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You can’t grow a business from home

By Alun Brookfield.

Some friends came to visit recently. Dave and Cathy (not their real names) started their own business in the back bedroom of their home, but recently took the big decision to move out into rented office space. I asked them why they had done this, especially since it had such major financial implications. Cathy’s response was immediate: “You can’t grow a business from home”.

That, of course, prompted another question: “Why not?”

Because, she explained, although you can start a business from home, eventually one gets to a point where the amount of file storage grows beyond the space available, as does the amount of equipment and office machinery. Then, if you want to employ additional staff, whether they be volunteer or paid, there are all sorts of health and safety issues involved with having them come into your home to work.

As she talked, I began to realise that here was a subject never discussed in all the Church Growth books I’d read, and the question arose in my mind as to the wisdom of ministers of all denominations trying to run their churches/parishes/circuits from an office in the manse/vicarage/rectory, etc. Why do we do it?

My thoughts then also wandered to my study/office (we’ll come to the question as to which it is in a moment), which, when I started in the parish, was tidy and seemed quite large and spacious. Three and a half years later, the addition of numerous box files, several boxes of stationery and candles, an additional filing cabinet, an extra desk, a second computer (with chair) and two additional printers has made it seem incredibly small and untidy. Indeed, it is now a battle just to keep it tidy!

Office or study?

The discussion with Cathy made me realise that my study had become an office. It had gradually and insidiously ceased to be a place of study, prayer and reflection, and had become instead a place of administration. It was no longer a place of calm and stillness, but a place of activity and busy-ness. It had become a place filled with anxiety, stress and pressure, rather than a place filled with the peace of God.

In fact, if I want to do any serious study, I now gather up my books and my laptop computer and head for the dining room, away from the clutter of the office! Or I go and sit in the churchyard with a book and a notepad. If I want to pray, I go across to the church. My study is no longer - it is an office.

I don’t suppose my situation is any different to that of thousands of other clergy and church leaders. The study of my training incumbent was equally ‘busy’ as is the study of a colleague in a nearby parish.

So why has this situation come about? The minister’s study used to be a place of tranquillity: why is it no longer?

I suspect that the reason is because the ministry has become much busier and more complex. Some of my predecessors in my parish led services, visited the sick and, as far as I can see, didn’t do much else. Even that can’t have been too taxing, since there was a full-time priest for each of the three parishes in which I now minister. One of those parishes was home to a total of 205 people at the height of its population, and one of the parishioners left her house to the church so that it could provide a home for a curate!

Nowadays I minister to a population more than 10 times greater, and I suspect the workload is also about 10 times greater than it was in those calmer days. The burden of administration has undoubtedly increased manifold, not least because of the increasing demands of the law, in terms of things like child protection, health and safety and buildings maintenance.

Parish life is now busier, because there are so many things going on which didn’t in previous times, and because circumstances change more rapidly nowadays. A great deal of time is devoted to training lay people to do things which used to be done at leisure by the Vicar.

Subtler forces at work

There are, however, two other, and subtler, factors which have pushed us into using our studies as offices. One is the growing sense among ministers of needing to be seen to give value for money. That leads us and our denominational leaders into defining our ministries in terms of what we ‘do’ rather than what we ‘are’. So busy-ness becomes the defining factor of ministry rather than holiness or prayer. A week of busy activism is much easier to justify than a week of prayer, reading, study and reflection. A couple of hours spent visiting parishioners is much easier to explain than a couple of hours spent writing (or reading!) an article such as this. Increasingly, we feel, our congregations expect us to work, rather than pray.

The other subtle pressure is the need to offer a wider range of options in church. Today’s church leaders need not only to lead excellent worship, but also be able to manage an organisation which will include youth, children’s, women’s and men’s gatherings, not to mention old age groups, self-help groups, house groups and hobby groups. Then there are the buildings to care for, the churchyards (I have three!) to maintain, babies to baptise/dedicate, adults and children to confirm, young (and sometimes not-so-young) adults to marry and the dead to bury.

All of this generates paper and equipment storage problems of a kind completely unknown to our ministerial forebears.

All the factors which stifle a business run from home also affect churches which are run from the minister’s home: lack of space; cluttered working environment; lack of privacy; trying to use office space which was never meant to be office space; legal and insurance implications.

And worse still, the minister’s ability to BE is compromised by the fact that he/she is surrounded constantly by the preparations for and results of ‘doing’. No wonder so many church leaders leave the ministry for a working environment in which they can ‘do’ and ‘be’ in separate places.

And I would even go so far as to suggest that a church can only grow as big as the leader’s office/study will permit. Once the office and management space reaches its capacity, usually having taken over the study space as well, a church will stop growing.

That’s a contentious statement and I have no evidence to back it up. Indeed, there’s some sabbatical research to be done on that question. But as I study the life of Jesus, I notice that he was very busy, often under huge pressure, but he made a space for prayer and reflection which always meant being apart from the busy-ness. Had he tried to be prayerful and reflective in the place of busy-ness, both would have suffered. You can imagine the reaction of the crowds: “Why is he praying when my son needs healing?”

I would like to register a plea to all my fellow church leaders: let’s aim to get the office out of the minister’s home and into a place where it can facilitate growth rather than stifle it, because, as my friend Cathy said, “you can’t grow a business from home”.

So I’ve made a policy decision as a result of our friends’ visit. As soon as I possibly can, I’m going to get my study back, by shifting all the office stuff, initially into another room of my vicarage, and then into some purpose-built office facilities away from the vicarage. That may take some time, since there’s not a lot of such space available in this village, but that’s the aim. Watch this space.

Alun Brookfield

Editor of Ministry Today

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You are reading You can’t grow a business from home by Alun Brookfield, part of Issue 38 of Ministry Today, published in November 2006.

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