church is a business?

Dan O’Connor is a communication consultant who is kind, energetic and perceptive.   Dan posted this video recently, which  blew me away!  Its very different from his others, mostly geared at being what he calls a “savvy communicator.” More on that later.

Part of the reason I  started watching Dan’s videos was to help me communicate better, when I lived in New York. Ever since one of my first jobs, as a visitor services host at a museum, I was fascinated with customer service communication techniques. I was amazed by the way a simple word or phrase is the difference between a life-long relationship or life-long resentment. I learned so much. As I transitioned from music ministry to pastoral/administrative work, I started to refer to my museum experience more frequently. How do we say that a particular mass has been cancelled in the nicest possible way? How do we say ‘change’ without saying [shhh!] “change?” My office mates have amazing communication skills. How come other parishes are not as cautious about their communication style?

How many times do we hear from our critics, “the Catholic Church is a business?” Well, what kind of business are we?

I called the local electric company because, on Saturday, we were advised of an impending storm. There was a tree that was putting pressure on an overhead line, and if it blew over, it could interrupt electrical power for the center of town, or start a fire. When I explained the situation, the customer service professional responded literally,”there is nothing we can do about it right now unless your power is out. You have to call again on Monday.” Even if her course of action was limited, the appropriate response would have been, “let me see what I can do for you.”

I called again today, Labor Day, and I received a kinder, more proactive response. They dispatched a tree trimmer truck. Apparently, there was something that could be done. Unfortunately, he assessed the tree and then referred me to call the telephone company, adding, “good luck with that” to the end of this  step in the action plan.

Unlike utility companies, other kinds of businesses are focused on their relationship with their employees, among employees, and between their employees and the customers. I ordered a present for a friend from I freaked out when I woke at 3a.m. because I thought I had it sent to the wrong person. I called customer service and was connected with a very nice person named Diana who even pronounced the name on the package correctly! Everything arrived two days later at my friend’s house and he was surprised.

A few minutes after getting off the phone with Jet, I received an email which asked about my experience with Diana. The email had a three sentence bio of the customer service rep,  and at the end of the survey, there was a question:

“Do you think we should reward Diana with a cup of coffee, a meal, or a small gift?”

I thought that was so cool! Jet stands behind their employees as people with lives, joys, and challenges. According to her bio, this rep came to the US from the same country as one of my friends, she had one child and one on the way. She is a real person. Jet understood how easy it is for an employee to be perceived the customer as a faceless mercenary of corporate policy, and how readily even the best employees burn-out when upper management neglects their person-hood. There was no “us against them” mentality. There was multi-level collaboration. There was relationship.  This is my kind of business.

The Acme in my town that is far more expensive than the ShopRite that is one town over. I spend at least $20 every time I go in, but I earnestly don’t mind. Most of the employees are between the ages of 16 and 22, and most of them have been there since I started shopping there over a year ago. They are super friendly, courteous, and they always look like they are enjoying themselves, especially when its time to put up a new display. The employees always seem to get the job done right, and with a smile.  One time, there was a mistake on my receipt, and I got charged the regular price for coconut that was supposed to be on sale. The manager gave me a refund, and I went home with an extra can or two. In the process, I discovered why this store is always so happy- the manager, mellow and quiet–was committed to treat people with kindness, courtesy anfd respect.  Again, this is my kind of business.

Can you imagine what your parish would be like if you promoted an atmosphere like Jet or Acme?  My parish office is definitely a fun and friendly environment, but I’ve encountered many places that were more like a utility company or motor vehicles than any embassy of God’s love. It’s an easy trap: we need a sense of belonging, and the elitist, rigid attitude promotes a hostile, us-versus-them community. It does nothing to advance the mission of the Gospel . We hear stories about how people have been denied sponsor letters for one reason or another, but we’d rather extend the credit of a recommendation, with the hope that you’ll become more involved with our community in the future.  The church has done a lot to instigate resentment, to elicit snide remarks about money, cover-ups and injustice. We have done a lot to support the statement that the Catholic church is  “a business,” but let’s be clear. What kind of business are we trying to be?

If we were truly doing our job, we’d be a world-class business model. Why are we not investing in training our priests, deacons and administrators to adopt excellent customer service practices?  Why are we so afraid to stand behind our front-line staff when there is a conflict?  Let’s stop complaining about being called “a business,” and live up to it- because honestly, if they ran Atlantic City Electric the way some churches are run, I would have gone off the grid along time ago.

Our first step is to improve the way that we communicate among  our team and among our community. I remember about three years ago, a visiting priest I hardly knew spoke to me in a very condescending way. He didn’t know any better. I had spoken that way to people too on occasions. I had heard people speak to one another in rectories, and to me, many times.  I got to the point where I was starting to believe that this was a normal way of communicating.  Sometimes I had adopted this way of communicating and it scared me. One day, I had reached the end of my rope. I had enough of this, and I said what I needed to say.

“I don’t understand why I have to repeat myself to you…”  this priest said with anger and frustration in his voice.

“Father, there is no reason for you to speak to me like a child,” I said firmly.

He walked away.

I hope that he was able to come to the same realization that I reached. Catholics need to communicate better. When pastoral people communicate with each other in a hostile, rude or abusive way, we need to acknowledge that this is not okay! It comes across in the way we interact with volunteers, parishioners and everyone else.  Instead of building resentment, what if we identified this kind of problematic communication style and committed ourselves to weeding it out? It only needs to be addressed once.

Next, we need to affirm one another frequently and for no reason. The positive-positive-criticism strategy can only work if we are used to experiencing affirmations apart from negative feedback. My old boss gave compliments sparingly and they were always sincere, but often he treated us to lunch. It always felt great when we could bond as people at a table. My current boss makes it a point to meet with me one-to-one every other week. If we don’t have an agenda, he’ll ask me to talk about a recent success. When he sees a step in a good direction, even a small one, he makes it a point to affirm it.

Finally, we need to make “customer service” a priority in every Catholic parish. We can’t continue to run our front office like a bad day at motor vehicles. We need to invest in polished, positive and professional means of communication. We need to stand behind what we offer- God’s love.

My hope is that the next time you hear someone say,

“the Catholic Church is a business,”

you can say like a savvy communicator,

“While it may be true that the Catholic church is run like a business, we strive to be a business who delivers  the best possible customer service, and the best product ever- the love of Christ!”

Here’s a tip that I learned from watching one of the Dan O’Connor videos I was talking about earlier. You’d be surprised what a difference this makes.


  1. Nice article!
    It’s always good to start with greetings/small talk before helping a person. I try to always welcome the person, and then ask how their day is going. That goes a long way, and helps the customer, or in this case parishioner, feel truly welcomed and at ease with whatever problem-solving needs to be done.

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