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It’s not an organisation: it’s the Body of Christ

22 November 2013

Increasingly bureaucratic practices are distracting the Church from its true nature, argues Martyn Percy

WHEN it comes to having vision for shaping the Church in the 21st century, there is often lively debate on what models of secular organisation might be followed. The Church often supposes that by discerning the kinds of secular leadership that seem to work, and identifying which organisations have been successful, it might benefit in turn.

One champion of such thinking is Rick Warren. His book The Purpose-Driven Church (Zondervan, 1995) insights from motivational tools, organisational theory, and marketing strategies. But this approach to mission opens up much larger theological debates - for instance, about whether the gospel supports any organisational strategy that produces numerical growth.

The desire for success is understandable, of course. Yet, in trying to sate such hunger so readily, we may be robbing ourselves of the opportunity to ponder some deeper issues in the Church.

SUPPOSE the Church were more like an institution, and less like an organisation: understanding the difference is vital for leadership and management.

Organisations are bodies that are free to adapt their focus in order to flourish. Nokia, for example, is a Finnish company that makes mobile phones, but it began its life in the 19th century trading in rubber. In terms of identity, Nokia is what the theorist Philip Selznick (1919-2010) would identify as an organisation. It exists to succeed and make money. Mobile phones are a means to that end, as rubber was earlier. Nokia is free to change its focus at any time, so long as that turns a profit and pleases its shareholders.

Institutions have different purposes. They exist to propagate their values from one generation to the next. Crucially, Selznick observes, good institutions should do this independent of the popularity of those values.

The Church is clearly more like an institution than an organisation. It embodies the life of Jesus, in times of penury and persecution, as well as in stability or revival. What it cannot do is to try to change its focus. It risks losing its identity if it does. This is quite an issue for an institution such as the Church, where our primary defining identity is as the Body of Christ.

So, relaunching is fine for organisations that are seeking to maintain a customer base and expand into new markets. In contrast, however, such activity can be unsettling for institutions, and can result in a weariness of initiatives. Furthermore, in constantly trying to remind the public of their identity and purpose, institutions can risk looking desperate, undermining rather than instilling confidence.

ORGANISATIONS look outwards in their restless search for success, but they also look inwards, scrutinising for productivity. Management comes to the fore here; but it is usually the servant of growth.

Typically, the character of managerialism is absorbed with reviews, strategies, and the adoption of SMART(er) criteria (that is: reviewing performance in relation to goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound - with the addition of evaluation and re-evaluation in recent literature).

The Church, like education and health care, has begun to adopt some of this thinking. Yet none of this resolves the ambiguous nature of ministry: describing it, defining it, and then trying to assess its impact remains tricky. Apparent success cannot be confused with faithfulness. Clear aims, objectives, and outcomes - no matter how appealing - are not to be confused with wisdom.

In The Fate of the Anglican Clergy: A sociological study (Routledge, 1979) Robert Towler and Anthony Coxon understand something of the ambiguity of the ministerial role for modern clerics. Their articulation of the issues of identity and function remain relevant. They describe ministry not as work, a profession, or as labour - but as an "occupation".

It is a rather quaint word; yet an "occupation" is something that consumes time, energy, and lives, but is not paid or recognised as "work" in the way that the secular world understands work. This, they argue, makes ministry increasingly uncommon - a sphere of activity where remuneration is no longer linked to the value of the endeavour - either for practitioners or for the public at large. They liken ministers to poets, artists, or philanthropists.

It is hard for the authors to say how time is spent, to what end, and whether efforts are ever "measurable" or "valuable" - much like ministry. It is more difficult to calculate its value in today's world, even though public and representative functions (such as weddings and funerals) remain visible, symbolic, and appreciated.

To be sure, better organisation is important for mission and ministry. But perhaps more could be said for the concept of "occupation" in relation to ministry rather than its being "work". Members of the clergy are to be occupied with God, and then to be preoccupied with God's concerns: those people and places that are given into our care; to dwell among, care for, and love those people and places - as Christ himself "occupied" the world.

