The church is an organization too

Is bureaucracy ever anything other than an obstacle? What can the church learn from the business world about assimilating and nurturing members? Insights from organizational theory may help you strengthen your church's ministry.

Peter Rudowski is the senior pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Secular organizations and the church often clash over the values of life. Business people assume the church concentrates on heavenly matters while church leaders believe business institutions care little for people. These erroneous assumptions divide God's world in half, and unfortunately the division hurts both sides. The business world needs to hear the gospel. And the church on the other hand, could use some help from management experts. A study of organizations offers church leaders a better understanding of how their congregations function.

In his book Complex Organizations: A Critical Study (New York: Random House, Inc., 1979) Charles Perrow reviews a number of aspects of organizational theory. He begins by defending bureaucracies and concludes with excitement as he describes the work environment's effect on organizations. His perspectives on organizational the ory stimulate new insights on parish ministry.


Most people hate bureaucracy. The very word conjures images of inefficiency and incompetence. Yet, bureaucracy (an organization governed by routine) can eliminate mismanagement and increase the performance of each individual in the organization. Bureaucracies work best in situations requiring repetition of the same functions and behavior. Prefabricated standards, decisions, and rules characterize bureaucratic organization.

In most organizations bureaucracy exists out of necessity. Knowing an established policy for common situations allows individuals on every level of the organization to make decisions and meet organizational goals. Because of their inflexible nature, however, bureaucratic organizations find it difficult (if not impossible) to respond to unique situations. Bureaucracy's rigidity may so frustrate those with different needs that its drawbacks may outweigh its contributions.

Congregations are bureaucracies, and they need to be. A great deal of a congregation's activity is routine. With out established schedules and proce dures, congregations would crumble under the weight of daily decision making. It is impractical to decide each week the hour the worship service will begin or when the bulletin will be printed. Bureaucracy (characterized by established routine) is a blessing often overlooked.

Unfortunately, bureaucracy holds the potential of restricting a church's ministry to people. Rigid adherence to procedural rules often blocks response to legitimate human needs. Churches need to make allowances for exceptions to the rule. They must permit congregational leaders to transcend established policy when it is appropriate. Discussing potential situations before they occur helps cut through the "bureaucratic red tape." And conversations following unique incidents help foster under standing between church leaders and governing boards.

Bureaucratic organizations often have another weakness: They tend to hire people who accept and support the established routine. And when promoting and rewarding, leaders of bureaucratic organizations too often allow irrelevant criteria (longevity with the organization, being related to the boss, institutional loyalty, et cetera) to out weigh ability or qualification. As a result, bureaucratic organizations lose vitality, creativity, and competitiveness. Without new insights, organizations cannot respond effectively to cur rent trends or needs. A closed system of thought tends to become self-serving. Bureaucratic organizations must dis cover ways to remain vital, alive, and open to the world they attempt to serve.

Congregations may become closed to the outside world. Roy Oswald, staff member of the Alban Institute, reports that congregations with long-term pas torates tend to elect to key leadership positions only those who support the pastor. This precludes new insights even before the congregation votes.

Recognizing this same problem, Lyle Schaller suggests that the whole congregation nominate people for specific jobs. Members may write their own name, or the name of their candidate, on posters containing a job description. Schaller reports this procedure will make reaching decisions more difficult but will increase congregational support for the decisions made. An open nominating procedure encourages the congregation to select those with particular skills and abilities. As congregations open them selves to new people with different ideas, they become better able to meet the needs of members.


Assimilating new members into an organization is a challenge. Individuals entering a new group come as strangers.

Until they learn the ins and outs of their new environment, they remain extremely uncomfortable. "The first thing the new employee should learn is who is really in charge, who has the goods on whom, what are the major debts and dependencies--all things that are not reflected by the neat boxes in the table of organization. Once he has this knowledge, he can navigate with more skill and ease." 1

Giving the point even greater emphasis, Harry Levinson writes: "The need for closeness is most crucial when people begin a new relationship with an organization. It is at this point that people become 'attached,' when they are most confused about the new job and the strange organization. They are more heavily dependent than at any other time in their organizational careers, and unless someone takes them in hand, they cannot begin their work." 2 The assimilation process, or lack of it, greatly influences the length of time a person will remain in an organization. Individuals interpret later experiences through the lenses of the assimilation process.

Congregations continually receive new members. John Savage, of the LEAD Institute, maintains that adults joining a church have just experienced a crisis in their lives. Regardless of the nature of the crisis, these individuals are seeking both the gospel message and a caring community. Upon joining, they are heavily dependent upon those already belonging to the church. Congregations need to take seriously this dependency and develop structures to help new members feel they belong. Church leaders may successfully use one or more of several strategies for assimilation.

