Social Enterprise—A gift or a risk to the church?

Mar 4, 2022

By Shannon Hopkins, RootedGood Co-Founder and Lead Cultivator

“If we stay where we are, we’re stuck, where we’re comfortable and safe, we die there. … When nothing new can get in, that’s death. When oxygen can’t find a way in, you die. But new is scary, and new can be disappointing, and confusing-- we had this all figured out, and now we don’t. New is life.” ― Anne Lamott, Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers

I love Anne Lamott and her words here are wise. If we stay where we are, we are stuck. If nothing new can get in, that’s death. We had this all figured out, and now we don’t. True. True. True!

What does this mean for the church? The church has been static, in decline, and operating with an insufficient resource model for too long. We know things have to change. Just relying on an attractional mission model or pass-the-plate resource model isn’t enough. Instead of that being bad news, what if it is good news, life-giving news to our congregations and communities? What if by exploring and experimenting with other resource models, we move towards something better, deeper, more qualitatively rich?

Perhaps you have recently read my colleague Mark Elsdon’s book We Aren’t Broke: Uncovering Hidden Resources for Mission and Ministry. Or Sam Wells’ book The Future is Bigger than the Past: Towards the renewal of the Church. Or Tim Soerens’ book Everywhere You Look: Discovering the Church Right Where You Are.

All three write about a church that is vibrant, local, and resilient. And all of them talk about commercial activity in line with mission. This is the work of Social Enterprise.

In this short piece, I want to explore on a basic level some of the gifts that Social Enterprise brings for the Church. Before I go there, let’s start with what Social Enterprise is.

A Social Enterprise is an organization that applies commercial strategies to maximize improvements in financial, social, and environmental well-being.

This is sometimes noted as a “triple bottom line” enterprise: making a qualitatively positive impact on people/community, the planet/ecology, and profits/economy. Some will add a fourth bottom line of personal and social transformation/spirituality

Social Enterprise as a concept has been growing in the past few years, but it isn’t something that came to be overnight. It has a rich history in the Church, beginning in the 1800s with the Quakers, Mennonites, and Catholics. Social Enterprise was a way to align money and mission, to see a broader context for the work of the gospel. For instance, abolitionist Quakers established stores where no items for sale were produced by slave labor.

So, what are the gifts of Social Enterprise to the Church?

  1. It provokes change. Too often, we can just keep doing things as we always have and resist change. God is all about doing a new thing and being disruptive, yet as the church, we can all too often prioritize the status quo. Social Enterprise is entrepreneurial and starts with asking what else can we do to respond to the needs and opportunities in our community. It then leads us to do something new.
  2. It gives us language to connect more with people not of faith. Social Entrepreneurship uses common language and the language of the marketplace instead of the insider language of faith. It demands that we translate what we mean into practice and into terms that everyday people can understand. Doing so opens up conversations and relationships with people who might not ever come into a church.
  3. It helps us cede power and to work with others. Social Enterprise often makes our work broader because it demands different skills and connections beyond what we already have. Therefore, it opens up the opportunity for more collaboration. In Social Enterprise, we recognize we cannot do this work alone. Collaboration is only possible when we come at activities with a mindset of abundance, realizing there is enough for everyone, and that everyone has a role to play. With that grounding, we can embrace collaboration over competition, become win-win co-laborers instead of win-or-lose rivals.
  4. It models a different economy and new economic models. If mission is one side of the coin, the business of mission is the other. We have typically relied on a trickle-down model to do the work of the gospel instead of going out into the public square to cultivate ground-up. Even Pope Francis has begun calling for new economic models to rebuild post-Covid. Social Enterprise moves us beyond pass-the-plate to generate and sustain mission in new ways.
  5. It gives us confidence that we have something of value. Social Enterprise forces us to think about demand, to make sure we are supplying something that people want and are willing to pay for. When demand and engagement with our services or products grow, that gives us confidence in what we have to offer.
  6. It emphasizes doing business daily instead of only a one-day-a-week venture. For far too long, utilization rates in our building have been low (averaging between 25-43%) and our activities mostly happen just one or two days a week. However, if we launch a Social Enterprise like PresHouse, 10 Fitness, or the Burning Bush in Chicago, we are going to be engaging with people daily, serving them in all kinds of ways and probably far more holistically than if we connected just once a week.

Those are just some of the gifts of Social Enterprise. But--as with all business--we should acknowledge it is risky. When we are trying to derive both social, financial, and environmental benefits from a venture, it isn’t all going to go well all of the time.

So, what are some of the risks and dangers in Social Enterprise?

  1. Disconnects between structure and governance. It is essential to hold the structural how-to’s and governance who’s-responsible together. We need to make sure our trading is in line with our mission, and our governing body is in support of the venture. This must be a priority!
  2. Different types of leaders are required. We cannot expect every pastor to be entrepreneurial or equipped to do all the tasks related to Social Enterprise. Making space for leaders with different gifts is essential. If our church or institution doesn’t value the need for different types of leaders and/or teams to do this work, it can have a negative impact on the initiative and the people involved.
  3. Internal misunderstanding around the theology of Social Enterprise. We can run into conflict if we don’t have congregational buy-in and understanding that Social Enterprise is a vehicle for mission--it is not turning the church into a business. Casting a vision and preaching on the alignment of money and mission is essential to overcome this risk.

In his book The Future is Bigger than the Past, Sam Wells proclaims:

“It may not be necessary, possible, or desirable for every congregation [to engage in commercial activity]: but it could be the single most dynamic step in revitalizing the church for a future that’s bigger than the past.”

At RootedGood, we believe that Wells is on to something, that churches that engage in Social Enterprise--commercial activity connected to its mission--will expand the reach and impact of their local church, leading to a brighter, bigger future.

Are you or your congregation being called to launch a Social Enterprise? Does your institution want to train individuals and teams to launch social enterprises? We have interactive tools and equipping resources to help you!

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