I love you, friend, but I don’t want your essential oils (or leggings, or mascara…)

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If you’ve been around church women for any length of time, chances are you’ve been invited to some kind of product party: a “no pressure, just-a-bunch-of-girls get together” with food and a presentation of jewelry, essential oils, makeup, leggings, cleaning products, accessories, nutritional supplements, skin care miracles, or (fill in the blank) on display.

Or, you’ve been invited to an online shopping party to buy books or mascara that will Change your Life.

Or, (and this might be my least favorite), you’ve been added to some FB group you did not ask to join and now have live videos appearing in your feed of someone applying their makeup.

Church life, it seems, is a hotspot for business. Multi level marketing (the I-sell-to-you, you-sell-to-your-friends, your-friends-sell-to-their friends model) is a 34 billion dollar a year industry, according to Christianity Today’s feature article on the topic… and a vast proportion of those sales are by and to women, and church ladies are at the forefront of the salesforce. There’s a reason your facebook feed is filled with church contacts selling stuff.

I used to think it was just me who got an icky feeling every time I got one of these party invites. I don’t like shopping at the best of times (I can feel my soul leaching out of me with every step I take deeper into the mall), but I’ve been wrestling for months on what it is about this particular type of shopping that makes me so antsy, and more and more I’m realizing it’s not just me… and getting closer to articulating what it is that bugs me.

So let me start out by acknowledging the good things about this trend. Targeted primarily at women who cannot engage in the workforce full time (because they’re caring for kids or parents) and women who need additional income because they’re in lower-paying jobs (I know multiple teachers and medical assistants who are keep ‘consulting’ businesses on the side for this reason) – these businesses do something wonderful: they acknowledge the talent and leadership potential of women, and give them opportunities to use their gifts in a significant way. The trainers invest time in developing women’s gifts, and they encourage them and build community among their participants.

Let me say from the get-go that I FULLY believe in acknowledging, developing, and encouraging women as able and ready world-changers. The world has come a long way in the last fifty years, but office space and church life still remain places where women sometimes aren’t fully welcomed as adding significant value. These companies SEE the incredible power and potential of women in the pews in a way we could learn from.

I also want to acknowledge that for a handful of women, these stay-at-home businesses have provided significant income opportunities, allowing women to help put their kids through college, or pay off student debt. That’s a wonderful thing. They work hard. I’m thrilled for them. And yet, I know a much bigger number of women who landed up investing more than they earned, and for whom the hours invested and nights away from home hosting parties have yielded very little. So, there’s that.

So why do I feel icky about it? Is it that I loathe the free market so much that I can’t bear to see people sell stuff? Nope, that’s not it. Is it that I am jealous of others’ success? Nope, that’s not it either (I wrestled long and hard about this.) I think, when all is said and done, the unease I feel about this phenomenon is for two main reasons:

First, it muddies the waters of friendship. True friends are one of my chief life lines as I cope with the stresses of this life stage (I wrote about it for Christianity Today this month here, if you’re curious.) Knowing that there are people whose care for me is genuine makes the world of difference, and it feels yucky to doubt overtures of friendship from other Christian women: am I a friend to them? Or just a potential customer they’re being friendly to? When someone who’s never been active on social media all of a sudden becomes highly active, liking all my posts, and posting highly hashtagged pictures of herself “living the dream” after years of never posting a thing…. I smell a rat. If the first time you message me after ten years is to “connect” and ask me about what’s up in my life and oh-just-breezy-sharing that one of the things you’ve been up to is starting this or that business… it doesn’t feel like friendship to me. 

And I hate feeling like a bad Debbie-Downer-Doubting-Thomas mashup about friendship. I think one of the most precious resources we have is our friendships, and I cannot shake the feeling that these billion dollar industries are muscling their way into sacred spaces they have no right being in. Especially when the language of the company is such that purchasing their product is seen as “supporting your friend’s business”. I don’t want a price tag imposed by some third party on how well I support my friend. I don’t want the first time I’m invited to your house to be for a sales/pampering/shopping party… that doesn’t feel like friendship, either. I love and believe in girl’s time, but I don’t want to be on my guard when someone invites me to spend time with them: will I have to resist a sales pitch? do I have to rehearse my awkward excuse? How many polite refusals can a friendship endure?

