Problems of Church Bureaucracy


Bureaucracy in church organization and institutional life has many of the same characteristics as bureaucracy in the political or economic order. Generally speaking, bureaucracy refers to the concentration of power in administrative bureaus or to a body of officials administering government bureaus. Government in this broad sense is, of course, not confined to political orders but is an aspect of all group life. In a pejorative sense bureaucracy implies excessive formalism, red tape, legalistic impersonality, jurisdictional rigidity, or pretentious officialdom. So expressed bureaucracy exhibits the vices of its virtues. In this essay both positive and negative traits are recognized. Throughout the discussion bureaucratic government is understood as a phenomenon common to such otherwise widely different institutions as modern business management, trade union organization, the military, educational enterprises, and the churches. Each of these develops a distinctive profile of organizational structure as the administrative patterns are shaped to serve the goals of these respective institutions. As the goals and values of a denomination tend to determine its administration, so the technical know-how required for its management tends to shape the contrived bureaus


and the roles of its bureaucrats. When the churches become involved in the institutions of the ecumenical movement, they take the ambiguities and ambivalences of bureaucracy with them.


Characteristics of Bureaucracy

Most modern church bodies have well-developed bureaucratic agencies controlling such functions as publications, mission, pensions, education, social service, benevolences, investments, women’s work, men’s work, personnel, evangelism, church extension, and the like. It is the purpose of this essay to note some of the relationships which these administrative bureaus have to questions of unity and disunity. In so doing we must note the authority, power, and freedom of the agencies under review.

When we define the characteristics of bureaucracy we are able to note its similarities to, and differences from, such other characteristics of historic and current church life as hierarchy, patriarchalism, charismatic authority, sacerdotalism, collegial control, and polity. Since the Church is not only a theological institution having a dominical order but also a social institution, there are bound to be ambiguous and overlapping relationships between these theological characteristics and those sociologically described as bureaucracy. It will be apparent that bureaucratic structures sometimes assist and sometimes resist church mergers and other forms of church unity. Whatever their function a few common traits may be noted.

The rational character of bureaucracy is one of its notable traits. This trait stands in sharp contrast to what is often called charismatic control. As an “ideal type,” charismatic power knows only inner determination and inner restraint, whereas bureaucratic organization of offices requires a rational form, including an ordered procedure of appointment and dismissal of leaders, a regulated career with graded advancement and income, expert training, functional and impersonal jurisdiction. The modern bureaucratic agency follows the principle of fixed areas of jurisdiction, the ordering of rules and administrative regulations, the


formulation of official duties and functions, a prescribed procedure for arriving at decisions, and the establishment of standards for personnel and program. In addition there is generally a recognized hierarchy of graded authority, with a clearly defined system of super- and subordination, so that there can be, when needed, an appeal from a lower office to a higher authority. Max Weber observes that “the principle of hierarchical office authority is found in all bureaucratic structures; in state and ecclesiastical structures as well as in large party organizations and private enterprises. It does not matter for the character of bureaucracy whether its authority is called ‘private’ or ‘public’”1 In addition to the traits above we may note the use of files and written documents, with the tendency to appeal to the written regulations and notations governing the use of the files. Office administration requires delimitation of responsibility and expert training for achieving the prescribed functions. The functionary is generally a full-time office holder. The office holder is devoted not so much to a person in his organization as to impersonal rules, functional roles, and defined tasks. ,

In describing an organization like a denomination or a council of churches an “outside” view may be very different from the “inside” view. From the “outside” view, if not from the “inside,” a bishop, priest, and preacher today are no longer, as in the earliest Christian times, holders primarily of personal charisma. From the “inside” view the old theory of charismatic and divine authority is often asserted, but most religious leaders, especially those placed in charge of offices and agencies, serve a functionalized purpose. The church hallows the office which expresses a routinized charismatic grace or gift. Usually a bureaucrat is appointed, but sometimes he is elected, a procedure which modifies the way in which the office or the work of the administrator is legitimated. Tenure is extended, often for life, the incumbent having thereby a constant income.

There are obvious advantages in devising a bureaucracy. The most decisive reason for its development are its technical (rational) superiority over other forms of complex institutional

[166] 1. Max Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, Teil III, Kap. 6, in From Max Weber (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), p. 197.


organization. Max Weber’s classical study of bureaucracy summarizes the advantages as follows: “precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction and of material and personal costs — these are raised to the optimum point in the strictly bureaucratic administration, and especially in its monocratic form.”2

The pure type of bureaucracy is seldom found in a church. It is likely to be modified by elective rather than appointive processes, by collegial organization at several levels, and by the interposition of authority resting on a distinctively personal or theological basis, as for example, a bishop. Modifications of bureaucracy may be found both in the horizontal and the vertical relationships of offices and systems of control. Collegial bodies composed of specialized experts tend to modify the decision-making processes of the strict super- and subordination of ideal-type professional bureaucrats. In various churches there are colleges of cardinals, colleges of bishops, or councils of board secretaries with analogous collegial relationship to each other.


