In 1994, Jeff Bezos left a lucrative job as an investment banker on Wall Street to start a company selling books on a new technology called the internet. Two years later, I left a non-lucrative career in ministry and entered the burgeoning world of technology sales, a journey that would take me to such venerable tech giants as Dell, Cisco, and that company Bezos founded, Amazon, where I’m in my eighth year as a principal in our $71 billion cloud technology company, AWS.
While I’m no longer religious, I have, over the last 26 years, observed the religious world, more as a disinterested spectator than a Christian, more as a sociologist than a theologian. And while the landscape has changed — for example, the rise of “nones” in religious surveys — one thing remains: the pressures of being a minister.
A recent Barna study found that 38% of pastors were seriously considering leaving full-time ministry, up from 29% in January 2021. Among pastors under age 45, nearly half were considering quitting. COVID was cited as one reason for these alarming numbers; however, having been a Baptist minister for 10 years, I suspect the primary reason for clergy attrition is the same now as it was 26 years ago: the pressures that come with being a pastor.
I now make 10 to 12 times what I earned in my best year as a senior minister, but I have one-tenth the pressure. I lead a team focused on some of the largest global companies in North Carolina and South Carolina. I’m also part of the interviewing and hiring process not only in AWS but throughout Amazon, serving as a bar raiser. But the pressures I face at Amazon pale in comparison to those I experienced in ministry.
Why is this so? What is so different, and why is the contrast so stark? I submit that the difference is in Amazon’s culture. A Harvard Business Review article from January 2018, “The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture,” defines culture as the tacit social order of an organization. Cultural norms define what is encouraged, discouraged, accepted or rejected within a group and can foster an organization’s capacity to thrive. As management guru Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
Amazon’s culture is grounded in 16 leadership principles. It’s how we interview, hire and behave. Everyone at Amazon is a leader. And while there is no hierarchy of these principles, the most important one is customer obsession. At Amazon we obsess over our customers, starting with them and working backward. We pay attention to our competitors; however, we obsess over our customers. That seamless, easy shopping experience you have on Amazon.com isn’t an accident. It’s an output of our maniacal focus on our customers.
“I suspect the primary reason for clergy attrition is the same now as it was 26 years ago: the pressures that come with being a pastor.”
Fifteen of our 16 leadership principles are inputs; however, only one is an output: Deliver Results. To be sure, everyone in my organization carries a number, including our CEO; however, meeting quota isn’t the be-all, end-all. Months, quarters and years come and go with little fanfare or consternation. We believe if you focus on the 15 leadership principles that are inputs, results will follow. Amazon’s results speak for themselves.
Moreover, in our annual employee review process called “Forte,” we focus on an employee’s super powers, not their weaknesses. Superpowers are specific and distinctive descriptions of an employee’s unique, exceptional strengths, based on direct feedback from managers, peers and team members. While growth areas are discussed during the reviews, the primary focus is on the employee’s superpowers. Employee performance is a component of Forte, but it isn’t the centerpiece.
Reflecting on my time in ministry, and discussions with peers during those years, the evaluation process in the Baptist church was quite different. Weaknesses often received more attention than strengths, and the primary criteria by which a minister was measured, sometimes unspoken, usually were the results: how many new members joined the church, how much money was given that year. As a curmudgeonly patriarch in one of my congregations once bluntly told me: “We pay you to put butts in seats.”
If the expectation to grow the congregation numerically and financially wasn’t stressful enough, the pressure of writing and delivering a sermon every week added to the challenges. They called it a “pulpit committee” for a reason. They didn’t come to watch you lead a business meeting; they came to hear you preach. I sometimes felt I was only as good as my last sermon or last Sunday’s worship attendance.
If my characterizations of the church and the pressures of ministry are accurate, what might the church learn from Amazon?
First, the church could stop obsessing over its results (attendance and giving) and obsess over its customers. And who are its customers? In addition to those sitting in pews each Sunday, they are “the least of these” in the community and world. Ah, but the church isn’t a company, you might say. Fine. Then stop counting butts and dollar bills. In my first congregation in rural Virginia, there was a small, wooden sign in the front of the sanctuary with two figures: last week’s attendance and the collected offering. Res ipsa loquitur.
“First, the church could stop obsessing over its results (attendance and giving) and obsess over its customers.”
Second, stop focusing exclusively on a minister’s weaknesses. Highlight her superpowers. In what areas does she excel? What unique talents does she bring to your congregation? Provide areas for growth; however, don’t dwell there. Just as no one at Amazon raises the bar on all of our leadership principles, no minister has all the gifts.
Third, if Baptist churches truly believe that “every member is a minister,” then each church could be well served by embracing Amazon’s leadership principle of ownership. At Amazon, leaders are owners. No one says, “That’s not my job.” As one rabbi recently said: “Clergy don’t come to their positions with magic dust that will grow membership and solve budget issues. They need serious lay leaders as partners.” Sadly, some churches often pin the blame for declining attendance or giving squarely on a minister and engage in magical thinking believing “if we can just get the right minister, things will turn around.”
In the Baptist church, where there is no denominational safety net, like there is in the United Methodist Church, bright, competent and capable ministers often are pressured to resign or are forcibly fired, left to find another congregation, their resumes now stained with a scarlet letter. Meanwhile, the church convenes a search committee and looks for Superman or Superwoman, instead of looking in the mirror and assuming responsibility for its own problems.
“The church convenes a search committee and looks for Superman or Superwoman, instead of looking in the mirror and assuming responsibility for its own problems.”
Lest I’m perceived as bitter or contemptuous of the church, as challenging and difficult as my ministerial career was, any success I’ve had in the corporate world I can attribute in no small measure to those 10 years. In my organization at Amazon, we don’t do PowerPoint presentations; we write six-page narratives, or “six-pagers.” That I had to write a sermon every week as a minister makes these six-pagers less daunting. I often speak in front of groups, so my time in the pulpit more than prepared me for public speaking. And when you’ve held the hand of someone dying or conducted a funeral for a child, you can sit across the table from the CEO of a $3 billion company who views you as a competitor and have difficult conversations.
What can the church learn from Amazon? Perhaps nothing, which is why my title is a question and not declarative. Like the church, Amazon is far from perfect. Last year we added a new leadership principle, “Strive to be Earth’s Best Employer,” recognizing that Amazon should be as obsessed with its employees as it is with customers. As Bezos said in his final letter to shareholders, “If we can operate two businesses as different as e-commerce and AWS, and do both at the highest level, we can certainly do the same with these two vision statements.” If Amazon can strive to be earth’s most customer-centric company and earth’s best employer, perhaps the church can do the same for its members and ministers. What does the church have to lose, more ministers?
David Ramsey was a Baptist minister for 10 years. He holds degrees from Wake Forest University, Duke University, and he was named a Fellow in Religion and Leadership Development at Princeton Theological Seminary. Ramsey is currently a principal with the world’s largest cloud technology company, AWS, and a published author. His author’s website is dbramsey.com
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