I feel some real grief for women wanting to build a business in these models: they are gifted and talented and I know they are trying to make an honest living in a way that supports their family… but the relational cost to have to look at a significant part of emotional support base all as potential clients has to be something that weighs heavily on them. It is no small wonder that I see friends engaged in these businesses bonding more and more closely with other women in the same business: new communities beyond the church where no-one has a before/after comparison on how their friendships are now.

My second big concern is this: these companies make us spend our invitations on a product instead of on Jesus. The model for sales is actually eerily evangelistic: consider the way we are encouraged to share our faith..

Be such a great friend, and live such a good and flourishing life among people that they will be drawn to you. Pictures of radiant smiles, testimonies of how your life is different, celebration of community and change all help show this.

Invite others to share in the joy of what you’ve found.

But do so with gentleness and grace.

And if anyone asks you for a reason for your hope, do so with gladness. 

Invite others to join the “family”, and hope that their joy will be contagious, too.

But what’s the source of the joy? My feeling is you can’t say “It’s Jesus. Oh, and also my amazing product,” in the same breath.

The evangelism model above works for the gospel… and remarkably well also for Tupperware, Young Living, Pampered Chef, 31 Bits, Doterra, Arbonne, LulaRoe, YouNique, NorWex, Beach Body, Premier Jewelry, Rodan+Fields, Urborne Books, and fill in the blank. Perhaps I also need to add here that the quality of the products that are being sold is often really great (such cute leggings! and necklaces! And your skin really does glow!) But the question remains: what do people associate with you, when they imagine you completing the sentence, “__________ has made all the difference in my life.”

Often we only get one chance to invite people into our lives, and one chance to share the story of what’s made the difference. My deep concern is that person-to-person sales leverage relationships for the wrong purpose: it uses our opportunities to build relationship in service of a product and not the Person.

I don’t ever want to be a person who has their overtures of friendship met with suspicion. No-one wants to be friends with the person who “just wants to evangelize them”. Whether for God, or their product. I think I have a way to go (we have a way to go, really) in learning how to develop and believe in women. I believe women can lead. I believe there are ways of developing and supporting income-generating projects. But I don’t believe the model we have on offer from companies that make their billions by exploiting my friendship-list is a healthy one. I know a handful of women who manage to walk this line of friendship and business remarkably well (and I should say, most of these are involved in justice-motivated ventures to support entrepreneurial women in developing countries)… but these women are exceptional in more way than one.

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to buy your product. But I really, really do want to be your friend.




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12 thoughts on “I love you, friend, but I don’t want your essential oils (or leggings, or mascara…)”

  1. Thanks for speaking out. I often feel like an alien species among women – these parties and sales schemes have always rubbed me the wrong way for multiple reasons – such as, I am frugal and these products are typically pricey! And a “no pressure, just-a-bunch-of-girls get together” does not sound remotely fun to me, an introvert who prefers one-on-one or very small group things. Etc. And I also feel like some/many of the companies take advantage of women – many don’t ever earn much money at it but do end up buy lots of stuff for them self.

  2. Yes, yes, yes! We live in another state from where I went to high school and college, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been sad to see a text/fb message/instagram message etc. from a friend from the past… only to see it’s a sales pitch or a “can I invite you to my online party.” It’s hard.

  3. YES. I have a friend who runs her business so well. I have never felt pressure from her to buy. And then I met someone else in that same organization and felt almost immediately this discomfort you name here. She really didn’t get why -anyone- wouldn’t buy these products and wouldn’t I love for her to explain more how they could change my life?
    And no. The answer was no.

    1. There can be such a vast different in approaches from different people selling the same product, can’t there? I think one of the terrible side effects of this is that because we have had bad experiences with some pushy sales people, we are very quickly on our guard when anyone new signs up to be a consultant…. and we put up our defenses before they’ve had a chance to say a word.

