Four Things Pastors Could Learn from Starbucks

Steve Petty
Written by Steve Petty

Just as the Wesleyan movement changed the landscape and culture of England and spread around the world, so Starbucks has changed the culture of caffeinated America and now can be found in more nations than United Methodist Churches.

In 1971 there were over 42,000 United Methodist Churches and 1 Starbucks.  In 2016 there were less than 32,000 United Methodist Churches and over 25,000 Starbucks.  It well may be that today, in 2017, on any given Sunday there may be more people sipping coffee at Starbucks than sipping church coffee in United Methodist Fellowship Halls.

The joyful green aproned baristas at Starbucks are known for their cordiality, hospitality, and uniformity of product.  Millions of people queue up in lines every day for their beverage of choice, whether on the run to work or taking a break with friends in meetings.  So, it is not surprising that the CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz sounds a bit like a preacher when he addresses the “Partners” (employees) in his quarterly message, July 25, 2016:

“Together we have created a global brand and an iconic retail experience that has resonated with customers and succeeded all over the world. And we have built a company based on a set of values and guiding principles that have endured over time.

As I’ve recently expressed, the Starbucks journey is about trust. We earn trust in how we show up for each other. We build trust in how each of us connects with our customers and the communities we serve. We demonstrate trust in how we lead. In our fragile world, where trust is being tested in so many ways, I believe it’s never been more important for Starbucks to be the best version of ourselves—a Third Place that offers a sense of community and human connection to so many.”

I encourage you to read the full message at the link above, but my purpose here is to point to four significant lessons about Starbucks’ success contained in this simple message to the people on the front lines.


Howard has been the chairman and CEO for 30 years.  (Consider in 1987 there were 17 stores.)  He is a busy man, running a very large multi-national organization, but he considers it very important to write a quarterly letter to all the employees in the corporation.  In this message, he tells them how great they are, how important they are, where the company is going, who some of the new leaders will be – and reminds them that they are all in it together making happy customers, building community with human connections.

He doesn’t have to do this.  Someone else could write it.  But he does it.  Why?  Because he is the leader and he needs to be connected to his people.  Today, I find fewer and fewer pastors writing in the church newsletter, and fewer and fewer church newsletters.  I ask them why they don’t write a column in the newsletter, and I get the oddest set of answers:

  • “I’m just so busy doing the work of being pastor, I don’t have the time.”
  • “There’s nothing to say, really, it’s in the bulletin every week.”
  • “No one reads the newsletter, it’s a waste of my time.”
  • “Everyone in my church already knows what’s going on.”  (This church didn’t have a newsletter, and has an average attendance under 30.  When I asked members questions about church events, few people actually knew what was going on.)
  • “It’s hard enough to write a sermon every week.”
  • “I’m not a very good writer.”

All of those are bad answers.  If you want your congregation to follow you, it is a tremendous opportunity to invite them to get involved by writing them a letter with your message.  If you want them to enter this journey of faith with you, regularly invite them.  If you want them to know who you are as their leader so they can understand where you want to take them, tell them what you are thinking.  Tell them they are important, valuable, and part of your team.  Remind them of the values that you all hold dear.  Remind them of the vision you are all trying to create.

Certainly Sunday is a great time to tell people the same things; however, not all your people are in church every Sunday, and not all are listening well.  The solution:  A column from the pastor is personal.  It’s my pastor talking to me.  I can hold it in my hand, reread it if necessary, save it for the future.

Write.  Write your deepest most passionate dreams and hopes for your church.  Do not write your frustrations, your personal problems, or why the church is failing.  The more you write, the better you will get.  The more you write, the more likely your church will be on-board with you when you set sail.


Howard lifts up his partners.  He is inviting each one of them to lead, based on a common set of values and principles.  He trusts them to hold on to those values and principles, and he reminds each one how important he or she is in getting the work accomplished.

Your message to your congregation needs to be filled with optimism –   all the time.  Some pastors are confused about this, so let me be clear.  Whether you are preaching, writing a column in the newsletter, talking to a committee, or chatting with a marginal member at the grocery store, you need to exemplify your faith.  If you are feeling down, discouraged, depressed, frustrated, unappreciated, ignored, you do not need to share that with anyone in your church, on your Facebook page, in your twitters or your personal blog, and certainly not in your newsletter or sermons.  Be sure to share it with your spouse, your therapist, your coach, spiritual advisor, all of whom are there for you and will keep your confidences.

When you communicate in public, make sure it is an example of your faith.  People have their own demons to confront.  They need to know that you are the pastor who has faith in God’s love to see you through all the problems that are confronting you.  You are an example of someone who is living victoriously because of your faith in Christ.

When you share your negative feelings, people will avoid you because they feel you bring them down.  But, when you lift up the people around you, they will flock to you, hoping to again feel lifted up by your presence.  Then they will, in turn, lift you up in your work in the church.


Did you catch this?

“I believe it’s never been more important for Starbucks to be the best version of ourselves—a Third Place that offers a sense of community and human connection to so many.”

He isn’t selling coffee.  He is selling “community and human connection”.  He wants Starbucks to be everyone’s Third Place.  (Home and work being first and second.)

Many churches used to be Third Places for their congregations: Pot Luck dinners were a regular feature, churches had age level Bible studies at different times during the week, there were also bridge clubs, bowling teams, softball teams, travel clubs, senior lunch programs, exercise classes, yoga classes, art classes, and lots of musical groups and concerts.

Today most people have other “Third Places” besides church.  Many churches have stopped holding regular events other than Sunday worship.  But if Sunday worship is the building blocks of church, then regular social events are the mortar that holds the community together.

In a world of twitter, email, Facebook, snapchat, and other electronic communications, we are losing the face-to-face qualities that offer us real human connections.  There is a growing need for people to move out from behind their phones, pads and screens and find a friend.  More people today find friends, relationships, and a comfortable casual setting at Starbucks.  But this could happen at your church, as well, if you want it to and are willing to work to make it happen.  How many of your people hang out at the church when they aren’t at work or home?  We, too, can be our best selves when we welcome new people into our communities and build new connections.


Have you ever walked into a dirty Starbucks?  Have you ever ordered something at Starbucks that wasn’t delicious?

Keep in mind these realities, too:

  • The coffee is overly expensive.
  • There is always a line (I once waited 30 minutes for a simple coffee).
  • There are all kinds of people there.
  • Almost everyone is on an electronic device.

What does that say about the church?

  • We complain people won’t give anymore.
  • We worry about making church convenient for people.
  • Most churches tend to be singular in attracting like people.
  • We discourage electronic devices.
  • There are lessons here about: quality, welcoming, being current, understanding todays constituents, and what people will put up with to get something they perceive as valuable to them.

We need to look again at what we are serving and how we are doing:

  1. How attractive is the exterior of the building and the landscaping?
  2. How good is the parking?
  3. How easy is it to find the front door?
  4. How clean are the bathrooms?
  5. How bright and cheerful is the nursery?
  6. How attractive is your community space?
  7. How welcoming are your greeters?
  8. How eager to serve are your ushers?
  9. How good and relevant is the music?
  10. How valuable is your message?
  11. Does everything about your worship speak to a quality of care?
  12. When people walk out the door are they taking something valuable with them?

Starbucks delivers exactly what people want, with consistency, and a friendly smile.

We can learn from that.