70 Organizational theory and churches

I have been recently reading a bit on the subject of organizational theory. This is the study of the way institutions and organizations like schools or firms operate. One particular idea that is important to grasp, is that all organizations operate somewhere on a continuum between transparency at one end and defensiveness with tight boundaries at the other. Thus at one extreme you have an organization that is totally open to the world beyond itself. Sometimes it is so completely open so that there is little to distinguish it from what is outside. At the other extreme is the closed organization. This represents the kind of group that erects protective walls around itself so that those within have a strong sense of being separate from all that is outside.

Looking at this simple description of the open and closed in respect of organizations in general, it is easy to see how the church also conforms to this pattern. We have a contrast between churches that are open to the outside world so that there are few, if any, barriers existing. People can be members with no more than minimal attendance at these kind of churches. Welcome is given to all and maybe only a small number are completely identified with the organization.   At the other end are the churches which are seen to be closed and exclusive.   This is done by erecting strict barriers of membership. This might involve refusing baptism to any but the committed and insisting on regular attendance.   Members would also support the church by giving a tithe of their earnings and agree to submit to strong leadership. The dynamics of these ‘closed’ churches are quite different from the typical Anglican church.

The book I am consulting, The Incestuous Workplace, by William L White, in describing closed organisations, like certain companies and hospitals, could in fact be describing ‘closed’ churches. The words he uses, ‘high priest’, ‘charismatic leadership’ and ‘discipleship’ are theological in origin. He also reminds us of cultic groups when he describes the way that stress within an organization encourages this process of pulling up the drawbridge and having minimal contact with the outside. Within this ghetto, there is a strong resistance to change.   White also notes the way that mission statements or the traditional products of the company are clung to as though they were a form of dogma, faith in which will somehow protect them all from disaster.   Loyalty and trust in these codes of practice and in the leaders is required of everyone and any sort of questioning is regarded as disloyal heresy which cannot be tolerated. Those guilty of questioning the anxious defensive paranoia have to be excluded. A particularly insightful point that White makes concerns the vulnerability of socially isolated people to these closed groups. He says that such people, experiencing anxiety, can be made to believe ‘almost anything if it is delivered in the context of a supportive relationship that promises immediate comfort and continued safety security and happiness.’

White says so much in this vein that I kept having to check that this was not a theological treatise, that I was indeed reading about the world of secular organizations and institutions. The fact that there is such a close overlap between sacred and secular confirms a crucial point in our understanding of the church.   The point is that, in more ways than we would like to admit, the Church is a human organisation, subject to the same failings and dangers as every other institution. Whatever we may want to claim for the church in terms of its divine origin, this does not remove it from the inevitable fallibility of its humanness. While non-Catholic churches do not use words like infallibility to describe their institution, the authority given to some leaders often takes on a form that appears to be beyond ordinary human fallibility. The way that the Bible is proclaimed as ‘infallible’ truth is nearly always a claim for the unassailable correctness and unquestionable power of the preacher.   Such claimed power and authority is probably similar in kind to that found in all closed organizations, particularly those which, according to Williams, are facing threats to their continuation and functioning. People start to draw together under ‘infallible’ leaders, often the same ones responsible for bringing the organization to the point of collapse. The nearer the institution draws to extinction, the more irrational and uncritical is the confidence shown towards the leaders.

A further insight into closed organizations that runs closely to the understanding of the church, is the idea of homogenization. This predicts that people in a closed organization are likely to be very similar to one another. The non-conformist, the one with ideas to challenge the status-quo is likely to have been excluded. In organizational terms, appointees are likely to be conformists. In a church setting, nobody of an independent spirit is likely to feel at home with this ‘sameness’ among church members. But ‘sameness’ and predictability do have their attractions . Some people will find it an energising factor and thus be prepared to work and give generously. Thus companies with a clear mission statement will do well.   A church with a clear but simplistic statement of faith combined with demanding ethical standards, will also often do better than churches where the boundaries are fuzzy. White sees that the closed organisation, with its permanent sense of crisis and even paranoia about the outside world, will often have an addictive quality about it. Both leaders and led find a sense of purpose in responding to these crises and this may distract the individuals concerned from facing up to and dealing with their own internal issues.

White’s description of a closed institution is set out as the description of an organization probably in terminal decline. He makes the assumption that the pace of overwork, frenetic activity combined with the sheer exhaustion of keeping people together in this kind of setting will eventually result in overload and collapse.   We do in fact see examples of ministries that fall apart with the strain that comes from trying to work such an organisational pattern. Other churches avoid total collapse by re-inventing themselves totally.   Many years ago Weber noted the way that charisma often gives way to institutional openness after a generation. White’s insights give us much to ponder. It is certainly worth using his yardstick to measure institutions that we are involved in, whether a church or workplace.  Whether open or closed, every institutional setting seems to have the capacity to create stress for those caught up in them. Human beings are very similar the world over when they gather into groups, whether commercial companies, schools or churches. Negotiating with the stress of these systems is probably part of everyday life but books like this can help us to do it with wisdom and even humour.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

7 thoughts on “70 Organizational theory and churches

  1. God’s Factory
    The tragedy of what Stephen is saying, is that it takes a lifetime to perceive that you are involved with something that’s very human! At least that’s what happened to me and many of my friends.
    It’s more than tragic when you perceive that God does not whisper; “We’ll have to watch him he’s asking too many questions!”
    So many people are sent to ‘Human Resources’ only to find that they have been set up.
    Lets hope God’s factory fails and the Church of Christ succeeds.

    Chris Pitts

      1. Hi, haiku. We’re moving house and won’t have internet access except the library for about six weeks. Wish us luck! Hope your preaching is going on apace.

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