Review: The Minister as Entrepreneur by Michael Volland

minister entrepreneur

Full disclosure: I’m reading this because I’m due to take over teaching a course on Mission Entrepreneurship and it’s not language I’ve been particularly familiar with.

Volland has a strong background in mission and Fresh Expressions, and wrote and researched this book while in post as Director of Mission at Cranmer Hall. It’s an interesting book, part reflection on his self-understanding of his own ministry as entrepreneurial and what entrepreneurial ministry might mean and have to offer, and part research into the experience of several clergy in Durham diocese identified as entrepreneurial.

This has the feeling of a conversation-starter rather than being a major piece of theology. Volland’s theological reflections are the weakest part of the book. I began the book unconvinced that entrepreneur was a helpful term for describing ministry, and ended it feeling the same, though recognising that what the language appears to do is to enable a label to be applied to a vital set of skills that the church urgently needs to engage with. To that extent, then, I suppose I’m happy to adopt the language of entrepreneur as a sort of ‘nom du guerre’ given that it appears to have real utility. In the fullness of time, though, I hope we can find language less resonant of capitalist excess, cutthroat business practice, and the myth of the heroic individual. Despite Volland’s protests that genuine entrepreneurship was none of those things, the tendency to valorise headstrong charismatic individuals who go their own way, pay lip service to notions of team and partnership, and have an uncomfortably flippant relationship to institutional loyalty or the limits of the law was still all too evident.

And yet, there is much here that the church needs to engage with. The CofE is, demonstrably, in a missional situation where its traditional strengths: (respect for institution and tradition, a preference for moderation and slow incremental change, and a strong sense that the local church should just hatch, match and dispatch, be nice and not demand too much of anyone) will inevitably lead to the death of a thousand cuts. An openness to creativity, radical change, and forging new sorts of relationships with the communities around it are vital if the church is to survive. And that means clergy, senior staff, and congregations who either are themselves entrepreneurs, act in entrepreneurial ways, or at the least have sympathy with and a permission-giving stance towards those who are.

There are a whole constellation of issues around mission, church growth, collaborative ministry, vision, leadership, and changing church culture that are helpfully brought into close focus when looked at through the lens of entrepreneurship, as becomes apparent in Volland’s research. Being entrepreneurial is not the same as being missional (in the narrow sense) but there are interesting connections between them. Partnership and collaboration are not the same as being entrepreneurial, but I wonder whether much discussion of them does not focus enough on what sort of person forges new partnerships and networks and why.

There is much in the research Volland discusses that rings very true of the reality of parish ministry, where the struggle is to find any way to be pro-active and to take risks, caught between the expectations of congregation, peers and senior leaders, and without the resources to even adequately do the bread and butter reactive work of ministry. There is a nettle to be grasped here, and Volland’s work may provide a new way of identifying it.