by The Rev. Dr. C. Anthony Hunt, E. Franklin Frazier Professor of African American Studies
(This article originally appeared in “Leading Ideas” of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, Wesley Theological Seminary. Thanks to Dr. Hunt and the Center for permission to repost it here.)
I believe church leaders have much to learn from prayerful and careful consideration of a broad range of management and organizational practices. And based on my experience over the past several years in leading several churches and non-profit organizations through transition and turnaround, I believe some key concepts from the realm of business development can apply to church leaders involved in starting new ministries or turning around congregations in transition or decline. These concepts are branding, market niche, and product excellence.
According to most management literature, successful enterprises today ask “What’s our brand?” and “What’s our niche?” before addressing the standard 4-P’s of marketing — product, price, place and promotion. There’s only one Starbucks, one Apple, and one McDonald’s. These and other successful ventures clearly addressed the questions of brand and niche early in their development.
Clearly identifying a ministry’s brand and niche clarifies perceptions about the ministry and helps the ministry shape its mission, vision, and purpose. Properly addressing the questions of niche and brand can be critical to sustainability and growth. For example, St. John United Methodist Church, a turnaround church I’ve worked with in Baltimore, understands its brand to be “The Experience” and its niche to be reaching young adults for Christ. This has led to significant growth among young adults in the church over the past several years. In its promotional material, including its website and social networking presence, the church presents itself as “The Experience” where people experience God and the church in new and exciting ways.
Should leaders and startup/turnaround teams work first on the niche or the brand? I have found that the brand-niche question is a chicken-egg one. They go hand-in-hand; you can’t have one without the other. So I have found that it helps to work on the two simultaneously.
Also, successful start-ups and turnarounds invariably focus on delivering an excellent product. I have recently seen restaurant start-ups with beautiful space and ambiance (and sometimes even nice branding and niche) fail and close within a few months because their product — the food — wasn’t good. In competitive markets, people make choices that are primarily based on the quality of the product (Starbucks, Apple, Outback, etc.).
For a church that wants to thrive today — especially start-ups and turnarounds — anything less than excellence risks failure. In my experience, excellence in terms of product delivery for the church must begin with worship. Worship has to be extraordinary, or people will find a church where it is. Everything else that the church does will follow the way it worships.
Leaders of new or turnaround ministries need to give attention to a plethora of things, but I have found that these three — branding, niche, and product excellence — serve as tipping points that are critical to long-term vitality and growth.
About Dr. Hunt