Body and Corporation

Regardless of what our doctrinal statements say about the church really being the people, the American local church manifests itself as a corporation with property to maintain, payroll to meet, bills to pay. It’s important to remember that the body and the corporation really are two different things — witness the fact that over the past two thousand years, most local churches have managed to exist without drawing up corporate papers. Imagine trying to explain the church structure we take for granted to, say, the first-century church that met in Philemon’s house. “Corporate papers?” they would ask. “Isn’t that something you do for a business?”

Conversely, it’s entirely possible to be a service organization with corporate papers and not a church at all. The American Red Cross, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Boy Scouts of America have been managing it for decades.

But more often than not, in North America, we try to do both at the same time. The juggling act can be challenging. The corporation theoretically exists in order to serve the needs of the body. But the body is a familial structure and the corporation is a business structure. Families and businesses are different sorts of entities, and they operate on fundamentally different principles. What’s good for one is not always good for the other, and so the interests of the body and the interests of the corporation are often not well aligned.

Over time, the interests of the corporation almost always come to dominate. The needs of the corporation are immediately pressing and measurable. It’s easy to tell if you have enough money to cover this month’s mortgage and payroll, or enough volunteers for the fall program. You can give an employee a mark to hit, and everyone will know if he hit it. You can hire a slick, upwardly mobile manager of ecclesiastical affairs who will make sure he hits all the marks. As with any other such managerial position, you’ll work to find a good one, but if you’re willing to pay a competitive salary, you’ll get what you need. Thus far the needs of the corporation.

The body needs real, personal connection and relationships. These things provide no short-term benefit to the corporation, and they come with a huge opportunity cost: they’re messy, labor-intensive, and high-risk. The energy invested in doing them well could be going into something else, something that does the corporation measurable good: a glitzier children’s program, a slicker bulletin, the next capital campaign. Trying to find a capable manager for the corporation who will put the needs of the body first is…challenging, to say the least.

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