  4. Let me first say I love and respect Bronwyn dearly, but this was really hard for me to read, and even as I sit here, and write, I must say, I am filled with a lot of hurt. As someone who IS in the church and has been in the industry for over a year and a half, I feel slightly slandered- and here is why. First- I get why people are so put off by the industry and feel used by their friends. There are people out there who just do this poorly- hence feeling used, and perceiving minimal success in the field. However, there are also a lot of people who do this right. Peek in the door of this industry and you will be greeted with huge numbers of people doing this well and who are being met with equal amounts of success (in whatever your definition of the word might be). I know many people perceive a wide lack of success in the industry-but that perception is misleading. Many people who come into the industry treat it much less like a business and more like a hobby. Think of it like you were opening a restaurant. It would be unwise to invest money into the building, staff, food, etc and yet fail to work hard everyday to make your restaurant a success. This industry offers people the ability to grow huge success, but at the fraction of the risk and price of a traditional business-which makes it easy for people to not work and to walk away from. Also, the people who do this right are not only some of the most selfless people I have ever met, but are also people who love and lead in God sized ways with huge God sized dreams. I recently went to a retreat with some leaders in my company and we were asked to do an activity where we mapped out our goals over the next 1 year, 3 years, 5 years, lifetime, and 75% of the people in that room had dreams of starting incredible, creative non-profits that would allow them to use the gifts they had been given and developed through this industry to serve and empower others. These types of business are so much more than lipsticks and leggings. When done right, they are vehicles to that push people out of their comfort zones (because trust me, the friend approaching you had to do a lot of personal growth to even step in front of you) to do HUGE things. Do they often start out as a way to climb out from a mountain of debt, or to make sure there’s food on the table? Sure. But God often pushes us to do something out of the ordinary to force us find our extraordinary-and our dreams again-whether that is via network marketing, or some other out of the box thing he has put on your heart. Please know friends, that if one of your network marketing friends approaches you, chances are, they just love and trust you enough to share their new discovery with you, and if they do it poorly, smile, have grace, and know that just like with any new job or business venture, there is always a learning curve. If you are going to buy lipstick, leggings, lotions, jewelry anyways, why not purchase it from someone you know and love (or even if you don’t love them, you probably know or can ask about their ‘why’) rather than a corporation whose ideals are often solely around making another dollar and not around loving us as people-like our friends do.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your heart and concerns. I know you and love and respect you, and the main reason I haven’t said or written anything about this before is because I DON’T want to hurt or discourage people. I want to be a supportive friend. I want to see people thrive. I can say “no thank you” to a sandwich I don’t care for or a product I don’t care for and yes, I’ve felt that just being quiet and saying nothing has been the polite-and-kind-thing for such a long time.

      So why speak up? And why didn’t I speak to you personally about my concerns first? I think for two reasons… First, because this post was not ever meant to be a veiled attack at you or your company in particular. Over the past five years I have been invited to MULTIPLE of these events by representatives from EACH of the companies mentioned. To sit down with you and talk about this would be to single you out… when I think it’s a much, much bigger trend.

      Second – and this is the main reason I said something – is that I have become increasingly saddened and concerned about the effect that direct sales can have in church communities and among women in general. I’ve seen people wince when they open up facebook and delete or decline another invitation, and feel bad for doing so (we all hate to say no to a friend! especially one we love and trust!) I’ve heard people express reticence to go to a bible study or away for a weekend because they’re concerned they might be sold something. And I’ve had a number of people share with me over the years in person and in writing that they feel that since their friend got involved in marketing, it’s added an “elephant in the room” between them, and they feel like they’re not allowed to mention or question it for fear of being seen as disloyal or saying anything hurtful. (Maybe an analogy would be if your friend starts dating a guy they really like but you have some concerns about the guy… but your friend is so happy, and you don’t want to be judgy, but you also have concerns, but you feel like if you mention your concerns or express that you don’t love spending time with their boyfriend that your friend will be hurt and maybe choose the boy over you… so you say nothing, and the flags don’t go away, and so it just becomes more awkward? And you love your friend and you want them to be happy and not broken hearted and single but you also just don’t feel like you can get behind their relationship so WHAT DO YOU DO?)

      THAT element of it is what breaks my heart: being part of a wider church community where I see gifted, godly, loving, wonderful people (like you! Because I absolutely see this in you) prayerfully and with all the good intention in the world signing up with direct marketing companies, and doing the best they can to be a good friend and a hard worker and a faithful steward of opportunity…. and on the other side, there are friends who immediately feel threatened by their friends’ association with a direct marketing company and put their guard up… before they’ve even done anything. I’m concerned about the relational damage direct marketing can do among communities of women at a much broader level.

