Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Commodities Church

Written by: on March 3, 2023

“All your big givers are going to leave.” That is what an older church member leveraged over the phone one morning – my day off, no less. I had made changes to the music and it was not received well by some. Enter the threat: if you do not change it back then all your big givers will leave. The threat, of course, is the market. If you do not provide a service certain people want, they will take their money to a church that does. 

This reminded me of a piece of advice I had been given on numerous occasions – know what your church member gives. It has been a piece of pastoral advice that I have wrestled with in my ministry. Admittedly, knowing what a church member gives is a debated topic among church leaders. On the one hand, it is fiscally responsible to know what a person gives so that the pastor can properly govern the church. On the other hand, it makes members commodities. Even deeper is the issue of identity – whether the person was a giver or non-giver, particularity when they complain. These kind of issues make me wonder if the strongest definition of the church is a religious institution defined by embedded market forces? 

  These are the questions raised by the sweeping threshold work by Karl Polanyi called The Great Transformation [1]. In it, Polanyi argues that the “great transformation” from the nineteenth century to our present day is a political and economic that gave rise to the self-regulating market (SRM) [2]. The political intervention of the market is what caused the shifts in society and the social structures impacted by it [3]. The impact of these shifts caused responses to the economic forces that were shifting in the emerging industrialized societies. The nature of these shifts and how embedded they are to ever-present social institutions is examined as part of the theses of Dr. Jason Clark. By considering the economic history offered by Polanyi, Clark is argues that people are not mere participants in the system but have contributed to the emerging capitalist schema by “co-creation, co-option, and resistance” [4]. 

One of the more mind-bending implications is the observations that Polanyi offers is that capitalism and market forces result in people, land and labor to function as commodities. Polanyi writes, “A market economy must comprise all elements of industry, including labor, land and money…but labor and land are no other than the human beings themselves of which every society consists and the natural surroundings in which it exists. To include them in the market mechanism means to subordinate the substance of society itself to the laws of the market” [5]. 

While no church leader would ever admit it, the prevailing gravity of the day-to-day operations of the church are defined by market forces. Is there a way to separate the identities enough to allow identity formation apart from the ubiquitous capitalism in modern life? Granted, I would much rather hear a complaint from a person is not giving because I know they do not actually have leverage over the community if the conversation does not go their way. That is not true community, of course. 

I heard the complaint and made some compromises that would satisfy the issues she raised. It worked for awhile, but she eventually transferred her membership to a smaller church that had a choir “with people her age.” I suppose that is true market forces at work. 

  1. Polanyi, Karl. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001, Kindle. 
  2. Ibid., 3, Kindle. 
  3. Ibid., 4, Kindle. 
  4. Clark, Jason Paul, “Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship” (2018). Faculty Publications – Portland Seminary. 122. https://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/gfes/132
  5. Polanyi, 74, Kindle. 

About the Author


Chad McSwain

Chad is a systematic creative serving in pastoral ministry for nearly 20 years, Chad is a professional question-asker and white-board enthusiast, who enjoys helping people discover their own passions and purpose. A life-long learner, he has a B.A, Philosophy - Univ. Central Oklahoma, M.A Theology - Fuller Seminary, M.Div. Perkins School of Theology at SMU and is pursuing a Doctor of Leadership - George Fox University. He is an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church, currently serving as Lead Pastor of Whitesboro UMC. Chad and his wife, Brandi live in Prosper, Texas along with their three children, two pugs and a chameleon.

15 responses to “Commodities Church”

  1. mm David Beavis says:

    Hey Chad,

    What I appreciate about your post is that you are writing from the perspective of a real-life practitioner of church leadership, not a theorist critiquing from the side. The entanglement with capitalism is far greater than we give it credit for. What do you, as a practitioner, propose is the solution to de-tangling this American Evangelicalism with the market forces?

    • mm Chad McSwain says:

      That’s certainly something that I’ve thought about and this reading has helped ground in the capitalistic development of our recent history. My first thought is that authentic community is the answer. The kind that takes table fellowship seriously. The kind that is willing to work through the initial awkward stages until we just belong together. The challenge is to have a church that has people on different journeys with this. Do you have any experience navigating this?

  2. mm Becca Hald says:

    Chad, I love how you wove the reading into the every day practices of the church. Giving should never be used as a means of coercion in the church, but it is a sad reality. I struggle with people like this because I feel like they are not giving to God, they are giving as a means of control. When she left the church, did pray about it and go because God was leading her? I have my doubts. I am curious, do you think making the compromises you made in response to this woman’s complaint were worth it?

    • mm Chad McSwain says:

      Absolutely, I’ve seen people give (and not give) as a means of control. A member of my executive committee met with me before accepting the position and told me he would not give because he didn’t trust the other church members to use the finances appropriately. He told me he would give in his own ways. I’ve since instituted a covenant that says all Board members have to give to serve on the Board.

      Oh, I don’t know that she prayed about it. She called me to tell me her decision. I said, “I understand. Blessings to you.” 🙂

      • mm Becca Hald says:

        Oh wow Chad! How very sad that someone would tell you they are not giving because they do not trust people. I get the sentiment, there has been much abuse of finances in the church, but that is not the point. God calls us to tithe. Period. It misses the point for someone to say they are not tithing because they do not trust the church to spend the money wisely. I do not tithe because my church spends the money wisely (although I believe they do). I tithe because God has asked me to. It is sad that you had to implement a covenant to your Board, but I agree with the decision. The leadership should set the example for the rest of the church. When the leadership shows a lack of faith, what is everyone else to think?