First, most congregations require indi viduals to join a "pastor's class" before they become members. The pastor's class reviews Biblical teachings and the par ticular denomination's interpretations of key Scripture passages. To aid new members' assimilation, pastors may add a history of the congregation to the study schedule. They can explain the "in" jokes and the norms by which their congregations function. This sharing of inside information is well worth the time and effort.

Second, sponsor programs encourage new members to attend not only the worship services, but also other church events. In the business world, when an individual joins a new company the organization assigns that person a "sponsor." It is the sponsor's responsibility to acquaint the new employee with fellow employees, the organization, and the building layout. A company like General Motors would never hire a person and tell him to make himself at home and attend the events that interest him, and then leave him to his own devices. Likewise, the church needs to help those joining to become acquainted with other members, encourage participation in social events, and provide opportunities for individuals to feel they are contributing to the organization.

Third, congregations may care for individual members through a shepherding program. The shepherd serving the new member's geographic area may be assigned to be his sponsor. The shepherd introduces the new member to the church and its members. This offers the benefit of a six-month or longer special relationship between the shepherd and the new member.

Fourth, congregations may wish to assign a staff person to keep in touch with the new members. The staff member's responsibilities would include contact ing the new members, discerning their needs and desires, acting as a referral service to those in the congregation who can meet the needs of the new members, and finally, following up on those arrangements.

Small groups also aid in assimilating new members. They support and protect individuals. Teenagers belong to peer groups, while adults belong to professional societies or clubs. These settings encourage people to air complaints, brag over their successes, and search for new ideas. Congregations with a strong group network have reputations of caring for their members. Groups provide warmth and shelter to their members and can make a large, cold church seem a warm, friendly place. As individuals unite with a congregation, they should be encouraged to join a group that addresses their needs and interests.


The training of executives led to the development of the human relations model in organizational theory. Today this model dominates managerial train ing programs. Its heart centers on the assumptions made about, and the con sequent treatment of, fellow workers. It notes, for example, that a study of Western Electric employees revealed that workers shown attention by management produced more than those who were ignored.

Nurturing congregational members keeps a church alive and growing. A recent study of large, growing churches in Ohio discovered little similarity in their congregational programs or recruiting approaches. The only element these congregations had in common was their great emphasis on nurturing those who already belonged. Pastors called regularly in hospitals, were available day or night for emergencies, worked hard at knowing their people, and exhibited a sense of caring. Lay people also displayed a caring attitude by noticing when members missed church, bringing food to homes in time of crisis, and talking with each other before and after worship services.

Nurturing congregations make members feel valued, and they attract those seeking a church home. Churches need to ask, What do we do to nurture those who worship with us?


Everyone wants to be heard. People become frustrated when they have some' thing to contribute or suggestions to share and no one will listen. Not being heard leads people either to withdraw from the organization or to fight for a hearing. To avoid these counterproductive responses, organizations need to provide a structure that allows every member to feel that someone has heard them. In business, listening posts, suggestion boxes, presidents and vice presidents walking the factory floor, quality circles, and so forth, provide the structures for listening. These structures help workers feel that they have influence in their places of work--that they are important.

It is crucial for the leadership of a congregation to solicit suggestions from the general membership. They may listen through home meetings led by various members of the governing board, through setting aside a month when they call upon every member of the congregation individually, or by inviting members to review and discuss the congregation's plans. Reporting back to the person making the suggestion also indicates that he was heard. A listening program often fails because of lack of follow-up.

And good communications are essential to the well-being of any organiza tion. Nothing isolates people more than the feeling of not knowing what is happening. A good communication system is multidimensional. For maximum effect, information should be shared in five different forms and settings. Churches, bulletins, announcements, newsletters, discussion at small group meetings, and the "grapevine" form the complex system needed to spread a message. Careful communication creates closeness and cooperation among the members of an organization.

The human relations model of man' agement questions common assump tions. Douglas McGregor suggests that many managers assume workers are by nature lazy and unwilling to contribute to the organization. McGregor argues that workers want to use their skills in the companies for which they work.

Management's task is to create an atmosphere in which every person can contribute. If managers would correct their assumptions about those who work for them, productivity would rise and workers would find their jobs more rewarding.

Bishops, church officials, seminary professors, and parish pastors make assumptions about lay people. Often they think laypeople are inferior Christians if they are Christians at all. The fact that laypeople wrestle with such issues as profit and cost points, that they compete against companies that make a similar product, and are concerned for the bottom line does not make them second-class believers in God. Nor does their lack of a formal theological education mean that these front-line troops of God's kingdom cannot minister.

Laypeople want to participate in the church's work. They want to take part in the decision-making process. They want to share the gifts God gave them. Renewal begins in local congregations when leaders examine their basic assumptions about the role and competency of laity and clergy in the light of partnership in the gospel.

