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Management and mission: the Church of England is not a machine

27 October 2023

Alison Milbank deconstructs the C of E’s bias towards the managerial


HOW is it that the noun “mission” has come so to dominate the avalanche of Anglican reports and episcopal directives? It is oddly contentless, unlike the older word “evangelism”, which suggests that we have the good news of the gospel to impart. What is little understood is how this word has come to be shaped by modern management theory.

Successful managers, Lyndon Shakespeare writes, are “makers of worlds by the use of words”, and those words must have particular qualities: “low in definition and direct reference, vague and mysterious in terms of precise content, easy to say, vivid and radical sounding in metaphorical and imagistic terms”. Two key terms that theorists employ for such world-making are “mission” and “vision”, and readers hardly need to be reminded of the recent use of these words in the Vision and Strategy documents.

The distinction between the two terms is that the vision gives the organisation direction and meaning, while the mission strategy points to how it will realise its purpose. The Church of England, however, while embracing managerialism with an unholy hospitality, has confused mission and vision so that mission has displaced the vision to become an end in itself. Every single facet of our lives as Christians is held to be for the sake of mission, and is subsumed in utilitarian fashion to this end.

Examples of this confusion can be seen in the mission action plans (MAPs), that are now the norm in all dioceses. In Southwark diocese, for example, parish MAPs are “enabled through SMART goals: we set ourselves goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, resourced and timed . . . our lay leaders are encouraged and well supported in this”. What makes this managerialism in action is such built-in calculability, with the onus on the “employee” — here, the laity — to carry out the strategy and be accountable.

Now, there is value in a congregation’s sitting down to audit its strengths and weaknesses and plan ahead. The problem lies in the functionalism of the SMART goals, which belong to a profit-making business seeking market growth rather than a Church: mission has become vision.

Yet, as Justin Lewis Anthony points out, as long ago as 1984, management theorists were pointing out the fallacies implicit in such action planning: the fallacy of predetermination, which ignores discontinuities; of detachment, in which hard data are abstracted from “soft” experience; and of formalisation, which assumes that the reality of an organisation can be fully captured by breaking it down into components.

SMART criteria were evolved to encourage growth in the business sector, not the aims of the Church of England; but it seems that the latter not only has confused spiritual with monetary growth, but has adopted a flawed and perhaps outdated theory of pecuniary expansion.


THE Church should certainly be well managed, but our bishops have embraced the goals and techniques of managerialism as an unquestioned ideology. The key aims of management as a secular science are efficiency, predictability, control, and accountability. They become managerialism when they act as a form of social control that shapes a social body.

The kind of managerialism which now obtains is “new wave”, privileging the consumer, and the manager as an inspirer who provides the vision, which the employees will then instantiate through producing new efficiencies. The analogies with the model of mission hubs under a team leader and the lay volunteers to carry out the work are strong and not accidental.

Along with an optimism about the employee’s ability to carry out the vision and strategy through SMART criteria comes a trust in measurable outcomes, which supposedly show the true worth of an activity. The target numbers of “witnessing disciples” in Strategic Development Funding awards are a clear example of such calculability; the stress of meeting them means that what constitutes a disciple can mean merely someone who turns up to a café with a final prayer.

Similarly, new clergy have the anxiety of being set growth targets to meet if their contracts are to be extended. Such a strategy is popular in organisations with limited resources, and it is clear that care is needed if the Church is not to substitute sub-goals, such as control and calculability, for her ultimate goals, which are eschatological. Our purpose as the body of Christ is to worship God and bring the whole world to union with him, but these teloi can be easily lost once measurable targets take centre stage.

The denigration of the parish and the deliberate development of a competitive structure of “new worshipping communities” is due to this managerialism. The parish is a form of organic life with its own local specificities and a porosity that is resistant to targets. Its laity are primarily parishioners, not disciples, the term now preferred by the hierarchy because this is to involve the “employees” in the success of the business operation.

To quote Lyndon Shakespeare: “Human subjects are exhorted to expand and intensify their contribution as ‘human resources’ . . . to enhance production, maximise value, thus leading the organisation to success.” While these are instrumental values for competitive triumph, they are couched — even in the secular world — in the quasi-religious language of mission and vision, and so prove all too seductive for the Church, where they serve usefully to mask a secular-derived instrumentality allowing an apparently convenient marriage of pietism with the latest slick techniques.

