Church Refugees: Bureaucracy, Part 1

Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith, by sociologists Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope, addresses the needs of a class of Christians sometimes called the “Dones” — as in “done with church but not Jesus” — or the “dechurched.”

Chapter 3 deals with the frustration of mature members with church bureaucracy. Now, in the Churches of Christ, Baptist Churches, and in other autonomously governed congregations, there is no denominational structure that interferes with local work (the Southern Baptist Convention is voluntary and exercises no control over the local church). Nonetheless, many churches so centralize management that members can’t find a way to use their talents for the Kingdom within their local church.

The authors interviewed a departed member they call Daniel —

Daniel recognized that no organization can exist without structure, but he still found people’s potential being stymied by the demands of the organization. Furthermore, he found it counter to his understanding of Jesus.

Daniel’s frustration with organizations can be confirmed empirically. Sociologically, we know from over a century of studying these kinds of organizations that at some point, the bureaucracy takes over, and much activity in the organization ends up being geared toward its survival.

… They weren’t frustrated by the existence of structure; they were frustrated when they felt the structure actively prevented them from doing the work they felt called to do. They were frustrated when they found themselves constantly and solely working to keep the organization going.

Packard, Josh; Hope, Ashleigh. Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith (Kindle Locations 870-877). Group Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

All of these data have convinced me that there is a truly sizable subset of congregants, and the recently dechurched, who desire to be active participants in a community of believers but aren’t willing to be the mouthpiece of someone else’s vision. They want to be able to make meaningful decisions and participate as equals in their communities. Too often, they say, church staff and pastors are willing to empower lay leaders, paid staff, and volunteers to do meaningless, mundane, and unfulfilling work while the senior pastor retains all of the authority and ability to make creative, meaningful decisions on behalf of the congregation.

Packard, Josh; Hope, Ashleigh. Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith (Kindle Locations 1017-1022). Group Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition. (Emphasis added.)

This can be a problem even in fairly small, autonomous churches. If the leadership refuses to let the members participate in leadership, leaders will leave and go where they can be of value to the Kingdom. It’s not about desiring power but about being able to serve using the gifts God has given the members.

Even the smallest church has small groups and/or Bible classes. If those are run by the staff or the elders without meaningful member participation, then not only has the church stifled leadership development, the leadership has cut the congregation out of participating in decisions that affect their lives. That is, if you want to form a spiritual community, you have to let the members do more than just show up and attend. True community allows God’s Spirit to work through all the members, not just those with titles.

On the other hand, obviously, the church needs organization and structure. But the purpose of the organization and structure is to equip and empower the members to use their gifts in service for the Kingdom. Hence, the role of the elders and ministers should be  as much about about equipping and empowering others rather than making all the decisions.

There is, however, a very important limitation. The idea is to equip and empower within the congregational vision. Any group of people can spin off more ideas than it has time or resources to accomplish. Not every idea can be pursued. The leadership would very appropriately limit initiatives to the church’s vision — and the church’s resources — without stifling creativity.

Then again, always be open to the Spirit’s leading. Sometimes a new initiative comes along that can redefine the church’s vision — and this can be a very good thing. Don’t let the vision shut your eyes to the Spirit’s work. But don’t go running in 20 directions at once, either. Just be ready to make a course correction when the Spirit opens new opportunities for your church.

Certainly there are some organizational forms and practices that resist these tendencies better than others, but the way most churches are organized, as relatively centralized hierarchies, matches what William articulates. These same principles dominate organizations of any kind, whether in the field of religion, politics, or for-profit companies. With regard to religion specifically, though, these organizational practices can be especially damaging. Churches are generally thought to be a place where people come together in community. Bureaucracy and hierarchy inherently undermine that purpose.

Packard, Josh; Hope, Ashleigh. Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith (Kindle Locations 1057-1061). Group Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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6 Responses to Church Refugees: Bureaucracy, Part 1

  1. Bob Brandon says:

    Your remarks reminds me of a quote that I hoped captured what I wanted to do as a naval officer; from Robert Sutton: “One of the defining features of effective bosses is that they shield their followers, whether from political maneuvering, resource grabbing or just the innumerable distractions that go with organizational life.”

    Too many bosses for whom I’ve worked – military and civilian – were what I described as “lightening rods” – simply transmitting decisions made higher up the chain of command without regard for the effect on the mission or with any input from the affected. It certainly is a simpler and easier way to manage. It’s also, naturally and invariably, self-destructive. It certainly is not leadership by any meaningful definition of the term. Voluntary organizations that, in their dotage, embrace it only accelerate decline, because management lack the capacity to compel and enforce obedience. Such management, often as naturally and invariably, invariably lack the institutional self-awareness to recognize the problem let alone face up to it.

    Many will leave relatively quickly; others will stay, but, while and as long as they stay, they will find their own leaders within the organization. They’ll (usually) make no attempt to challenge the official chain of command/management, but they will find very little use or regard for it: such replacement structures have the resilience of passion and devotion versus acceptance and conformity.

  2. Adam Legler says:

    I am a none. This book is dead on. Church bureaucracy and power play games by those twice my age had a large part with my departure. They were 70. I was 30. But I was seen as a threat for asking questions which was a concern since I as put in a leadership position. Instead of being mentored. I was sabotaged when I tried to get new things going. When I left there, I found the C of C becoming more commercialized and all power being given to the preachers who really didn’t want to be assisted much with their plan for the congregation. Term limits on Elders would have gone a long way preventing a toxic subculture in leadership in the first situation I described.

  3. Price Futrell says:

    I think it’s interesting that when Paul showed up at Corinth… and saw the chaos… He doesn’t seem to instruct them to put an organizational chart together… The root cause of disagreement may be that there are four distinct personality types… and each type is unique.. Leaders are typically the “Type A” personality type.. Is you’ve taken the Tony Robbins personality test then that person would be labeled a “D”… An Accountant or Engineer might prefer an overload of detail and be very analytical… They need to know they are making the right decision… They would be referred to as a “C” is the same TR test. C’s and D’s have a very difficult time communicating and working together.. Their personalities are so geared in the opposite direction from each other.. My guess is that the perfect church with the perfect leadership and perfect membership doesn’t exist.. and won’t ever exist… People come and go.. Let em. If the church’s mission is to solidify the membership role, then perhaps it shouldn’t exist in the first place.

  4. Mark says:

    Price, what kind of response is “Let em”? That attitude has caused/is causing the problem and the shrinking of Christianity. While there will be no perfect church, leadership or membership, it does not mean we all throw our hands up in the air and quit trying,

    Even in churches with denominational hierarchy, individual congregations have a fair amount of autonomy. The best ones include people who are willing to work (together) and know how to put ideas into practice.

    If I could say a one word response to this post, it would be “include”. Let people participate. Stop running the church as your own. Quit being scared.

    Bob, your response especially the last paragraph makes sense.

  5. Price says:

    Mark. Interesting that you acquate attendance at one particular church with a drop in Christianity. If I leave one church which is poorly run and move to one that is well run, how does that diminish Christianity ? If I start a home church how does that diminish Jesus? Sounds desperate to me

  6. Mark says:

    Actually I don’t consider leaving one church equal to leaving Christianity. I took your statement to mean “let them go”.

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