Churches and Managers

Once upon a time, I was a church-management know-nothing. I deliberately avoided any of the tawdry books about increasing attendance, about church marketing, about management and leadership with a thin theological icing. I knew I was spiritually superior to people who relied on such works, and I didn’t bother to learn anything about the claims I rejected.

That was a long time ago. I’m still cautious, skeptical, about the relation of “management” to the life of that peculiar institution, the church, but I’m more guardedly skeptical, and I hope I’m humbler. For instance, although I agree with some of the points Jay Bauman makes in an article for TheOoze, I would want to couch his criticisms differently, and to register an appreciation for management/leadership theory. Yes, you heard me right.

I’ve learned enough from my neighbors online — some of whom include those grievous sinners, the marketers — and from experience in churches and academic institutions, and from my retired colleague John Dreibelbis, that I see ways I’ve benefited from business theory. I’d steer away from thinking of that as “management” (for reasons I’ll stipulate in a minute) and “marketing,” but I participate more productively in various contexts through a refined understanding of organizations, communication, and desire. I expect that a large part of Bauman’s work as an Executive Pastor draws heavily on responses and insights informed by his business experience.

At the same time, Bauman’s arguments rightly point toward subtler versions of his critique. No one has laid this out with more clarity and theological nuance than my friend Phil Kenneson in Selling Out the Church. Alasdair MacIntyre tackles the ideology of management in After Virtue and Against the Self-Images of the Age. Even Chris Locke has gone on record (in last night’s Chief Blogging Officer report, if not earlier) as an anti-marketer. I’m not going to rehearse here the points they all make at much greater length, with admirable subtlety, but will simply assent that a great proportion of what gets passed toward churches as management theory or appropriate marketing ought to be passed even further — to the dumpster.

That last increment, though? The what’s-left-over after we throw out the dross? I hope that my colleagues don’t fall for the same spiritual pomposity to which I fell victim. We can’t afford to decide in advance that we have nothing more to learn, in any area. Sometimes, though, we learn most when we’re learning something a little different from what the teacher thinks we should be learning. I’m still cautious and skeptical.

8 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I am a relatively rare creature in the Anglican Church in the UK a priest with a Diploma in Management ( specialising in the not-for-profit sector) and most of an MBA – what is particularly rare is that my Diocese funded it. Like most professional disciplines they can be abused – but I have found that so many clergy need some of the most basic skills which I now teach on a Certificate in Management course – time management and team leadership skills being intensly practical, and immediately useful despite strong initial skepticism. Alaistair McIntyre writing is required reading on the entirely secular management course. So the gulf both ways is in the UK nowhere near as big.
    Tom

  2. I think I agree with you here, but I would note as a resource that the Academy for Religious Leadership (a relatively young organization) is trying hard to glean the best of both literatures (the scholarly literatures on organization and administration) and the popular literature (on “managing”) for the benefit of church folk. Scott Cormode’s website provides a nice way into the ARL’s work.

  3. One of your closing comments reminds me of great wisdom from another field. As a former student of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology one of our mantras was to never decide ahead of time what you will eventually need to know. The case always cited to support this concept is the discovery of Taq polymerase (an enzyme that makes PCR, one of the revolutionary techniques of modern molecular biology, possible) after studying Thermus aquaticus, a bacteria that thrives in heat vents at the bottom of the ocean. So I guess I’m saying if good can come from studying funky bacteria, it can come from being familiar with management theory too – or something like that. 🙂

  4. AKMA:
    I share your caution and skepticism, for many of the same reasons (MacIntyre was a seminal influence on me). I also have certain historical/ theological intuitions about marketing in particular that I have been treading out on my blog, Gower Street, about the connection between it and certain forms of ecclesiology.
    But I appreciate your caution against spiritual pomposity (not least because I catch glimpses of it in myself). I like Matt’s dictum: “…never decide ahead of time what you will eventually need to know.” Or, as I ran across in a quote from Hugh of St. Victor: “Learn everything: you will see afterwards that nothing in superfluous and that there is no joy in a knowledge that is cramped and narrow.” Not that knowledge (of marketing or management) requires assent or obviates critique: with you, I remain uneasy about them. But I think I’m willing to look instead of rejecting it unseen. In fact, we have two well-qualified parishioners who are executives at a Fortune 500 company heading up an effort to help us become clearer about our identity, an opportunity to become somewhat familiar with some of the techniques employed.

  5. I don’t believe that the management or marketing theories by themselves are bad or shouldn’t be looked at. They need to be understood if for no other reason to know where culture is coming from so that change can be made. I would go one step further to say that the management and marketing theories should be studied and implemented by clergy. It is not the theories that are bad but the way in which they are implemented and the deceit they are used for.

  6. I’m an avid reader of management books, and I agree that many of them are useless. There is a broader question – what are the practical skills your average parish priest needs to keep the boat afloat. I’m working on an article – briefly my own theory is that Priests must be good communicators [hence, marketing] of the sacred story and the church tradition; they should be collaborative leaders [ministry enablers of a kind] and social entrepeneurs. They have enormous assets at their fingertips. They should learn how to use them.

  7. Introducing or reconciling management into a spiritual organization(the chuirch, i feel it turns to church to a profit making establishment. All this shit about management should be flaked, lets concentrate on the primary task, holiness and evangelism.

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