By Eddie Pipkin

To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the death of the church have been greatly exaggerated.  For those of us who work regularly with struggling congregations and church revitalization, there is a constant undercurrent of doom and gloom, the quoting of apocalyptic statistics indicating denominational shrinkage and church failures.  The good news, however, is that there are thousands of congregations in the United States in which a fresh energy, growth, and reimagined identities are the story.  In fact, even in mainline denominations that are struggling (like my home denomination, the United Methodist Church), a third of the congregations are growing and some churches are thriving, even when measured by traditional metrics like attendance and budgets.  Therefore, the relevant question becomes, “What is different about the vibrant churches?  What sets them apart?”

That’s why I love studying “real world” business stories about who succeeds and who fails.  It has been a generation of disruption in the economy, with new players becoming indispensable household names (Uber, drive me home!) and old, familiar players fading away because they can’t adapt (so long, Kmart!).  Some of the survivors turn out to be surprises.  Bloomberg Businessweek recently published an in-depth look at an improbable retail success story: Best Buy.  The big box retailer seemed an unlikely candidate for survival in the age of Amazon.  Physical stores selling electronics in a world of online shopping, home delivery, and cutthroat price matching?  And yet, Best Buy is thriving, posting consistently better earnings reports than their competitors.  As explored in the article, “Best Buy Should Be Dead,” by Susan Berfield and Matthew Boyle, the future was dire before the unlikely hire of new CEO Hubert Joly.  As recounted by Berfield and Boyle, it was a rocky start that quickly turned in a positive direction as Joly shifted the institution to align with his philosophies:

He had no retail experience — Best Buy’s stock fell by 10 percent the day he was named CEO — but Joly understands how to value, and capture, customers’ time.  Comparable sales rose 5.6 percent last year and 9 percent during the Christmas season, the biggest holiday gain since 2003.  The stock price has quadrupled.  Even Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is impressed.  “The last five years, since Hubert came to Best Buy, have been remarkable,” he said at an appearance in April.

It was true that the new CEO had no experience in big box retailing, but he had climbed the ranks in a number of other businesses, including hospitality and entertainment, and his experiences in those businesses influenced his strategic approach (leading him to embrace many revitalization strategies that we regularly emphasize in this blog).

  • Getting a boots-on-the-ground perspective. One of the first things that Joly did was head out to a local Best Buy store to work alongside sales reps and stockers for a week.  First of all, this was an immediate, dramatic morale booster for beleaguered employees.  This is a wonderful idea for ministry leaders to emulate, particularly pastors, who can be an intimidating presence for workers on the front lines.  When workers see the leader laboring with them shoulder to shoulder, they have a strong sense that the work they do matters and that the leader is actively trying to understand the nuances that make the ministry tick.  This is the other benefit of a hands-on review of the ministry, a nuts-and-bolts, in-depth appreciation of details that can formulate strategic decision making.  Don’t be standoffish, sending out edicts from the castle tower.  Stop by youth group on a Sunday night.  Attend a Trustees meeting once in a while.  Co-teach a Sunday School class.  Sing with the choir.
  • Emphasizing relationships.  Best Buy had already carved out a unique identity among retailers by providing its Geek Squad service (in which technology assistants can set up and repair your gadgets).  Joly embraced a strategy to put that aspect of the business on steroids since it was a personal approach that clearly set them apart from, for instance, Amazon.  Trainer Bryan Bucknell describes the shift in philosophy that moved Best Buy from “closing a sale” as a metric to building relationships as a goal to be embraced:

“Be a consultant, not a salesperson,” Bucknell says. “Use phrases like: ‘How would you like it if,’ ‘Do you think it would help if you could,’ ‘Have you ever thought about.’” They’re supposed to establish long-term relationships with their customers rather than chase one-time transactions. They won’t need to anxiously track weekly metrics and, unlike the Geek Squad and blue shirts working in stores, they’ll be paid an annual salary instead of an hourly wage. Their house calls are free and can last as long as 90 minutes.

Think about the ways in which we, as ministry leaders and operatives, so often function as salespeople.  We’re trying to “sell” people on participating, or donating, or serving.  If we can just make the perfect pitch, we can get them to engage with our “product”!  Imagine instead if our focus was on building relationships, having conversations, figuring out the needs and potential of people (to grow in the ways God has gifted them) rather than just plugging warm bodies into slots.

