DURING more than 30 years of researching with churches and
charities, I have often seen clergy exhaust themselves trying to
tackle practical challenges of organisation - challenges with which
they are ill equipped to deal because they lack even rudimentary
knowledge about the principles of organisational behaviour
Yet OB has heaps of intellectual tools to offer those running
our churches. It could be usable knowledge, if more OB academics
would take the time to adapt generic organisational knowledge to
the special challenges that arise in faith organisations.
Meanwhile, clergy are left to muddle along as best they can,
perhaps picking up bits and pieces of ideas from those books you
find in airports that promise quick management fixes for
businesses, or self-help secrets for ambitious careerists. It does
not have to be like this.
There are ways in which individuals can draw useful insights
from organisational disciplines without abandoning their
Let me outline some organisational insights that clergy and
laity with whom I have worked have found useful. These are research
findings from the OB field which can help to explain why things
happen the way they do in churches, and so help leaders to devise
sensitive and workable responses.
Implementation of change canbe particularly intractable in
association-like groupings such as parish churches. Since church
adherence is essentially a voluntary commitment in modern Britain,
authoritarian and prescriptive approaches to organisational change
simply will not wash - irrespective of theological principles that
give clergy the right to say how things should happen.
Anything - from changing the layout of chairs for meetings to
implementing liturgy prescribed by bishops - can give rise to
eruptions of protest from congregation members, and worse.
THE literature suggests ways in which such eruptions might be
mitigated. They include developing a strategic plan over months, or
even years, for staged or incremental change; informally involving
key opinion-leaders in planning processes; and positively
encouraging "pew-up" suggestions for changes, and their
More recently, church leaders have also found the so-called
"theory of change" approach to be helpful. It suggests prior
thinking about the precise nature of any prospective change; what
the evidence of its implementation will be; and the rationale for
taking a specific approach to achieving the desired endpoint.
In adopting or adapting these kinds of ideas, church leaders
might also take into account the special nature of goal-setting in
a church context. Businesses, social enterprises, and even
charities are free to take a broad scan of possibilities when
making strategic decisions about their future aims.
But leaders in a faith organisation need to be constantly aware
of what I call "low-goal ceilings". Clergy and lay people work with
certain fixed institutional goals that - because they are part of
the faith tradition -cannot be changed, or even de-bated.
Clergy leaders are guardians of these fixed principles, and
therefore have to hold a delicate balance between maintaining the
distinctive faith "core", and having open and empathetic
discussions with lay adherents.
The latter are demanded if change is ever to be achieved, but
clergy have always to be aware of when a goal ceiling is being
reached, and there is a threat to the very mission of the
A similar point can apply to the enthusiasm of visionary lay
people who have new ideas for activities, projects, and
fund-raising. It falls to clergy to ensure that innovation is
encouraged while core religious principles are not infringed.
ANOTHER area of practical challenge for church leaders, where
theology needs to be borne in mind, is organisational structure.
• Who has the authority to direct whom?
• Who is to be held to account when things go wrong?
• What should be delegated to committees, and working
• Who can speak for the Church to the media? What roles can be
shared between people, or across local churches?
• What is the appropriate relationship between local churches
and their diocesan and national leaders?
It is often tempting to think that these kinds of questions can
be settled by reference to religious prescription.
Yet apparent prescription may simply be "custom and practice"
with a sacred aura. Even where there is clear religious guidance,
there is often scope for adaptation to contemporary circumstances.
All successful religious traditions have proved adaptable.
MOST people have some instinctive grasp of the working of
"bureaucratic hierarchy" - one of the oldest of OB theories, which
has its intellectual roots in advice given by Jethro to his
son-in-law Moses, when the Israelite leader was trying to do too
Moses was reluctant to delegate his responsibilities, and Jethro
told him how to construct a hierarchy that would spread the
workload, but also ensure that final accountability for work done
rested with Moses himself.
For a long time, bureaucratic hierarchy was pretty much the only
organisational structural model around - adopted by firms,
corporations, and armies, as a matter of course. Many religions,
including the C of E, also adopted a formof hierarchy to administer
But more recent contributions from OB have suggested several
alternative ways of structuring organisations - without hierarchy,
or by using variations on the basic model: team-working between
people with equal organisational authority; collective ownership
structures; "flat" relationships between roles; leaders answerable
to the members who elected them; and alliances between
These are just a number of models, and they merit further
exploration in the face of proliferating layers of bureaucracy and
dwindling numbers of volunteer workers.
AS FOR the members and volunteers, who are the lifeblood of our
churches, there is now a substantial body of research that offers
sound principles for recruiting and supporting volunteers.
One of the primary principles is to work hard to find a match
between the motives of an individual volunteer and the
organisation's own needs. My own research suggests that clergy can
be very good at discerning the varied and multiple motivations that
people bring to church involvement, and at matching those
motivations with church roles and tasks. They are also generally
good at following another principle of volunteer management -
thanking and recognising.
My final thought is about the very concept of "leadership". The
Church seems to work on the assumption that its leaders are
primarily clergy. The OB literature encourages us to step back, and
ask what leadership actually means.
One answer is that a leader is someone who can nurture, inspire,
and realise a vision. Visionary leadership, and the varied
characteristics that encourage loyalty and inspire people to
embrace change, is as vital for a religious organisation as any
So it is worth asking an open question about who may be able to
exercise such leadership in the many and varied areas of church
life. We need to cast the net as wide as possible - to catch laity
as well as clergy, and fringe members as well as the most committed
people who attend church.
Dr Margaret Harris is the Emeritus Professor of Voluntary
Sector Organisation at Aston University, and Visiting Professor at
Birkbeck, University of London.