Five Essential Questions

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Thursday, November 29, 2012

Five Essential Questions

Few have thought more strategically about organizational dynamics than the late Peter Drucker. Toward the end of his life, this turned increasingly toward the non-profit organization. 

If you’re not familiar with Drucker, he is sometimes referred to as the “godfather of modern management.” In 1942 he wrote The Concept of the Corporation about GM. In 1971 he established the first executive MBA program. He published 31 books that have been translated into more than 20 languages. He died in 2005 at the age of 95, having counseled organizations for more than 75 years.

Simply put, if you can’t learn from Drucker, you can’t learn.

Though he wrote in a very accessible style, his production was immense, which means he is often more noted than read, referenced than understood. Here’s a primer to his thinking through the five most important questions he felt should be asked of any enterprise.

1. What is our mission?

Your mission tells you why you do something, not how. Strategies, tactics, processes, structures and methods change. Mission doesn’t. Of equal importance is how mission tells you what not to do. To be effective, everyone in the organization must know the mission, understand it, and live it.

Questions for church leadership: 

*What is our mission? 

*Does everyone know what it is? 

*Do they live it? 

2. Who is our customer?

A customer is whoever must be “reached,” or in corporate terms “satisfied,” if you are going to achieve the results you want. This “customer” is never static. They are always changing, always becoming more diverse. Their needs, wants, aspirations and dreams are constantly evolving.

Answering “Who is our customer” necessarily means answering “Who is not our customer?” The goal is not to casually please everyone, but to create raving fans of our target.

This raises a provocative question: What of our noncustomer? Drucker felt this was critical for any organization, writing: “And yet very few institutions know anything about the noncustomers — very few of them even know that they exist, let alone know who they are. And even fewer know why they are not customers. Yet it is with the noncustomers that changes always start.”

“Who is your customer” is easily one of the most important questions of all. Until you answer this question, you cannot answer those that remain.

Questions for church leadership: 

*Who is our customer?

*What does it mean for us to “reach” our customer?

*What do we know of the noncustomer?

3. What does the customer value?

You cannot answer this question. Only your customer can. And when you get the answer, you shouldn’t argue with what they say they value. They are in a unique situation and reality that is their situation and reality. So ask them what they value, don’t assume you know what they value, or attempt to answer it through the lens of what you value.

Questions for church leadership: 

*What does our customer value?

*What assumptions are we making, right or wrong, about the relationship between what they value and what is essential to our message and core values?

*Can what they know they value be a bridge to what they don’t know that they need?

4. What are our results?

In the marketplace, the idea of results is often straightforward through such measures as profit or stock value. Such things then drive how to strategically invest resources (you fund that which produces profit, or offers the potential for profit). Further, if results are the goal, they must also be the test.

Questions for church leadership: 

*What are our results?

*How can we apply quantitative tests to qualitative issues?

*If we funded, programmed and staffed based solely on agreed-upon results, what would we stop doing?

5. What is our plan?

Planning defines the place we want to be, and how we intend on getting there. Drucker suggests never having more than 3 to 5 goals at any one time. When there is good planning, it leads to specific action steps and shapes budgets.

Questions for church leadership: 

*What is our plan?

*What are our top five goals?

*Do we have specific action steps, and line items in the budget, for our plans?

In a recent blog, Seth Godin (knowingly or not) offered a bit of an update on these that are just as penetrating, and perhaps even better worded for churches:

1. Who is your next customer?

2. What is the story he told himself before he met you?

3. How do you encounter him in a way that he trusts the story you tell him about what you have to offer?

4. What change are you trying to make in him, his life, or his story?

Yet regardless of how you phrase them, such questions must come before tactics or strategy. As Andy Stanley wrote in his book Deep and Wide, too many churches have a “More is Better” model, continually adding programs in hopes something will work. Some have a “What’s the Big Church Down the Street Doing?” model. Far too many have a “Flavor of the Week?” model where the pastor goes to a conference, hears about a new fad that’s working somewhere else, and then comes home and bolts it on to everything else the church is already doing.

None of these approaches will work unless they are the best answer to the questions.

Now, one last thing.

I know, this was a good, stiff dose of “business.“

And the church isn’t a business.

And the pastor isn’t a CEO.

And business terminology, such as “customer,” is distasteful to some. 


Let’s stop. We all get it.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn wherever there is truth, and use our heads and hearts, prayer and biblical knowledge, to sift through it and apply it where it deserves to be applied. If all truth is God’s truth, then that’s true for organizational insights from great minds such as Drucker.

More to the point, while the church isn’t merely an organization, rumor has it that there’s an organizational side that we ignore at great peril. For example, the ministry of Acts 2 created a wonderful mess that had to be cleaned up, organizationally, in Acts 6. That’s why one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit to the church is the gift of leadership (Romans 12).

As for me, I’ve wrestled with these five questions, in one form or another, for many years. And plan on wrestling with them for many more.


They are really good questions.

James Emery White



This is referenced throughout Drucker’s writings. A good Introduction is Management Challenges for the 21st Century. See also his book, The 5 Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization, as well as the presentation on these five ideas by the Executive Forum, that can be read online.

Seth Godin, “Four Questions Worth Answering,” read online.

Andy Stanley, Deep and Wide.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Five Essential Questions