Published by Rachel Noel on 11th September 2017

The Minister as Entrepreneur: Leading and growing the Church in an age of rapid change by Michael Volland. Reviewed by Andrew Henley

MinisterAsEntrepreneurThis short book sets out to explore attitudes towards, opportunities for and constraints facing ordained church leaders who attempt to adopt entrepreneurial strategies towards their work and ministry. The author is a former military chaplain and parish missioner, and currently teaches at an Anglican theological college. The book itself draws heavily on research conducted in the Diocese of Durham in support of his doctoral thesis. The basis of the research was a series of in-depth interviews with eighteen Church of England ministers, representing a range of theological traditions and working across different parish contexts.

Part 1 of the book is a rapid overview of academic ideas about entrepreneurship and the entrepreneur. As the book readily acknowledges, these are contested terms, and do not easily lend themselves to precise definition. In the popular mind entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship conjure up both positive and negative connotations, and perhaps particularly within the church there is suspicion that entrepreneurial activity is too often associated with financial gain rather than social value. However, as the author points out, this latter view has too readily sprung from the “enterprise culture” of the last two decades of the twentieth century, and discounts the positive sense in which the creation of wealth can lead to wider common good and need not be motivated by personal gain.

The book provides a summary overview of the historical development of the understanding of the role of the entrepreneur in a market-based economy. Few academics, of course, would subscribe to a narrow view focused solely on monetary gain and would instead define entrepreneurship in terms of the identification of creative opportunity. Volland draws heavily on the work of Bill Bolton and John Thompson who have authored a number of practitioner-orientated textbooks over recent years, to focus on the types of personal attributes ideally possessed by entrepreneurs. He sets out from the start, and subsequently explores in detail, the following definition of the minister-as-entrepreneur: “a visionary who in partnership with God and others, challenges the status quo by energetically creating and innovating in order to shape something of kingdom value” (p. 32). It is interesting that he works with a definition of an entrepreneur rather than of entrepreneurship as a process – many authors (and international bodies such as the OECD) give as much, if not more weight, to the latter.

However, the focus on the person rather than the process is arguably justified by the content of chapter 3, provocatively entitled “An Entrepreneurial God?”. If God displays entrepreneurial attributes, and if, as the author argues, entrepreneurship as a concept can deepen our understanding of God, then it becomes legitimate to construct a positive Christian image of the entrepreneur. The short theological reflection on this important point left this reader wanting to see this given a lot more consideration. But Volland moves quickly into a brief survey of entrepreneurial figures in the biblical narrative and through church history. I suspect that many of these figures would not have quickly self-identified as entrepreneurs, but high achieving leaders often do not self-attach the “entrepreneur” label until it is unpacked and explained.

Part 2 of the book focuses on a range of aspects of the author’s research with church ministers, and tackles the following themes: attitudes towards entrepreneurial behaviour in the church (chapter 5); the availability of church buildings as a resource for entrepreneurial activity (chapter 6); teamwork and partnering (chapter 7); enabling and hindering factors (chapters 8 and 9) and finally the impact of senior church leadership (chapter 10). Overall those interviewed are surprisingly positive about attitudes towards and scope for entrepreneurial activity in the church. However, they are also realistic about the challenges and difficulties of working within a very conservative organizational climate, with teams and partners who are more often than not hard-pressed volunteers, and with physical resources that can both support new opportunities but whose upkeep can also drain time, money and enthusiasm. Although the book doesn’t explicitly draw on this perspective, the recent “effectuation” model of American academic Saras Sarasvathy would fit well into the minister-as-entrepreneur context. Entrepreneurial behaviour is not so much to do with unusual people taking high risks in search of high rewards as about leveraging resources (human, physical, financial and networking) to achieve outcomes that make a difference by solving problems other people face.

Volland concludes that an entrepreneurial approach to ministry is not for everyone, nor is a panacea for the missional challenges that present many churches faced with increasing local needs but aging and declining congregations. However, he calls on senior church leadership to communicate a more positive message about entrepreneurship, particular to those who bring, sometimes from a business background, entrepreneurial flair to their roles in the ordained ministry. Indeed he argues that the church might actively seek out such people to encourage them into ordained ministry. (I would say “yes, but not too much”, as society also needs people of faith to remain in positions of entrepreneurial leadership in the world of business!). Overall he has eleven different recommendations or suggestions, and it is difficult to take issue with any of them – they are all worthwhile pursuing. In summary this is a helpful and positive little book on a topic that has only infrequently been addressed. (Notable exceptions here include the inclusion of missional entrepreneurship in the curriculum of the Church Mission Society’s pioneer leadership programme, and the inclusion of entrepreneurial approaches in the Germinate programme for rural churches). The research which underpins this book is interesting, but possibly specific to the particular context of one diocese. It is to be hoped that further research and further analysis will follow from other sources.

Andrew Henley is Professor of Entrepreneurship and Economics at Cardiff University, who writes on ethics in economics and management. He is the former director of an EU-funded programme supporting entrepreneurs across Wales to develop their leadership skills.

 

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