        Also, I applaud you for your response to the woman who left. Pastoring is not easy!

        Thank you for sharing. Bless you my friend.

  3. Chad,

    Bless you my friend, thank you for sharing. Ministry can be gut wrenching. I will say that one of the greatest gifts the Lord has given me is owning my own church building. I know longer have to preach for high offerings, manipulation…

    You are an incredible man, you have an amazing family, when God promotes you no man can shut the door. You have an amazing smile, overcome them with your smile.

    The Lord put this verse on my heart as I read this. Revelation 3:8 I know your works. See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name.

    I remember when I first met you I had a prophetic vision of hawk on a post overlooking a prairie. I see that hawk starting to spread its wing and ready for flight.

    God is going to promote you.

    • mm Chad McSwain says:

      Wow, Greg! Thank you!
      Thank you of reminding me of that vision. That was on our first zoom meeting before we went to Washington.
      Thank you for the word too. It is a very timely word at that. God has always been faithful.

  4. Caleb Lu says:

    Chad, what a great example of market forces, of demand not being met by supply, and of a consumer finding a substitute “good”. I remember you mentioning this incident in one of our conversations in Cape Town and it’s crazy to have done readings that help to give name to the mindset and forces at work behind what happened.

  5. Chad – Your post topic is timely. We just started a worship series on giving and I’m reminded that “God loves a cheerful giver.” Just like I wouldn’t want to receive a gift that someone would then use to wield power over me, I can’t imagine it pleases God when we use our offerings as leverage for power in the church. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the kind of consumer mindset that capitalism creates. Just curious…how often to you intionally teach about giving throughout the year? We typically have one month each spring where it’s the topic of our sermons.

    • mm Chad McSwain says:

      I haven’t taught a series on giving at this church just yet. Typically, Methodist Churches do this in October and we do a pledge campaign to inform the budget for the coming year. This church does not have a history of this and has a bit of aversion to doing so. Since I have been here a few years, it is worth revisiting. While no one “likes” these kind of messages, I think it takes some of the divergent ideas and approaches out of the equation since things are openly talked about. Thank you for asking!

  6. Kristy Newport says:

    I think you did a fantastic job here.
    I echo what David shared… sharing from a practitioner angle. Great perspective!
    I am going to use very direct communication: How is it that you know what people contribute/tithe to the church? Am I some Pollyanna pew sitter who believes that the accounting at my church is done by our financial director and this information is confidential…but maybe it is not? I guess I have been operating under this assumption. Is it a normal practice for the pastoral staff to know what a member gives financially?
    Growing up as a pastors kid, I know that it was a serious matter when the staff/leadership were not tithing. These issues needed to be addressed as ministry investment needed to be mirrored with giving/$ investment. This made sense to me. I also thought that the pastors did not know what members were giving as they did not want to view members as commodities/wielding undue power.

    • mm Chad McSwain says:

      Hi Kristy – thank you for being so forward with your question. It is an open debate among pastors as to whether to know what a congregant gives. I don’t actively seek out giving information. The staff as a whole does not know and I do not divulge what I know. I occasionally ask for a report of the giving. This is for pastoral reasons. One is a person stops giving for financial or health reasons and I can check on this or two if a person is upset and pulls giving as an act of control.
      I will check if a person is giving if they come to complain about something, particularly worship or staff. I want to know if they are vested in the outcome of the conversation. This was a direct result of being “threatened” that if I did not change the music then my “big givers” would leave. In that situation, I needed all the info I needed to make a wise decision. I think it would be unwise to have that “hole” in my knowledge.
      I will also check giving if a person is nominated to serve on our Board. This is a position where we are deciding staffing, budgeting, and long term plans of the church. We ask that people are givers if you serve on the Board. A person can attend church and not give and not serve on the Board, that is their choice, but I feel it is awkward and not right for a person to serve on the Board while not giving to the church.
      I worked at a church where the pastor asked the Finance Manager if a person was a “tipper or tither” as a way to check, but I also know that when it comes to building projects that he knew who to meet with to ask for the larger gifts in a building campaign.
      I think knowing the information can be part of walking with a congregant in their total discipleship and it can also be used in harmful ways. Please keep asking questions to clarify or dig deeper on this.

  7. Kristy Newport says:

    Please shed some light on this for me. Maybe its a denominational thing?

    Greg is so encouraging. You are a hawk overlooking a prairie….pretty cool…pretty cool. Praying….Lord, direct my brother Chad as he is in flight. May he take joy in soaring as the air lifts and guides.

  8. Alana Hayes says:


    I remember having this conversation with you in South Africa…..

    Do you think the Methodist church as a whole will always stick to that timeline you mentioned above (October with a pledge as an example) ?

    I wish everything wasn’t so calculated….. It makes it feel like there’s an agenda…

    You are doing amazing things in your church – Stay strong!

  9. Chad,

    This is such a real thing in churches of all sizes. I recently have had church members change or reduce their giving and designate it in specific ways in an attempt to control where their gift is used. I have also had members withhold their giving in anger over and issue of what songs to sing at Easter. It is always amazing to me the leverage that giving has in the church. I have heard the same lines “You don’t want to upset them, they are big givers.” This seems so counter to the purpose of the church and what Jesus had intended for the church.

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