Organizations as entities

Many management theories view organizations as lacking personal traits of their own. They assume that since people control the organizations, the study of organizations should center on individuals or groups of people. But those who believe organizations are entities unto themselves disagree. They believe that organizations influence the behavior and decisions of those who work in them rather than the people influencing the organizations. They suggest, for example, that those who work for IBM are greatly influenced by IBM dress codes, IBM ethics, and IBM's outlook on the economy. The IBM organization dominates its employees. It has a personality of its own.

Local congregations influence people too. They hold a great deal of control over the standards that are acceptable among their members. And every con gregation has a personality of its own. Some congregations excel in worship, while others offer fellowship among members. Some congregations exert political force in their communities, while others ignore area problems and changes. Every congregation specializes in a type of ministry, and it attracts those who are excited by that ministry.

It is the congregation's goals that determine its personality. For example, the church growth movement defines its goal as making as many disciples as possible for Jesus Christ. Congregations that adopt church growth as a major goal will function and feel differently than those which denounce the church growth movement and view witnessing as a minor part of church programming. Adopting the goal of growth means that every decision will be evaluated in terms of its relation to growth. The budget will give preference to advertising and out reach ventures. If the goals of the congregation change, then its personal ity also changes. Examining a congregation's goals helps one understand behavior.

Organizations also develop their own language. Their vocabularies determine what subjects they can discuss. If an organization's vocabulary excludes moral and ethical terms, these concepts will never enter the decision-making process. Organizations, often uncon sciously, use their language to justify their position to the rest of the world. Doctors' offices, legal firms, business corporations, and churches rely on a unique language to present their services or messages.

But language may not only serve as a form of communication; it may also erect barriers to fruitful dialogue. Jesus taught in the common language of the people. Paul used vocabulary from the law court, the marketplace, and even the pagan temple to explain the gospel. As a congregation struggles with its presentation of the gospel, it must use relevant modern terms. Economics, sports, and current events offer modern settings in which to describe the gospel's truth. A mind that is bombarded with messages from the mass media can link the gospel's message to that which is familiar. The language congregational leaders use greatly determines whether their mes sage will be heard, understood, and accepted. Choosing the vocabulary appropriate for its audience helps make a congregation's ministry effective.

Like its identity, the structure of an organization also grows from its purpose. Business organizations with the purpose of manufacturing a product will be structured differently from organizations that give medical attention to the sick. Organizations that lack a well-defined purpose flounder for meaning and accomplishments. Excellent organiza tions stress the importance of their purpose and require that every employee understand what the organization is attempting to accomplish. Such knowledge will help each make better decisions and work more effectively.

Congregations are organizations with a purpose. A congregation's purpose determines what activities and budget items its members will support and the overall identity of the congregation in the community. A large percentage of the members of a strong, active congregation can articulate its purpose (mission). And like the congregation, every program should begin with a statement of purpose. When the purpose is clearly understood, members can set goals, obtain resources, and define expectations. Agreement on their purpose can | draw members together, uniting them in mutual ministry.

The environment

A new theory in organizational studies examines the environment in which the organization exists. World and community events affect the manner in which organizations function, or even their survival. Create a demand for a new product and a new organization is created. Lessen the demand for an existing item and the size of the manufacturer declines. The explosion of the personal computer market and the declining demand for large cars illustrate how the environment affects organizations. Those that adapt to a changing marketplace survive, and those who refuse change cease to exist.

In 1978, George Gallup's survey on religion reported that the top three American religious concerns were (1) drinking and drugs at an early age, (2) marijuana, and (3) violence on television. Four years later a similar survey showed dramatic changes. The 1982 survey lists the top three questions as (1) Will there be lasting peace? (2) How can I be a better person? and (3) What does the future hold? Such a radical change in concerns demands change in sermon topics, classes taught, and pastoral approach to people. The environment in which the church lives affects its message and its ministry. It has even been shown that national and world events can influence the local congregation. Congregations need to monitor shifts in employment patterns, political activity, and the age of residents in surrounding communities if they are to remain vital.

In conclusion, secular organizational theory can contribute greatly to the church's understanding of its institu tions. It suggests that bureaucracy, rou tine, and goals hold an organization together; that assumptions about others may mislead; that the local congregation has a personality which may attract or repel; and that the environment affects the questions raised in and the ministry attempted by a community of faith. Church leaders can enhance their ministry by using these insights.

1 Charles Perrow, Complex Organizations: A
Critical Study,2d ed. (New York: Random House,
Inc., 1979), p. 41.

2 Harry Levinson, Executive (Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981), p. 181.

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Peter Rudowski is the senior pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Cincinnati, Ohio.

January 1986

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