      I mentioned in my post (and I want to reiterate it again), that not all DM companies are equal – some are much more aggressive than others… and even within the same company – as Heather pointed out above – people can approach this very differently. I know your heart to be a great friend and a servant of God and to do this well, and so this post was NEVER meant to shame you or accuse you of underhanded behavior. I’m so sorry for the hurt, truly.

      But I felt convicted that I needed to speak out because I am deeply concerned that friendships are being damaged without people INTENDING to do so or WANTING to do so. When our friend is dating a dodgy guy, or makes a choice we don’t think is good for them… most of us will never say anything. We want to only say nice, kind things. And so we are silent, and nurse our concerns privately and don’t talk about it. The cumulative effect of that, however, can be that we get a false sense of where our friendships are at. My question in this post is really: how can we make sure our friendships aren’t threatened by our business pursuits? If they are, would you know? Chances are, our friends won’t have told us because they don’t want to hurt our feelings.

      That we are even having this conversation though is part of the “it muddies the waters of friendship” confusion. My frustration in this conversation is really not at you or at all with the way you handle your life or business…. I have the greatest respect for you. My frustration is at the model of business which has done some real relational damage – and I think the sad fact is that the waters were muddied before you got in there. There are many people who ALREADY had a “I don’t host parties for friends” policy BEFORE you ever got into the business (no matter how well you did it), because they’ve had multiple DM experiences before.

      A blogger I respect wrote a post some years ago critiquing something (I don’t even remember what), and I was really upset and offended by what she said, and left a comment to say so. She wrote back to say that this was something of a “human shield” issue… and by that she was referring to the military strategy of putting non-combatants around combat targets to deter the enemy from attacking the targets. I hadn’t thought of her illustration for years, but it came to mind this week as I’ve been wrestling and praying over this.

      My concern is that DM corporations have a business model that relies on the personable, lovely, friendly, capable qualities that make great friends great friends… these wonderful women become the “face” of the corporation. They have no store and no location… the only way you know the company is through your beloved, trusted friend’s face. That’s the tremendous power and appeal of such companies: is that YOU are wonderful, and YOU are the face of the company you represent. But, that’s the danger of that too – because it creates a human shield around the company: you can’t question or critique the business without it affecting (and hurting) the shield.

      So where do we go from here?

      I’m not sure. I felt compelled to say something that’s been stewing for a long time: my concern is that DM businesses can be like submarines beneath the surface of our relational waters and we haven’t ever talked about it openly. But I’m literally feeling sick at mentioning it because I don’t want to hurt any of the people involved… and I’m so sad and sorry to cause hurt.

      But maybe we do need to have better conversations. I’m sorry I haven’t ever said anything before: it has taken me a long time to figure out what was bugging me, and I’ve been afraid. And, as gently as possible, I hope this also provides an opportunity for us all to figure out how to steward our friendships better. I wonder: if you were to honestly ask your friends who’ve been silent or pretty neutral about your business (perhaps they came to one party but you haven’t asked since and they haven’t said much) if they feel your business has affected your friendship (and how) – I wonder what they’d say? Maybe every one of them would say “I’m thrilled for you and it’s had no impact on our friendship whatsoever”. Gosh I really hope that is the case. But maybe – just maybe – there are a couple who have felt like the presence of a sales company in your life has added an unwelcome presence in your friendship, and it’s been difficult to talk about?

      Please forgive me for any hurt caused by the timing or tone of my post. I want the best for you and the church, and I don’t know how to “fix” this… but can we follow up and talk more?

  5. Wendy Cunningham

    Gosh, this blog makes me so sad, I have to be honest. Not only because I’m in the industry you’re tackling here, and there is so much negativity surrounding what most people simply don’t understand about what we do, but also because I’m a Christian and a blogger as well.