You move forward on these new strategies with clear objectives, and that’s exactly what Joly did, in partnership with Best Buy’s Chief Financial Officer, Corie Barry:

In fall 2015, Joly asked her to set up a strategic growth office, “a safe space for ideas,” Barry says. The advisory program, which emerged through conversations with Joly, would live by three main rules. No. 1: No job is too small. “We’ll come teach you how to ask Alexa questions,” Barry says, offering an example of a current—and common—request for using the Amazon Echo. No. 2: We will come to your home for free. No. 3: Be comfortable not closing a deal by day’s end. “They sound really basic,” Barry says. “But when an organization is built on transactions in the moment and individual goals, it’s a big change.”

How about that?  Another way to write the thought would be “when an organization is mindful and focused on individual actualization.”  Although both of these concepts are inherently biblical, there are many times when we lose sight of them.

  • Embracing technology.  Churches are not technology companies, but then again, neither is Best Buy – it’s a retailer at heart.  The key is to leverage the wonders of technology to enhance our core mission, and the basic challenge is to at least be proficient in technology in the way that smart-phone-living people anticipate.  Best Buy was falling behind:

Despite . . . successes, the shadow of neglect threatened the company’s promise. Its app crashed regularly. The website existed in a time warp. Out-of-stock items were frequently promoted, there were no customer reviews, product information was scant, and it could take 10 clicks to check out. By the end of 2016, all of this had been fixed.

We write in this blog a lot about the need for ministries to have a basic, functional, reliable technology interface.  People are frustrated with anything less, and people are geared to interact enthusiastically with technology that makes it easy to engage (in giving, in signing up to participate, in growing through study, etc.).

  • Leaning into strengths.  As noted above, Joly quickly moved to identify the things that set their business apart from the competition, including reimagining of the Geek Squad.  Amazon was beating them on price with their “price match” feature – and, famously, people were going to Best Buy stores to physically look at gadgets, then buying them from Amazon – so Joly undertook a temporarily costly strategy to embrace price matching, keeping people in the stores.  The physical stores themselves were an advantage to be leveraged as Best Buy forged creative partnerships with Google and other tech heavyweights to set up display areas in the Best Buy retail spaces, sometimes with salespeople from the brands themselves working in the sub-spaces in the stores.  The premise was that Best Buy did not care about what manufacturer you bought your phone from; they just cared that you bought it at their store.  Imagine if churches took a similar attitude: “We don’t care who you’re doing poverty ministry with – that is, it doesn’t have to be sponsored by our church – our only concern is that you are serving in some capacity in the community.”  Creative partnerships and unusual strategies of engagement are just as effective in ministry as in retail.

All of these concepts were developed and implemented by empowering teams to understand them fully, equipping those teams for success, and celebrating their work together.  And a trajectory of continuing success is dependent on leaders understanding the power of momentum.  Joly stresses the need to avoid sitting still and resting on institutional laurels:

The CEO applied what he calls the bicycle theory to the moribund company. “If you try to direct a bicycle at standstill, you fall. The key is to get moving,” Joly says. “You learn about creating energy.” Initially, he says, he wasn’t much more clear about his plans than that, but executives later told him they got the message: “If we don’t change, we are going to die.”

That last phrase is gravely familiar to church leaders.  But it’s what comes after that utterance that really matters. The attitude with which the next steps are carried out becomes critical.   Change can be done in a spirit of hope, adventure, and enthusiasm, or it can be done while overshadowed by a cloud of bitterness, resistance, foot-dragging and desperation.

Guess which approach is more successful?

Granted, a Chief Executive Officer, has more direct control over decision making than the average ministry leader, but they each have plenty of layers of decision partners who are involved.  One of a leader’s greatest strengths is the ability to articulate a clear vision and inspire people to do the hard work of bringing that vision to life.

What have your experiences been as you worked to revitalize your own ministry or coach other peers in revitalizing theirs?  Which parts of the Best Buy narrative would best lend themselves to use by ministry leaders?  Share your own stories and let others learn from you.