on Wheels, and Habitat. Without the example of the people next to me in our pews, I can’t imagine I would ever have considered doing that.”
- “Our temple’s sexuality class helped me to survive high school as a virgin—and to be a happy lover ever since! I can’t wait to pass that gift along to other people.”
To help us think about these different kinds of satisfaction, the management consultant Peter Drucker suggests asking a question that can, in faith-based institutions, be a little shocking: “Who is your customer?”
Two Kinds of Customers
In a business, a customer is a person who pays money in exchange for services or products. Non-profits, Drucker says, have two kinds of customers:
- The primary customer is the person whose life you hope to change. A soup kitchen’s primary customer is a hungry person willing to be fed. For a suicide help line, it’s the desperate person willing to receive support. A university serves many customers, including students, consumers of scholarly research, and the community around it.
- Non-profits also have supporting customers, which Drucker defines as “volunteers, members, partners, funders, referral sources, employees, and others who must be satisfied.” Supporting customers include everyone whose support you need in order to change the lives of primary customers.
For congregations, more than most nonprofits, primary and supporting customers overlap. We hope to change people’s lives—and we also need people to give money, time, ideas, and connections. It’s tempting to say simply, “Our primary and supporting customers are the same—our members.”
That kind of thinking is the mark of a congregation in decline. Most of your supporting customers are members already, but if your congregation succeeds, ten years from now most of its members will be new. You need to keep the current members satisfied, but in planning for the future, a top priority must be your next 20 or 100 or 500 members.
The two groups of customers do overlap in congregations, but they are still different. Supporting customers give generously, work hard, and help set goals and strategies. Some of them, not all, are primary customers as well—those who are willing to consider how their life might still be changed. But it’s easy to fall into thinking that your current active members are your only customers. In fact, most of your primary customers have yet to cross the threshold.
Critics of American religion say that it caters too much to the likes and dislikes of its members—enhancing lives—at the expense of the real mission of a faith community, which is to transform lives for the better. It’s a fair criticism. Our culture trains us every day to be consumers—we patronize establishments that pay lots of attention to our likes and dislikes. No wonder congregations try to do the same.
Drucker’s insight suggests that congregations think too little about the different kinds of customers. Our members often start out expecting to enhance their lives rather than to be transformed. Congregations depend on their consumer-members the same way art museums depend on visitors—we hope to make at least a little difference in their lives, and we need to convert some of them into supporting customers. All this can happen sometimes without anybody being touched too deeply.
Ready to Be Changed
But eventually some casual participants learn to want things they didn’t start out wanting. That’s when they become primary customers—people ready for their spirits to be moved and their lives changed. Seized by a desire to offer a life-changing experience to others, often they become supporting customers as well.
Drucker said it this way: the core product of a congregation, or of any charitable institution, is a changed human being. We try to produce excellence in preaching, liturgy, music, education, and fellowship—but our end product is not any of these—it is the change we hope to bring into people’s lives.
To do that, we need to attract people’s attention and then earn their trust. The first question people ask is “Will I like this congregation?” The second is “Will participating meet my needs?” And then some of them eventually ask, “How must my life change?” At that point, the congregation has succeeded in its mission. Some will contribute in proportion to the gifts they have received. A few give much, much more than that.
Supporting customers make it possible for congregations to change lives. Sometimes along the way, they find that their own lives are changed as well.
Dan Hotchkiss has consulted with a wide spectrum of churches, synagogues, and other organizations spanning 33 denominational families. Through his coaching, teaching, and writing, Dan has touched the lives of an even wider range of leaders. His focus is to help organizations engage their constituents in discerning what their mission calls for at a given time, and to empower leaders to act boldly and creatively.
Dan coaches leaders and consults selectively with congregations and other mission-driven groups, mostly by phone and videoconference, from his home near Boston. Prior to consulting independently, Dan served as a Unitarian Universalist parish minister, denominational executive, and senior consultant for the Alban Institute.