How the Organized Church Changes, Part 2

We here continue Dave Thomas’s guest blog on the impact of business language on the nature of the church. Very significant stuff (Jon Paulien).

Since the church is an organization, it is helpful to know that unconsidered organizational change is embedded within the nature of organizational structure itself. One of the best ways to understand this is to look through the eyes of organizational theorists, people “out there” who are fascinated with and study organizations, how they are born, grow, function, and finally die. One of the better-known conclusions of organizational theorists is the existence of a prevailing and all but inevitable “Organizational Life-cycle” – which all organizations pass through. Depending on which school of organizational theory you read, this life-cycle is said to have four or five stages. These begin with a Start-up or Entrepreneurial Stage, moving on through a Growth Stage that is often broken into two sub-stages – Early Growth which is often quite rapid, and Middle Growth where growth slows. The early stages are followed by a Mature Stagem where growth becomes very slow or stops altogether. The Mature Stage is followed by a Decline Stage which leads to the most critical stage, the Crisis Stage. The Crisis Stage may be followed by either renewal, or demise (see for more detail).

Organizations in the Mature Stage have a number of typical features. 1) Infrastructure is of enormous size to the point there is “a policy for everything.” 2) There are many employees whose entire focus is on tending infrastructure rather than front-line mission. 3) The treatment of employees is highly standardized with more interest in “fairness” than in “merit.” 4) Operations become regulated by policies more than by opportunities. 5) New hires are evaluated more on loyalty than on entrepreneurial spirit. 6) Employees gain more control over mission than volunteers. 7) A large proportion of resources are allocated to infrastructure in the place of mission. 8) There is little, if any, money devoted to new initiatives. Growth slows, then stops. By this time in the life cycle, all the infrastructure will have created such a great amount of inertia, it will be almost impossible for it to change, which sets things up for a likely crisis if change does indeed come to the marketplace.

In this life-cycle there are two critical elements that play a very big role in determining the direction of the organization. The first and most obvious one is the Crisis Stage where the way leaders approach and handle crises can lead to either organizational renewal or organizational decline and death. Organizations that have leaders who foresee crises and manage them well may renew themselves while those that have leaders who do not foresee or handle crises well go much more quickly toward demise.

Points of crisis are significant in the Organizational Life Cycle because, since they threaten organizational well-being or existence, they become the only times when any real prospect of significant change exists. It is simply the case that the more complex the infrastructure becomes, and the more success that can be looked back upon, the more difficult it is for an organization to adjust and change. This is because the stabilization brought about by the creation of infrastructure creates organizational inertia. And complex organizations develop so much inertia that the kind of change necessary to deal with an unanticipated future is simply too great.

In the business world, there are two elements that affect how crisis is dealt with, 1) shareholders who may take precipitous action if they become unhappy, and 2) the existence of outside predators looking for the chance to take over. Pressure from these two entities makes the prospect of change quite high. By contrast, in church organizations, these two elements are missing. There are no predatory outsiders looking to take over and the average member is too remote from organizational power to force change. In consequence, change in churches can only be brought about by those who are in leadership positions. The prospect of such people making significant change is very small indeed because organizations tend to promote those who are most loyal to the organization, and churches easily sanctify their structures if they have been successful. Those in power tend to be the ones who benefit most from the status quo. For these reasons, churches are more likely to fade away than agree to change.

To be continued. . .

2 thoughts on “How the Organized Church Changes, Part 2

  1. Ed Dickerson

    “organizations tend to promote those who are most loyal to the organization, and churches easily sanctify their structures if they have been successful. Those in power tend to be the ones who benefit most from the status quo.”

    I call this the Elder Brother Syndrome. Imagine the parable of the prodigal if the Elder Brother is in charge. But the Elder Brothers, the ones who never leave, are the ones most often in charge.

  2. Barry Curtis

    I wonder about #1 and #2 in the last paragraph. Are not members “shareholders” in the sense they invest both monetarily and ministerially? Can they not withdraw their stake/holdings in the “company?” And when it comes to outside predators, these are not so obvious because “we wrestle not against flesh and blood.” we need look no further than the ancient serpent called the devil or satan who seeks to counterfeit true church in any called out community.
    Excellent blog. Much needed conversation.


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