Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Institutional rigidity and church denominations

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

In previous posts, I have argued both that the choice between being a movement and being an institution is one in which both options have pros and cons and that institutions tend toward standardization, bureaucratization, and rigidity. Why, though, do institutions tend toward rigidity? Does that tendency mean rigidity is an inevitable con of being an institution? And what can the answers to these questions tell us about denominations in modern America?

First, a definition: Institutional rigidity is characterized by a well-elaborated set of formal structures, fairly tight centralized control, a commitment to existing ways of doing things, and a reluctance to change. Institutional rigidity is thus manifested in structure, practice, and attitude.

While those frustrated with rigid institutions often portray that rigidity as the result of uncaring or sinister leaders or a prevailing legalism, the roots of institutional rigidity stem much more from the incentives of institutional success and the values of modernity than they do from the personal failings of leaders (though those can also play a part).

Non-rigid institutions, by contrast, are characterized by a diversity of practices, policies, and attitudes. Decision making is not well-coordinated, and individual actors often have a large degree of leeway to make their own decisions (for good or ill). There are upsides of such a system: It encourages or at least allows for a lot of experimentation. Many of these experiments will fail, but frequent experimentation also ensures that there will be successes as well.

Rigidity originates when organizations try to capitalize on these successes. Generally speaking, once an organization has identified a pathway to success, it has an incentive to try to build on that model. Success attracts followers, funding, and other resources. Success allows an organization to continue and to grow. Therefore, there are natural incentives for organizations to focus on its successes.

Institutions generally try to build on their successes in a few ways: by implementing the model for those successes throughout the organization, by trying to produce those successes in an increasingly efficient manner, and therefore by trying to produce more of that success.

Note that the value of maximizing organizational success, especially through increased efficiency, reflects some of the values of modernity, which is focused on bureaucratic efficiency, and capitalism, which is focused on continual growth. While the attraction of success may be a universal human experience, modern institutions are conditioned by modernity to respond to that universal desire in particular ways.

Broad, efficient, and increasing implementation of a model for success has certain effects on organizations. In order to ensure broad implementation of the model, organizations centralize control and use that centralized control to standardize their policies and procedures. Such centralization and standardization keeps local units from doing their own thing, thus seeking to promote success and avoid failures (of whatever sort) by those local units.

Centralization and formal structures also result from a desire for efficiency. Formalized structures can facilitate communication and decision-making, thus increasing efficiency. Centralization allows for more streamlined decision-making as well.

In this way, standardization and centralization leads to well-evolved formal structures, but they also lead to marginalization of those who are not part of the newly created (or newly emphasized) center. Those who previously had latitude to make their own decisions (for good or ill) now have some of that decision-making power taken away from them.

Generally, this approach to organization does allow an institution significant power to do more of whatever it defines as success. This success allows the organization to thrive. In the process, the organization becomes dependent upon and committed to this particular model of success.

Yet what is successful for one time or in one place is never successful for all times and places. Eventually, the environment of an organization will change and its efficient, extensive focus on a particular pathway to success will no longer produce success in the way it once did.

When this happens, organizations then have a challenge: can they adapt and adopt a different path to success, or will they decline? Often the rigidity that an institution has developed to ensure its success prevents it from changing strategies once its initial strategy no longer leads to success.

An institution that has not committed itself to a single model of success can avoid the problem of fundamental change to its model necessitated by a changing environment, but the great majority of modern institutions are designed to focus on a single model of success.

How does this very abstract discussion of organizational dynamics apply to denominations? Denominations are, among other things, modern organizations. Therefore, most modern denominations have an operative model of success that was designed to produce organizational continuity and growth. Those models have increasingly been refined through a process of centralization, bureaucratization, and increased efficiency. These processes resulted in increased denominational power but also increased rigidity.

The problem most denominations are facing in contemporary America is that the models of success they adopted were developed for life in the first half of the twentieth century and then refined over the course of the second half of the twentieth century.

Yet American society has undergone tremendous change since the middle of the twentieth century in a variety of ways: dominant economic model (agrarian-industrial-postindustrial), a decline in intergenerational interactions, shifts from rural to urban to suburban, changes in cultural values (including those for sex and gender), an increased sense of individualism, the decline of the middle class, political polarization, etc. The list could go on.

These changes have put significant stresses on all institutions and organizations developed for a different world, from AT&T to religious colleges to the Post Office to Kiwanis clubs to the American auto industry.

Some organizations have been able to adapt and shift their core model of success. Some have not and have ceased to exist. The challenge is substantial, though, since it involves a willingness to let go of what has led to organizational health, which can feel like a dangerous proposition, even when there is some recognition that old strategies are no longer working.

In many ways, organized religion has been on the decline since the 1960s because of changes in its environment. Those analyzing such trends frequently point to theological and cultural reasons why. There may be some truth to such answers, but we cannot fully understand this trend unless we recognize the hazards that American Christians accepted when they decided to adopt a denominational approach to being church that was predicated on the assumptions of modern institutions. Denominations gained great power at the time they made the decision to embrace this model of being church, but they also set themselves up for long-term challenges when their models of success no longer fit the world in which they were living.

1 comment:

  1. Rightly observed. The literature on denominational growth and decliné repeatedly shows your observations to be true. Many within the field of sociology of religion have suggested ways for declining denominations to reclaim a lost vitality. I also do this in American Methodism: Past and Future Growth. Stir, at this crucial point, we must acknowledge that people are choosing to attend the nondenominational churches that dot our land. Many who leave the UMC go to those burgeoning churches. We have sullied our brand and lost our luster.