"If Saturday night is your deadline, you're already in trouble," Rev. Alyn Waller, senior pastor at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, said talking about sermons. "It better be done before then. I have a Saturday night service. So we call Friday the marinade day."
Rev. Waller and I talked a lot about the church from the vantage point of the church as a business.
"That's the business of the church," he told me during our Executive Q&A interview published in the business section of Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer. "Whenever you use this language it offends people. This is a business. We are presenting Jesus Christ and the product is faith in Jesus Christ and we're here to help you with your faith, develop your faith. If your faith needs some fixin' bring it back in and let's figure out where it went wrong and let's help you exercise your faith. But, ministry that is extensive is also expensive. So, there is a financial component to everything we do. There's no decision that I make that doesn't have a financial implication. It's going to cost, and so, I have to think about that."
What follows now is essentially the transcript from our interview. I've shortened it some and deleted the parts that are already in the Executive Q&A published in the Philadelphia Inquirer's Sunday business section. I'll put some headlines in bold, so you can read by topic.
More on sermons:
Question: Why do you call Friday the marinade day?
Answer: Well, because I don't memorize my sermons but I internalize them so that preaching is a dialogue. It's a conversation. So, I need to be able to be flexible depending upon how the congregation is speaking.
Q: That makes a lot of sense.
A: So, a memorized, verbatim sermon you can't change, but if you internalize the message, then I can say well, `I think I'm going to have to do this another way.'
Q: Do you practice your sermon out loud?
A: I actually do. I think things sound really good in our head, but you have to hear it. In fact, my daughters and wife used to joke with me. None of them would like driving with me on Fridays, because all of Friday I'm going through the sermon. And so, they think I'm a dangerous driver on Fridays.
Q: Plus, they know they're going to have to listen again.
A: Exactly, that's right.
Q: You love somebody, but there are limits, right?
A: [Laughs] That's right. That's right.
On membership and money; the church as a business
Rev. Waller began by talking about joining Enon.
Question: How do you budget? Do Enon's members make an annual pledge?
Answer: We don't do pledging. We teach the concept of tithing.
Q: You don't have a pledge system at all?
A: Well, I should say for the paying off of this building, we do have a drive that's going on.
Q: A capital campaign?
A: A capital campaign. But, in terms of operating the budget, it is a complete faith venture. We teach the principle that 10 percent of whatever you receive, you should give to your church. And for the 22 years that I've been here we've grown. When I came here in 1994 there were 364 names on the roll and 150 of them coming to worship on Sunday morning. Now we are about 15,000 and I'll see about 10,000 of them over the weekend.
Q: So you improved the overall count and the participation rate. You went from about 41 percent attendance to about 66 percent.
A: Generally speaking, health looks like this. Whatever your church roll says, everything centers between that 40-60 percent thing. Let me use this easy math in my head. If I've got 10 members on the roll, then I want to see at least six of them over the weekend.
Q: That's about where you are.
A: Exactly. Then if I see six on the weekend, then I want to see between three and five in some sort of study. So, we have to raise how many people should come, do come, get involved, because there are concentric circles of involvement in the community, the committed, the church, the core.
Q: What is your annual budget?
A: It's roughly $10 million I guess.
Q: Wow. Is that revenue?
Q: And the church members see the money?
Q: Tell me why you went down that path.
A: Because so many institutions in general, and so many institutions in our context in particular…
Q: What do you mean by our context in particular?
A: The church. The key to healthy giving is the security of the individual of knowing that he or she can just know where [the money] is. The average person has a good heart, but just doesn't want to be duped.
Q: Do you reveal your salary to your members?
Q: Does it actually happen?
A: It's never happened.
Q: Do you think that process might intimidate people?
A: I don't know. It may be intimidating, but there needs to be some accountability on both parts. Now, my salary for the church is just known. So, I'm not held to the same thing because I'm the senior pastor. Everybody in the church knows what I receive. They've known it since I got here. Any changes to it is a public declaration. The only reason why an individual would not know is if they don't come to church meetings.
Q: Like the quarterly finance meeting?
A: The quarterly finance meeting. We call it the family gathering. My doctorate of ministry is in ministry, marriage and family counseling. I fundamentally think of church as a family unit. I think the predominate theme in the Bible about God's stuff is familial. So, in fact, when I'm thinking about hiring someone, the Bible says look at his or her family, because leadership style in the church is much more of a parenting model, than it is a corporate model.
This next section continues from the previous one with an emphasis on leadership and hiring within the church:
Q: But how do you actually check that out, on a practical basis?
A: On a practical basis, it's all anecdotal. When I was a young man and preaching to get a church...
Q: When you say preaching to get a church, do you mean you were more-or-less auditioning?
A: You would call it. So, for instance, when this church asked me to come up and preach, all the older women sat around my wife as I preached and they watched her reaction. I know that's not scientific but…
Q: So, what reaction was she supposed to have?
A: They were just trying to look to see if she loved me or hated me. Everything that I'm saying is all anecdotal and folk lore.
