Lessons from Amazon: What Church Leaders Can Learn from One of America’s Most Successful Companies

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In 1994, a thirty-year-old Wall Street executive left a high paying job to launch an online concept called Amazon.com. The company did not turn a profit for the first seven years, but since then, Amazon has grown exponentially, now employing more than half a million people and even encroaching upon traditional brick-and-mortar retailers like Wal-Mart. In 2017, the company shipped 5 billion prime packages worldwide, and Jeff Bezos–the company’s founder–became the richest person on earth.
 
WHAT THE CHURCH CAN LEARN FROM AMAZON
 
Last year, Bezos was asked at a charity event, “What is Amazon?” After all, the company has so many disparate interests. Along with a host of subsidiary companies, Amazon provides an e-commerce retail platform, computing infrastructure, shipping and fulfillment network, publishing company, and an original Holywood entertainment studio. Interestingly, Bezos’ response to the question, “What is Amazon?”, was not to describe what Amazon does but the fundamental principles upon which the company operates.
 
How would you respond if asked, “What is your congregation?” Unlike most nonprofits that pursue a single, highly refined mission (what Jim Collins calls a hedgehog concept), congregations provide many services from worship to counseling, meals to mission trips, and day care to senior adult programs. Like Amazon, congregations are complex organizational systems. For this reason, church leaders may benefit from understanding the concepts upon which this online retail giant has achieved remarkable success.
 
TWO-TO-THREE BIG IDEAS
 
Fundamentally, Bezos sees Amazon as a collection of firmly held principles rooted in a disciplined approach. He says, “The main job of a senior leader is to identify two-to-three big ideas and then enforce great execution across those big ideas.” Usually, big ideas are obvious. For Amazon’s e-commerce site, they are 1) low prices, 2) fast delivery, and 3) vast selection. The company is continually asking how it can reduce costs to offer more competitive pricing, become more efficient for faster delivery, and offer an increasingly wider selection of product lines. These big ideas are stable. As Bezos says, “Regardless of what happens with technology, people are going to like faster delivery. It is impossible for me to imagine a customer saying, ‘Jeff, I love Amazon. I just wish you delivered a little bit more slowly.'”
 
So, what are your congregation’s two-to-three big ideas? Remember these are stable, obvious concepts. What do people in your community need and desire deeply? And how can your congregation begin meeting these needs in a practical way? Bezos insists that it is not hard to figure out what people want. Just ask them and get to know their world.
 
CUSTOMER OBSESSION
 
Beyond these “big ideas,” Amazon has three principles that apply to all of its work. The first is customer obsession. Bezos refers to Amazon as, “Earth’s most customer-centric company.” Amazon is not focused on its competitors, product lines, or even business model. The company is focused on its customers. When Amazon had only 150 employees and was struggling to survive, Bezos called his small team together and said, “Let’s not worry about the competition. They are never going to send us any money anyway. Let’s stay focused on our customers.” This principle undergirds everything that Amazon does. As Bezos says, “It’s not just a business for us. It’s a mission, and missionaries build better products.”
 
It seems to me that congregations have two “customers:” God and people, in that order. How can your church become obsessed with serving God and serving people? Instead of looking first to what the church down the street is doing, could you first look to what pleases the heart of God and meets people where they are? How might your approach be different if you and your team saw your ministry not as serving “the church” but instead as serving God and people? Are you obsessed with your “customers?”
 
WILLINGNESS TO INNOVATE (AND FAIL)
 
From its inception, Amazon has been willing to experiment and pioneer new ideas. The company sees these innovative activities as a form of customer service. Amazon’s customer obsession drives them to find better ways to service their consumers. Bezos believes that people are always dissatisfied. (If you have worked in a church, you probably know this to be true!) Therefore, the company actively seeks to find these areas of dissatisfaction and offer better solutions so that their customers are more fulfilled. Innovation is not just a matter of listening to what customers want and delivering it but creating new, better experiences on the customer’s behalf. It is important to note that effective innovation is not just about doing new things frenetically. Effective innovation involves creating new, strategic approaches that customers will willingly adopt. In the process, Bezos says, “You cannot invent and pioneer unless you are willing to fail.”

Is your congregation willing to try something new? Remember that all of Amazon’s innovations have been in an effort to improve the execution of the company’s big ideas (drones to expedite delivery, for instance) and/or to service its customers more effectively. Their innovations have been strategic and have only been fully implemented if customers were willing to adopted them. Are you willing to improve upon your congregation’s big ideas? How can your congregation strategically innovate to better serve God and others? Are you willing to dream beyond what is to see what could be? Importantly, Bezos is careful to distinguishes between failure of execution (getting the logistics wrong) and failure of innovation (getting the product wrong). He is willing to accept a failure of innovation, not execution. Is your congregation willing to fail and learn from its mistakes?
 
LONGTERM APPROACH
 
Finally, from the beginning, Amazon has been longterm oriented. Bezos does not think in 2-3 year timeframes but 5-7 year timeframes. He says, “You can’t do the right thing for customers if your are short-term oriented.” The company sees the nearterm as already set. With a disciplined, longterm strategy, however, leadership can effectively guide an organization over time. Amazon customer experience we know today has been in the works for years. As Bezos says, “All overnight successes take about [a decade].”
 
This lesson may be one of the most important for church leaders to hear. Change takes time. In his text A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson indicates the harm in believing that anything worthwhile can be achieved instantly. He writes, “Religion in our time has been captured by the tourist mindset.” We act more like pilgrims who stay for a short while than disciples that follow for a lifetime. Congregations are complex organizations with multiple stakeholders. They are often highly resistant to change. Effective church leaders will take a longterm view being strategic about what new ideas are offered and ensuring that any new concept is in service of God, people, and the church’s “big” ideas.
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Thad Austin is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, a PhD candidate at Indiana University's Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, and William and Edie Enright Fellow at The Lake Institute on Faith and Giving. Thad also serves as Editor of the Church Leader Collective for Seedbed. Thad served as Executive Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. In his free time, Thad loves to travel (41 countries and all 50 states, thus far), hike (has hiked the 1,100 miles between Pennsylvania and Georgia), sail, and spend time with friends.

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