LEADERSHIP, it is often said, is doing the right thing, and management is about doing things right. The Church needs both, of course. But it is perhaps fair to say that the Church of the post-war years has moved from being over-led and under-managed to being over-bureaucratised and under-led.

Kenneth Thompson addresses this in Bureaucracy and Church Reform: The organizational response of the Church of England to social change, 1880-1965 (OUP, 1970). His core thesis is that our post-war internal organisational reforms have been driven by two main external forces.

The first, which affected the Church in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, was the differentiation of institutions as they became more specialised in their functions. The Church, for example, ceased to run adoption services in the way that it once did - or hospitals or universities.

The second reform to affect the Church was an increased emphasis on rationality, accountability, and productivity - such that we are increasingly preoccupied with immediate, empirical, and pragmatic ends. We try to justify our value by measuring success, and then by driving that success by the criteria that we chose to measure it by.

Yet what is often neglected by focusing on the measurable are more nebulous and extensive forms of engagement in public ministry. Prophetic engagement with issues of justice and peace, for example, may suffer: this can be time-consuming, and may not yield any immediate "measurable results". Pastoral work, too, is hard to quantify. In all of this, the organisational-managerial star tends to rise, while that of the institutional-leadership wanes.

There are some ironies here. Bureaucracies and ideologies that support the legitimisation of the organisational-managerial quickly sprout into being. This often means that institutions shift to becoming smaller, rationalised organisations.

THE movement from the leadership of institutions to the management of organisations follows, even though the rhetoric of leadership remains. Indeed, "leadership-speak" often becomes more prevalent at this point. This reflects our wider cultural faddishness.

The heart of the matter is this. By treating the Church as an organisation, we may not be turning the Church into a more efficient, productive body. Rather, we may be slowly encumbering our clergy and churches with layers of administration and bureaucratic processes, built around the quantification of expectations, and their eventual concretisation. Put sharply, one's value to the organisation increasingly lies in being able to demonstrate measurable growth.

For most of the clergy, however, this tends only to produce slowly rising levels of anxiety and disenchantment. Ironically, this causes the Church to search for even stronger forms of management, together with rationalisation and efficiencies that will deliver a reinvigorated popularity and measurable growth.

Thus, as the grip of "emergent ecclesiocracy" increases (a phrase coined by the Revd Jonathan Kimber, Vicar of St Benedict's, Northampton), our grasp of ecclesiology and public theology proportionally weakens.

We may be running serious risks in talking up the prospects for growth and management, while on the ground the situation is one of escalating complex patterns of churchgoing, increasingly stretched resources, fewer stipendiary ministers, and ever-greater pressures on clergy and churches.

This is potentially serious for our national mission. As research by Professor Linda Woodhead has suggested recently, the vast majority of the population remain well-disposed to the Church of England (Comment, 26 April). What puts them off, however, is too much talk from inside the Church of money, management, and numerical growth.

The Church, in continuing to stress these concerns, may imagine that it is being active. But these focuses represent reactive responses, which can occlude the deeper character of the Church. Correspondingly, it is rare to see an advertisement at the back of this newspaper seeking a vicar who will lead a church into deeper theological learning, or open up the riches of contemplative prayer to the wider parish. Our absorption with management and growth dominates our selection processes, from top to bottom.

I BELIEVE that our churches need managing, reorganising, and growth - more than ever. The Church is a broad, deep, dense institution that needs some organisation. But it is not a flagging organisation in search of a new, more appealing identity. It is the Body of Christ.

Conceivably, we may now need some deeper debates about reforms that correlate to the nature of our life as a Church. Numerical growth or the focusing of resources are fine goals. But, if our vocation is to live and share God's love and justice - his heart, hands, and mind for humanity and creation - then it will always be hard to measure and manage our ministries, let alone to offer conjectures on their apparent usefulness.

So perhaps deep spiritual discernment, and not a growing range of forms of quantification, should be the heart of the Church's ministry. This is partly because, as one hymn-writer put it 150 years ago, "the love of God is broader than the measure of man's mind".

Canon Martyn Percy is Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, and Professor of Theological Education, at King's College, London.

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