    1) My first concern is: What was your intention in writing this? As a fellow blogger and Christian, I feel we have a responsibility to be encouraging and uplifting with the platform God has given us with our gifting of writing. You are gifted, and in some ways I can see that you might feel you’re being encouraging in this… I see where you try to throw a bone to those of us who have found such abundant blessings in this industry, but on the whole (and this is confirmed by the comments here and on fb) it encourages negativity and discourages those of us whose livelihood depends on people gaining understanding of what we do, instead of tearing it down. We do not need more negativity in the world, can we agree?

    2) Although you seem to think that women in the church moving towards ‘these types’ of businesses is a bad thing, I wonder if maybe you’re missing an important point. Why would God be calling these women to do this? Why would God be putting more and more Christians in front of this opportunity? I’m sure you don’t mean to imply that we don’t pray about business ventures that we start, or that we are somehow duped into spending a bunch of money we have no hope of earning back, but really… it’s an interesting point. Christians have hearts for service, wouldn’t you agree? We are hope dealers. We are encouragers. God uses our talents and gifting to minister to others in ALL SORTS of ways. And often times- and this is my story- if a Christian were to open a conversation with ‘Jesus,’ I would have run for the hills… but an income opportunity to someone who was in a financial crisis- I’m listening! And wouldn’t you know… it led to Jesus all the same (but I’ll get to that).

    Let me give you another perspective (which is ironically what I blog about)… When I was introduced to my company 9 years ago, I felt largely the same way you do about this industry. It’s a scam. Most are not successful. It’s not real. People are only reaching out trying to sell me things. Etc. I get it. And man, I have to say that now that I have weathered the storm of building a business from nothing, stepping WAY outside my comfort zone, into skill sets I just plane didn’t have at the beginning… I would hope that as friends and Christians, we would be willing to just give more grace. TRUST the best intentions of your friends, don’t be suspicious of them, my goodness. Trust that whoever reached out to you, whoever it was that made you write this blog, respected you, loved you, cared for you, prayed about you, and wanted to share what they believe in their hearts is a HUGE blessing with you. My husband (a Christian before I was) was PRAYING desperately for an answer, and this was the one God gave us. I’m not sure you believe that other’s can feel that way about what they’re offering you, but truly, it changed everything for me (including leading me to Jesus).

    I agree with you, friendship is sacred. And I have been met with so much hate, negativity, gossip, bad talk, and just plane disrespect from my ‘friends’ while I’ve built my business over the years. People think they have this all figured out. They believe they are the authority on how I should allow God to provide for my family. And they say things like “I refuse to buy from friends.” WHAT IS THAT??? If I were a realtor- and your friend- would you prefer to go to a stranger to help you sell your house, as opposed to a friend who is using the vehicle of realty to provide for their family? I feel like this is another place you have missed an important point. I agree with you completely that friendship is so important, and yet this post was not very friendly (but then again… who am I? Not your friend I suppose). But surely you have friends who have businesses like this (or realtors, or loan officers, or hair stylists, etc) who are hoping/praying for and asking for your business and referrals and support. Surely you have friends who are hurt by this post.

    To circle back to the perspective I want to share with you… When I was introduced to this business, I was a polite ‘no thank you.’ And yes, I did judge my dear friend for both doing a business like this (as I thought she could do better- because clearly I know everything) and also, for thinking that I would ever stoop so low as to do this with her. But God is so big and so good and so faithful that I pray prayers of gratitude around that very day today. When this came into my life, I was working full time, $20k+ in credit card debt, married and living at my moms because I couldn’t get out from under my financial situation. I had no hope. I was medicated (heavily) for depression and anxiety. I wasn’t a leader. I wasn’t anything- including a Believer in God.

    This opportunity exposed me to a faith… and Christian leaders… who cheered for me, encouraged me, lifted me up, praised me, told me I could, supported me, loved me, and told me that I was a child of the King and through Him I could do ALL THINGS. My friends didn’t say or do any of these things. They judged me, made me feel badly about what I was doing, talked badly about the industry, and made me feel like I hadn’t researched my decision (of course I had). They didn’t understand, nor did they try. But the leaders in my company used this vehicle… this annoying little business… to minister to a broken Atheist. And they showed me the light. And I have been walking in it and spreading it ever since.