Q: That's so much pressure on your wife, her being scrutinized as to how she reacts to your sermons. Like, what is she supposed to do? What happens if she's heard that sermon 15 times in the car? Does she have to fake fascination in the church?
Q: Well, what does that tell anybody about you? Zero.
A: It's a modern-day interpretation of what the scriptures teach. So, in the book of Timothy, it says when looking for a bishop or pastor, it says that he must have the respect of those that are around him. So, when I was being called, the deacons came to Louisville, Kentucky and they were in the city for a whole day before they came to talk to me. You would consider this crazy in your employment, and it's probably illegal anywhere else. In our first house, my wife and I lived behind a liquor store. The deacons came down and went in the liquor store and asked, `Does the man who lives back there, does he ever come in here?' Trying to ascertain, because remember we're Baptists.
So, some of the old thoughts about liquor in the Baptist church, archaic though they be. So, they went in to find out. Now, nobody thought that they sell soda in there too. But, it's that type of stuff that's done in the church that is completely illegal anywhere else. The flip side of that is: I'm not perfect nor trying to project it, but I think we who claim to be leaders in a moral realm have to accept that there is some public scrutiny. And if I benefit from the deferment that I receive, then I need to accept some of the critique, because when I show up somewhere, there's usually a special parking space. If there's a line to eat, they're going to put me in the front of it. If there's an issue in the city, they're going to call me to come and be a moral representation at the table. So, there are a lot of good perks, and you can't take the good stuff and then say don't look under my skirt. That's what we've chosen.
I think about it in the same way that we think about police officers. We pay [them] to react differently. So, it's fair to look at [their] shootings a little differently than we would look at anybody else's shootings. And, pastor, we pay you. We're not under the illusion that you're perfect, but we pay you to react a little differently. We all try to do the best we can.
Much later in the interview we returned to the topic of drinking, when I asked the pastor, as I ask many other executives, if they have favorite beer or drink. Here's how he answered that question:
Q: Jesus served it at a wedding.
A: Exactly. But, for me when it gets in my system, release the hounds.
Q: How did you stop drinking?
A: I made a moral choice to recognize… Well, I shouldn't call it a moral choice, because I don't want anyone to feel as if this is a moral issue. It's a medical issue and I recognized that that's just not who I wanted to be and how I wanted to live and nothing should run your life like that period.
More on money:
Question: You said before that you rely on donations rather than budgeting based on pledges. So, does all the revenue come in via the offering plate?
Answer: About roughly 27 percent of our budget comes in online. But the lion's share, 75 percent of our dollars, come in on Sunday morning when they give.
Q: Are you waiting for the plate report?
A: Oh, yes. In fact, every Monday.
Q: Can you draw a connection between the quality of your sermon and the money?
A: No. The only connection with that would be CD sales. We make available a CD of the morning service and if something has happened in the sermon that is of a particular interest, we'll see an uptick there, but it's pretty standard.
Q: Because it's being made while the sermon is live recording and it's processed on the spot. And you can get it on the way out? That's impressive.
A: That's right. That's right. So, depending upon what happened that day we may sell more or less.
Q: What a ratification of your work!
A: It really is. But, in terms of the giving, there are certain things you just know about the month. It's still a first and fifteenth economy. So, the first Sunday is the big Sunday and then second Sunday the offering will go down and then third Sunday it's the next biggest, because we get paid every two weeks.
Q: Membership is growing, and presumably, along with that, the donations from congregation members. Yet in planning next year's budget, you say you need to $500,000. That's a big percent. What happened? Why?
Q: But why?
A: The reason that we have to cut it is I intend to retire when I'm 65. I am 52. There's 13 years. We owe $20 million on this building. So, what we are trying to do now is work on cutting down that debt. We grow every year. The money is coming in. That is not an issue. But, we're not getting ahead of the payoff. I need to get this building paid off. It is a moral issue for me. I'm the one that led us out here. I'm the one that led us into debt. I believe that my father would roll over in his grave if I retired and left the debt to the next generation.
So, there's a gap right now in my retirement date and our present spending of about sevenyears. So, if we do what we're doing now, I'll retire and this church will have seven more years to pay off the building. So, it's all about the debt and it's all about structuring the budget so that we are not just meeting the note every fifth of the month, but that we're putting a sizeable down on the principle in a strategic way.
Q: That's the $500,000. Out of the pizza, into the building.
A: That's exactly right. And, quite frankly, we have been spoiled for a long time, because we pretty much do what we want to do around here. One of the things that I am excited about, for lack of a better word, is even through the recession we didn't go backwards. We just leveled off. So, in 2008,when it all hit, until 2013 we had a freeze. The budget didn't go up. We didn't do anything different. We didn't add anything. We just kept the budget and everything flat for those five years. Throughout the country, many churches had to take drastic cuts in order to survive, while what we had to do was sort of just lay flat. So, in '14 when we were able to sort of kick it up again, we're very excited about that. And so, I'm Godly proud of what we were able to achieve there, but I think that before I leave we've got to get this paid off and we've got to start making the hard choices now.
Next: Rev. Waller on the intersection of the church and the larger community.