I know that in progressive church circles Chick-Fil-A has something of an image problem, and that folks may be thinking, “What on earth could an Episcopal priest possibly think is transferable from the world of this fast-food chicken chain to congregational life as we express it?” I’ve found that I spend a fair amount of time collating, condensing and recasting all sorts of life-experiences that eventually inform my general view of ministry. My experience of Chick-Fil-A is among them. But before we discuss some of the lessons that I’ve applied from that experience, first I need to offer a disclaimer.
My Disclaimer I am not offering an endorsement of Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy’s opinions regarding human sexuality. I would hypothesize that even if we disagree with some of their founder’s and leaders’ opinions and positions and don’t like who their corporate charity gives money to, we can still learn from some of their best practices. For those who may need to have their memory refreshed: Chick-fil-A was the focus of controversy following a series of public comments made in June 2012 by CEO, Dan Cathy, opposing same-sex marriage. This followed reports that Chick-fil-A’s charitable endeavor, the WinShape Foundation, had made millions in donations to political organizations which oppose LGBT rights. LGBT rights activists called for protests and boycotts of the chain, while counter-protestors rallied in support by eating at the restaurants. National political figures both for and against the actions spoke out and some business partners severed ties with the chain. Chick-fil-A released a statement in July 2012 stating, “Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.” In March 2014, tax filings for 2012 showed the group stopped funding all but one organization which had been previously criticized.
In addition to knowing about the controversy, I think it might also be helpful to know some of Chick-Fil-A’s history. They were founded in the early 1960s and pioneered the establishment of restaurants in shopping malls. They steadily grew to become the largest quick-service chicken restaurant chain in the United States, based on domestic annual sales, with over 1,850 locations in 41 states and Washington, D.C. In 2013, annual sales were over $5 billion while still privately held and family owned. Over the past four years, Chick-fil-A, Inc. and its franchised Restaurant Operators have given more than $68 million in contributions to educational and charitable organizations and have provided millions of dollars in food donations all across America. They focus giving in three key areas: Youth & Education Programs, Community Involvement & Local Giving, and Leadership & Family Enrichment Programs. According to their website, the Corporate Purpose of Chick-fil-A is to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.
My Chick-Fil-A Story While planting a church in a rapidly-growing, master-planned community in Ft. Bend County, TX, I had my first significant encounter with Chick-fil-A. What I saw was that, within 2 years of opening, Chick-fil-A served as a hub of connection in community for parents with young children. On Thursday nights from 5:30-7:30 p.m. CoCo the clown made balloon animals and did face painting (free of charge), kids played in play-scape, parents ate salads and visited. The company’s values were already being adopted by customers; i.e., “It’s kinda nice that they’re closed on Sundays.” I made many connections for ministry sitting in that Chick-Fil-A while my kids played. My kids made many friends, even being invited to birthday parties for kids they knew only from those Thursday nights. My mother called it “Cheers for kids.” I considered that Chick-Fil-A was accomplishing in many ways what I wanted to build in a new congregation and began looking at what they were doing specifically with an eye to incorporating their best practices into my congregation’s development. Here’s what emerged for me:
Principles for Congregations
Have a Big Enough Vision – The Chick-fil-A Corporate Purpose is: “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A.” Are our congregational vision statements and goals about the church equivalent of chicken and profits or is it as grand as glorifying God?
Behaviors Should Reflect Beliefs – Chick-fil-A is famously closed on Sundays, which is a big profit day for fast food restaurants, and they are known for giving back to their communities and supporting those who give in the communities. Are we willing as congregations to risk “loss” for the sake of our convictions? Do we view community engagement and outreach as a Gospel imperative or do we treat outreach as a competitive sport?
Maintain Focus on Essentials and Resist the Urge to do Everything – Chick-fil-A does chicken; that’s it. And they do chicken well. They are willing to let folks who are really craving a hamburger go elsewhere to get it. Have our congregations identified what our essentials are? Are we willing to be specialists instead of trying to be all things to all people? Can we say with joy, “if that’s kind of worship experience that feeds you, you should really visit our friends over at _______ church?”
Be Flexible Enough to Meet Needs that Arise – At many Chick-fil-A’s you’ll find high chairs complete with bibs, wipes and packages of Cheerios for the convenience of families with children too young to eat chicken. Can our congregations tell the difference between making changes/additions that serve to enhance our essentials and trying yet another new thing to accommodate a trend?
Care About the People You’re Trying to Reach – Part of Chick-fil-A standard training for all employees is the principle that the company firmly believes in treating every person who comes through their doors with honor, dignity, and respect. This is reflected in their scripts for interaction with costumers, where every “Thank You” is met with “My Pleasure.” Do our congregations – clergy and laity – care for the other as an individual? Can we honestly say that serving them is our pleasure?
Care About Your Own People – Chick-fil-A takes care of their employees. All High School students who work for the company for 2 years get $1000 scholarship upon graduation. Do our congregations celebrate milestones in our people’s lives? Do we honor their faithful service in tangible ways?
Be Consistently Nice – A distinguishing characteristic of Chick-fil-A is that it is a rare surprise to have an unpleasant encounter with their staff members. Other companies are hit-or-miss and still others are almost known for rude service (Popeye’s). Honestly, are you confident that on any given day the first person a newcomer encounters in your congregation will be nice? Will you be?
I offer these thoughts simply to contribute to your own contemplations about the congregations that we serve.
The Rev. Stacey Fussell has been ordained as an Episcopal priest for 15 years. She served in the Diocese of Texas as an Associate Rector and then as Priest Locum Tenens at an established parish in a factory town of 70,000 and as the Vicar of a church plant in a rapidly growing, ethnically diverse suburb of Houston. She led one congregation through an interim and search process and another from a store-front location through a successful building campaign to the completion of their first church building and founding of an accredited day school with an enrollment of over 80 students. She has served as the Rector of Church of the Ascension in Bradford for almost 5 years and has begun new ministries, including a mobile food pantry, a 5 day-a-week Preschool and a weekly worship service at the University of Pittsburgh-Bradford. Ascension’s average Sunday attendance has almost doubled during her tenure and they have seen a total of 34 baptisms – 19 adult and 15 child, and 36 confirmations/receptions into the Episcopal Church – 30 adults and 6 youth in that time.