Don't Forget to Oil Your Chain

NEWS Dont Forget to Oil Your Chain

If you have been reading my other posts about organizational leadership and growth, you will have noticed that I include a lot of references to budget numbers, technology, newsletters, databases, and other administrative details. You might wonder what all that stuff has to do with ministry. Isn’t ministry all about relationships with God and people? The Church isn’t a business so why should we spend energy on budgets, facilities, and operations? Can’t we just “love on people”?

I get those questions. I resonate with the sense of unease that many in the church and nonprofit world experience when talking about revenue, marketing, investments, and so on. I’ll never forget a confrontation I had a with a church business manager in my first internship where I brashly announced, “The Church is not a business!”

While I had no idea what I was talking about back then—and I deeply regret the insult that my comment was to him—I still agree with that basic statement. The Church is not a business. Because, yes, ministry is all about relationships. Effective nonprofits are all about fulfilling their mission. The treasures in heaven that we care about are people—not money or buildings or websites. We care about people.

But I have learned during my work as Executive Director and Co-Pastor at Pres House that if we don’t attend to the “business” of ministry, our ministry will not be effective. Put another way, if the business is managed and run well, then the real work of mission is much more fruitful. The business operations of a nonprofit or ministry are its skeleton. If the skeleton is strong, then the flesh that is laid on top of it—the programs, people, relationships—they flourish and the organization succeeds. So yes, we do this work in order to love and serve people. But we have to tend to the business in order for our work with people to… well… work!

I hang out with college students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. They often use bikes to get around our large campus. Even in the winter! But I am always dismayed by how poorly many students take care of their bikes. They leave them outside, uncovered in the snow for months at a time. They ride to class with totally flat tires. And they almost never, ever oil their chain. You can always tell when a bike needs some oil on its chain by the horrible creaking and grinding sound it makes as it goes by. These same students often wonder why it is so hard to ride to class and are shocked that I ride 60 miles before 9am each Wednesday.

But I treat my chain and bike very differently. I clean and lube my chain almost every day. I pump up my tires every time I take my bike outside. I change my cables, bar tape, brake pads, and tires multiple times per season. If I had an orange rusty chain on my bike, I’d find it hard to ride a mile to class, too. You must take care of a bike if you want it to work well. If the chain is rusty or your tires are full of holes, you won’t make it very far and you’ll end up spending all your time dealing with the problems with the bike rather than riding anywhere. In addition to sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with students, I often feel like an evangelist for bike maintenance!

The big picture is important. As I’ve written in earlier articles, it is vital to look ahead to where you are going and let go of the brakes so you get moving. But it is also essential to attend to the little details that make a huge difference. To put oil on your chain and pump up your tires. To take care of the “business” of your ministry. If the operation is rusty and the business has holes in it, then the mission will not go anywhere, or you’ll end up stopped on the side of the road, changing a flat tire instead of getting on with loving people. I don’t oil the chain on my bike so that I have a shiny chain; I oil the chain so that my bike works well and I can get to where I am going. In the same way, I don’t attend to the business of Pres House just so we run a “well-oiled machine”; I attend to the business so that our mission of transforming the lives of students is successful and we get to where we are going.

Let me share a few examples:

  • We try to run the best student housing community on campus with excellent customer service, cleanliness, and amenities so that students want to live with us and will have the opportunity to experience the grace of Jesus Christ as a member of our residential community.
  • We send handwritten thank you notes to every donor, every time they donate, because we believe we have a relationship with our donors that extends beyond the online transaction or check they write.
  • We produce high-quality print publications so that people can clearly see what we are about and be inspired to participate or support our work.
  • We are always looking for ways to improve our computer systems, databases, phone systems, sound systems, and facilities so that our people and programs can flourish and do their best work.
  • We engage in rigorous financial modeling and budgeting in order to best leverage the gifts that God has given us for our mission today and into the future.
  • We take surveys throughout the year and collect data on all our programming to evaluate what we are doing and make changes to be more effective.

Often small nonprofits and churches have limited resources, and leaders and pastors do not have all the skills necessary to attend to all this business. Seminary, after all, doesn’t train pastors to do marketing or negotiate legal contracts. Pastors, church leaders, and nonprofit leaders are increasingly asked to be experts on so many things that we might as well start trying to walk on water.

I am not suggesting we need to manage everything on our own. Often there are people and resources available that can help. As much as I have enjoyed continuing education in theology and preaching, some of the most useful post-seminary education I’ve done has been in nonprofit leadership, fundraising, human resources, and legal issues. I have leaned on and learned from all the board members I’ve worked with over the years. I ask lots and lots of questions of every attorney, consultant, contractor, and acquaintance I can think of. Give me a call—I’d be happy to share some of what I’ve learned that might be useful in your particular context.

Taking care of the business of your organization is not a distraction from “real” ministry. It is a vital part of the ministry and essential to fully realizing the mission and vision of the organization. So, as you get on your bike, look ahead to where you want to go, let go of the brakes, and ride—don’t forget to oil your chain. You’ll be much more likely to get to where you are going, and you’ll enjoy the ride a whole lot more along the way.

This is the fourth article in a four-part series on the story of Pres House. Other articles in this series include:

Just Like Riding a Bike: Some things can only be learned through experience. (Part One)

Look Ahead to Where You Want to Go: Focus your attention on where you want to be. (Part Two)

Let Go of the Brakes: Commit fully. (Part Three)

Elsdon Mark

Mark Elsdon has served as Executive Director and Campus Co-Pastor at Pres House and Pres House Apartments since 2004 and helped launch GatherX, an experimental community for young professionals being incubated by Pres House. Born in the Midwest to immigrants from England, Mark has also lived in the Southern, Western, and Eastern parts of the United States. He is married to Rev. Erica Liu, and they have two daughters. Mark has a B.A. in Psychology from the University of California at Berkeley, a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and an M.B.A. from the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. When not hanging out with college students, Mark can be found training and racing his bike in the hills surrounding Madison or trying to keep up with the silliness of his daughters. Mark does consulting and coaching with ministry and nonprofit leaders, boards of directors, and organizations seeking support to launch, grow, or rebuild through Elsdon Strategic Consulting. 

Educating faithful Christian leaders.

Associate Rector at Trinity Church, Princeton, New Jersey

Nancy Hagner, Class of 2013

“Preaching is one of the most important things we do as pastors. You get to challenge people’s minds and hearts, as the gospel challenges all of us.”