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A Foretaste! Transforming Leadership Practices: Classical Management Theory

June 1, 2015

As we consider leadership practices for the missional church, it is helpful to reflect upon the history of management theory and practice. Many of the presuppositions of these earlier models of organizations described in this essay continue to shape contemporary congregations.convo2015logo

Our society is an organizational society. We are born in organizations, educated by organizations, and most of us spend much of our lives working for organizations. We spend much of our leisure time paying, playing, and praying in organizations. Most of us will die in an organization, and when the time comes for burial, the largest organization of all—the state—must grant official permission.1

Organizations are so much a part of our everyday lives that they are almost invisible. Broadly defined, an organization is “a collectivity of people engaged in a systematic effort to produce a good or an activity.”2 While modern society has a multitude of organizations fulfilling a variety of social and personal needs, involving a large proportion of its citizens, and affecting large segments of their lives, organizations are not a modern invention. The Pharaohs used organizations to build the pyramids and the emperors of China used organizations a thousand years ago to construct great irrigation systems.

pyramidThe church is an organization. It is an intentionally formed social entity engaged in particular practices to accomplish specific goals. The individualistic assumptions of Western culture have led us to believe that we can use organizations—including the church—for our own ends without being fundamentally influenced by them. This prevents us from recognizing the subtle yet profound ways in which organizations form and inform our understanding of the meaning and purpose of human life. As with all other organizations, the perspectives, norms, and values expressed in the structures, policies, and procedures of the church must be critically examined. While there is no one best or right way to organize the church, not all forms and methods of organization are appropriate to the theological nature and mission of the Christian church.

In the exploration of how faithfully and effectively to structure our common life and shared ministry, it is helpful to consider various models of management. Two such models—the classical management model which focuses upon the achievement of organizational goals, and the human relations model which focuses upon personal growth and satisfaction—have been the most influential in shaping contemporary organizations and will be considered in this and the June posting.

The Industrial Revolution.

industryOrganizational theories and practices do not fall magically from the skies. They are stimulated by, reflect, and contribute to the social-economic-political conditions of particular historical eras. The Industrial Revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries brought about radical changes in the way people worked, socialized, engaged in politics, and went about their daily lives. A new age, brought about by the steam engine, machinery, factories, and a wage-earning labor force, had begun. While many welcomed the new corporate economy, others deplored the conditions that “had upset the old life of the prairies, made new demands upon democracy, introduced specialization and science, had destroyed village loyalties, frustrated private ambitions, and created the impersonal relationships of the modern world.”3

Classical Management Theory. 

The small, simple, and personal structures of the agricultural feudal society were replaced with the large, complex, and impersonal organizations of an industrial market society. Neither factory owners nor their employees were prepared for the new situation. In the United States, where dramatic changes occurred after the Civil War, small factories became large plants and mass production resulted in enormous wealth for owners of capital. managementBut workers did not participate in the benefits. Observing the brutal conditions in factories—wasted effort, exhausting work, long hours, low pay, petty dictators, and arbitrary rules—Frederick Taylor sought to create a more rational and humane management system by utilizing the expertise of science and engineering.4 Taylor believed that everyone would benefit from a system that could bring reason, order, efficiency, stability, fairness, increased output, and high wages to industry.

The core of Taylor’s management approach consisted of four principles: (1) Management, using time and motion studies and breaking jobs down into their smallest parts, should observe and analyze work in order to uncover the “one best way” to perform the job and then put that way into operation. (2) Management should use “scientific” methods to fit people to jobs both physically and psychologically. (3) Management should offer financial incentives which would link material rewards to work efforts. (4) Responsibility should be divided between managers who would plan, direct, and evaluate the work process, and workers who would be responsible for performing the actual task.5

Taylor, an enormously creative technical engineer, provided the cornerstone for work design throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Yet his concepts–integration of methods, tasks, policies, planning, people–were light-years ahead of his time. While his techniques or methods were mastered, his humanitarian intent was forgotten. The form survived without the spirit or the substance. “Taylorism became synonymous with speedups, employer insensitivity, people turned into robots, doing more work for the same pay instead of working smarter, producing more, taking home fatter paychecks.”6 Guided by technocratic experts, people who worked with machines were expected to become more and more like machines: routinized, specialized, efficient, reliable, and predictable.

The Rational Bureaucracy.