This functionalism is all too clear in some diocesan straplines: “Called Together: grow, enrich, resource”; “Discovering God’s Kingdom, Growing the Church”; “Bigger Church to Make a Bigger Difference”. These examples have succumbed to growth rather than faithfulness as the primary aim, substituting mission for vision, and are therefore unlikely to succeed.

It is significant, to say the least, that, despite the relentless emphasis on mission, the employment of managerial techniques, and their universal rollout with generous financial resources behind them, the expected growth has not occurred. Indeed, the resource churches, with their lavish provision of personnel and pastoral reorganisations, have not met their expected targets — they have, to the contrary, fallen far short, as the recent Wigan figures and the Chote report demonstrate.


SMART goals and growth approaches fail us because they misunderstand the very nature of the Church; for managerialism does not distinguish between different sorts of bodies, between a hospital and a motor company. We are seeing the dangers of this sort of approach in the university sector, where SMART criteria are turning education increasingly into a consumer product; or in the police force, where the results are mostly unsolved, or even uninvestigated crimes.

What universities and the police have in common with the Church of England is that they are all teleologically purposive institutions, with their own internal traditions of practice, expertise, and values developed over time. Martyn Percy wrote, in The Ecclesial Canopy (Routledge, 2012), that “the Church is not a body that is supposed to be ever more productive, like a factory or industry that simply improves its output from year to year. It is an organic body of wisdom, in which pruning, seasons, life and death, course through its very veins.”

One helpful way of considering how different a body the Church is from a business is the idea of a practice as defined by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue: a tradition of activity which has goods intrinsic to it. One simple example is playing chess. A child may play to win, or even cheat, but only if the child decides to submit to the game and learn its techniques and strategies will they become a good player, and even extend the possibilities of the game.

Chess institutions function to nurture the practice, but might offer extrinsic goods, such as prizes, which could corrupt it, as when all that matters to the chess-players is competition rather than the worth of their play.

Managerialism infecting and corrupting church policy is one example of an institution’s losing touch with its practices. But practices are conversely sustained by institutions, and MacIntyre believes that, by virtuous practices within institutions, the ravages of consumer capitalism may be resisted, since they are common goods and improve human excellence.

The Church, then, is both a series of practices and an institution. The practices are: the sacraments, the life of prayer, reconciliation, service, and evangelism. MacIntyre’s terminology reveals that, in one sense, the practices are the Church, as she operates as the body of Christ; so that the Church is an active body. That is one reason that the managerial model fails so utterly to capture her life.

In this respect, we can contrast a genuine institution with a mere organisation. The managed organisation body has no intrinsic life, because it ignores the embodied nature of human persons, whom it reduces to rational agents making choices on utilitarian grounds. This is the anthropology that undergirded the privileging of Fresh Expressions in Mission-shaped Church.

A managed organisation is a machine, in the Cartesian sense of an automaton in which the actual agent is overlooked or viewed as a mere functional item. This individual functionalism undergirds the Archbishop of York’s “overriding vision” in Vision and Strategy, which is being able to recommend to a friend “an expression of Church locally that would really suit them”.

An institution such as the Church has a higher aim than an organisation. Custom and ethos are normative modes of action, and determine behaviour in ways that are not purely functional, but have an entelechy, focused on the good, on our calling to life in God. The current mission strategy, with its commitment to “a diverse smorgasbord” of culture and church embodiment, and its mixed ecology, is trying to do mission in a functional way that denies the specificity of these practices and believes that it can put any old cultural content in their place.

Renewal, however, will come only from stronger commitment to our ultimate vision to bring all people to Christ, and in our practices as embodying that vision. We need deeper relationality and more intentional prayer and service. In times of crisis, we should reconnect with our theological roots, and draw waters from the wells of salvation, living from God’s fullness rather than our own scarce resources. This will give us renewed confidence in the truth of what we believe and in our liturgical practices.

The true treasures of the Church, as St Laurence demonstrated long ago, when, instead of money, he produced the poor widows, are the worshippers, and they deserve our love, not our denigration. They also deserve our money, redirected to make the parish priest’s burden bearable, and to rescue many congregations from abandonment to endless vacancies or unsustainable mega-parishes, which simply drive decline. If we act now, there is still a chance to save the Church of England from herself and from the idol of managerial mission.


Canon Alison Milbank is the author of The Once and Future Parish, published by SCM at £19.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.99); 978-0-334-06313-1.

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