    More than once, I’ve been told that this business is my ministry. I hear what you’re saying about this being similar to evangelism. I’m inclined to agree, although not in the same way you’re painting it necessarily. When I’m on a stage, teaching hundreds- sometimes thousands- of leaders, I’m not pointing to eye cream, I’m pointing to HIM. I don’t know of many careers that allow us to do that. I don’t know of many opportunities that give us the chance to stand in front of believers and non-believers and give our testimony of how God used a broken soul like me, and a strange opportunity like this, to do HIS WORK of encouraging people to step into HIS PURPOSE for their lives. And friend, that’s not Network Marketing. Network Marketing for any of it’s participants, is simply the tool, the vehicle, that allows us to get from where we are, to where He wants us. It’s a tool like any other tool.

    Like I said before, don’t fail to see what you’re pointing out… God is bringing businesses like this to the church because you’re right, they do offer struggling souls the chance to shine, to step into their greatness, and to realize their God given potential. They do give us a chance to share our faith and be a light and an encourager of our friends and fellow believers to be bold, be brave, do the scary things! Do we always do it right when we’re new in this industry- girl, I could show you some really embarrassing messages that I sent at the beginning- but I could also show you some messages of hope and gratitude and faith that would bring you to your knees… because God can work through anything. God can shine light, where there is darkness.

    I hope anyone who reads this decides to buy the shampoo or the mascara or the leggings that they’re GOING TO BUY ANYWAY from a friend, instead of a corporation. I hope the next time you get a less than graceful message from a friend out of the clear blue sky, you give grace instead of negativity and ENCOURAGE them to keep chasing their dreams and walking in their purpose.

    Sorry for the long winded reply, but like I said… I’m a writer too. 🙂

    1. Hi Wendy, thank you so much for your thoughtful and gracious reply. I am honestly so glad to hear your experience has been such a positive one and that God has used it for such good in your life.

      I’ve responded to Anda up above as to my intention in writing the post and where my deep concerns lie. My intention has always been to give grace and not negativity, but I do have some broader concerns too and am hoping we can have a deeper conversation. For a long, long time, I’ve felt like my only option as a Christian friend was to be “encouraging” (and if I can’t say something nice, then not to say anything at all), but at some point this got to be beyond a personal concern and a pastoral one.

      For any offense and hurt caused, I”m sorry. I hear what you are saying and acknowledge your prayerfulness and heart in these ventures as coming from as wholehearted a place as can be. I have some concerns though that go beyond my friends’ good intentions, and I’m hoping those can be heard, too – I want to do better as a friend, and to have friendships in general to be flourishing. There is an elephant in the room. I’m hoping this conversation – hard as it is – can be a catalyst for honesty and depth in conversation, and I’d welcome ideas (or a guest blog post?) on how we can protect and nourish friendships between DM women and friends-who-aren’t-interested. What would healthy conversations look like there? I’d love to hear more on this, truly.

      Thanks again for reaching out. I appreciate your voice on this.

      1. Thank you for your reply. This is great clarification of your intention. I only wish your original blog post was with the same tone as this reply. Can you imagine how many constructive ideas and comments a blog like this reply (and that to Anda) would have generated? People would have likely solved this dilemma by now if they had been prompted to be constructive and give suggestions! But that’s neither here nor there at this point.

        So my question now is… who is putting the elephant in the room? And who should be inviting it to leave?

        As a consultant, if I reach out and ask a friend to coffee out of the blue, should I make sure to mention that it has nothing to do with my business and then should I be sure to skirt around any mention of ‘the elephant’ while we’re chatting just to be safe?

        I ask this because, as you mentioned, I’m curious as to why people don’t feel that they can be honest and open with their friends? I have been on the receiving side of a well meaning friend in regards to a questionable boyfriend (I’m referring to your apology) and the conversation went wonderfully. She was coming from a great place as my friend, she felt better for having said something, and I could absolutely see why she was concerned. We talked like adults and friends, and it was fine. I agree with you, it’s the LACK of these conversations that are hurting our friendships.

        So I guess I’m wondering if you see the real problem as the industry of Network Marketing, or the approach being used with some consultants, or if we’re just not communicating well in our relationships. As you said before, often times people are already shrinking away from their friends, before the friend has even had a chance to do anything wrong.

        Again, who is putting this elephant in the conversation?

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