At approximately the same time as Taylor, the German sociologist Max Weber became concerned with “capitalism,” its presuppositions and consequences. Observing the governmental innovations of the German leader Bismarck, he constructed a typology, termed a bureaucracy, that described an organization in its most rational form. Traditionally, “bureaucracy” referred to the administrative apparatus of government—centralized “bureaus.” “One of Weber’s major theoretical innovations was to provide a compelling rationale for extending the notions of ‘bureaucracy’ and ‘bureaucratization’ to a whole variety of social organizations.”7 Although he believed that the “formal” rationality of bureaucracy contradicts some of the most distinctive values of Western civilization (human creativity, autonomy, and individuality), he believed that the ever-expanding bureaucratization of modern life was inevitable; the historical process, giving rise to bureaucratic specialization, was irreversible. “The technical and economic conditions of machine production determine the lives of all individuals who are born into this mechanism…with irresistible force.”8

bureaucracyWeber believed that organizations would become rational instruments of efficiency if structured around certain guidelines.

Hierarchical Structure: There is a well-defined authority for rationally controlling the behavior of employees. A clear chain of command runs from the top to the bottom of the organization and provides a channel for communication and decision making. No member of the organization is to receive directives from more than one supervisor. Power and authority increases as one moves up through the levels of positions in the organization.

Division of Labor: The more a particular job can be broken down into its simplest component parts, the more specialized and consequently the more skilled workers can become in carrying out their part of the job. The more skilled the workers become in fulfilling their particular jobs, the more efficient the whole production system will be.

Rules and Regulations: There are explicit rules governing decision making and interpersonal behavior. Continuity in rules and regulations is necessary to maintain order and enhance the achievement of goals. While owners, managers, and workers may come and go, rules and regulations serve to restrict decision makers who may feel compelled to act in their own interests or beliefs rather than in the interests of the organization.

Technical Competence: Job holders are qualified to perform their assignments. Competence, rather than friendship, family ties, or other forms of favoritism, is the basis of assigning personnel. The objective matching of skills to positions increases efficiency.

Position Power: Power and authority are related not to the person but to the position. If power and authority are attributed to persons, they may use them to further personal rather than organizational goals.

Record Keeping: Since a rational organization will outlive its members, it is necessary to develop an accurate memory. Administrative acts, decisions, and rules are formulated and recorded in writing.9

In the work of Max Weber, “we find the first comprehensive definition of bureaucracy as a form of organization that emphasizes precision, speed, clarity, regularity, reliability, and efficiency achieved through the creation of a fixed division of tasks, hierarchical supervision, and detailed rules and regulations.”10 Weber was primarily interested in using his typology to compare organizational forms across societies. But due to the emphasis on efficiency around the turn of the twentieth century, many interpreted and used Weber’s writings as a prescription for organization. The “machine bureaucracy” that emerged from the fusion of Taylor’s and Weber’s ideas has become so pervasive that this model is unconsciously equated with the process of organizing—even within the church.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. How do you react to the statement that “the church is an organization”?
  2. What are the characteristics of an “organization”?
  3. In what ways is your church an organization?
  4. Within its historical context, what were the benefits of Taylor’s management system?
  5. Considering Weber’s guidelines, where do you see evidence of “machine bureaucracy” in your church structure?

Amitai Etzioni, Modern Organizations (Prentice-Hall, 1964), p. 1.

2 Ramon J. Aldag and Timothy M. Stearns, Management (South-Western Publishing Co., 1987), p. 9.

3 Walter Lippmann in 1914 commenting on William Jennings Bryan’s famous “Cross of Gold” speech of 1806, quoted in Bellah, et al The Good Society (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), p. 293.

4 Marvin R. Weisbord, Productive Workplaces: Organizing and Managing for Dignity, Meaning, and Community (Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1987), p. 30.

5 F.W. Taylor, Principles of Scientific Management (Harper & Brothers, 1911).

6 Weisbord, Productive Workplaces, p. 61.

7 Anthony Giddens, Profiles and Critiques in Social Theory (University of California Press, 1982), p. 200.

8 Max Weber, The Spirit of Capitalism and the Protestant Ethic  (Scribner, 1958), p. 181.

9 Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organizations, ed. Talcott Parsons (The Free Press, 1947), pp. 329-333.

10 Gareth Morgan, Images of Organization (Sage Publications, 1986), pp. 24-25.



Inagrace Dietterich

Inagrace Dietterich

The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.

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