Bureaucracy and Hierarchy

Bureaucratic structure is generally related to a hierarchical order of social organizations. Hierarchy refers to a regular system of subordination and rank within the organization. However, bureaucracy and hierarchy are by no means identical, for hierarchy is not necessarily bureaucratic. Hierarchy may be monarchical, patriarchal, or sacerdotal without the well-developed bureaucratic traits described above. On the other hand, the two sometimes interpenetrate.

Modern organizations which may be both hierarchical and bureaucratic include the military, business, political government, and the Church. In military hierarchies there are ranks such as generals, major generals, colonels, and the like. In business there may be a president, vice-president, general manager, supervisor, and so on. In a church there may be pope, cardinal, archbishop, bishop, priest, and so forth. Bureaus help to serve their respective

[167] 2. Ibid., p. 214.


hierarchies and in so doing reflect deep organizational needs relating to goals, efficiency, and communication. They involve, of course, problems of basic relationship between the administrative peak and the people at the base of the institutional pyramid. Sometimes efforts are made to effect a circular hierarchical structure by requiring the election of the executives at the top by the people whom they will control. In all cases the role of the bureaus and bureaucrats in a hierarchical organization raises the question of authority and legitimation. As we shall see, this question is also raised by modern developments in churches whose polity is ostensibly nonhierarchical.

Before proceeding, a further word about hierarchy in the church should be added for clarification. There are several theories and forms of hierarchy among the churches and they are reflected in the administrative function and bureaucracies. We may note first that form in which hierarchy is classically sacerdotal as in the Roman Catholic Church. By sacerdotal is here meant “the existence in the Christian Church of a ministry consisting of certain persons set apart or ordained by authority of the Church to minister the things of God to their fellowmen, and to be the exclusive instruments in the divine covenant of sacramental graces.”3 A modified form of sacerdotalism is held in the Church of England. On the whole, the Reformation was against sacerdotalism in the sense of an assumption of authority on the part of the priesthood to undertake the whole charge and responsibility of the souls of the people. In the Roman Catholic Church the “sacred government” is usually referred to simply as the Hierarchy. The vertical hierarchical order is modified in practice and fact by the vestigial conciliar aspect of the Roman Catholic Church. The term vestigial is employed here because the conciliar conceptions and tendencies, though not wholly lost, have not exhibited in recent centuries any marked modification of papal power.

Hierarchy and bureaucracy have somewhat different relationships in an organization like The Methodist Church (U.S.A.). Here the constitution of the church is federal in form, the Annual

[167] 3. R.M. Woolley, article, “Sacerdotalism,” Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics.


Conferences and the General Conference being composed of an equal number of laymen and ministers, and the authority being divided among Annual Conferences, Jurisdictional Conferences, and the General Conference. The bishops are organized into a Council at the top and into colleges at the Jurisdictional level. They are presbyters with considerable administrative authority and power, set apart as bishops for administrative purposes.

The most impressive bureaucratic structure of American Methodism is seen, however, in the general boards of the Church and in their counterparts in the Annual Conferences. Administration is exercised through boards and commissions in a highly involuted complexity. The General Boards are created by the General Conference. Their functions and basic control patterns are defined by the Discipline. Their executive secretaries tend to have long terms of office, though elected by the boards; and in these boards many of the program and the legislative proposals on basic policies in the denomination emerge. Ordained clergy are in most instances the executive secretaries of general boards, though their functions as bureaucrats have little directly to do with ordination into the ministry of Word and Sacrament.

Thus far we have noted the distinction between bureaucracy and hierarchy and also some of their interrelationships. We have also noted different forms of hierarchy, its sacerdotal form in the Roman Catholic Church, and its complete absence at the episcopal level in The Methodist Church, despite the effective administrative power of bishops. In either case no one is surprised to find a great and complex bureaucratic structure in a connectionally organized church body. But a question arises more often when bureaucratic organization is well developed in a denomination with a congregational polity as in the Baptist churches and in the United Church of Christ.

The organized Church as an institution is for Baptists not primary but secondary, that is, functional and instrumental. Ideally each local congregation concretely and socially embodies the universal spiritual Church as the Body of Christ in each community. “It is the declarative agency of that power but has no


direct saving authority or power. It proclaims salvation and offers it to man in the name of the Redeemer; it does not definitively administer or withhold salvation.”4 Baptists thus find no place in or place for any hierarchy and no saving value in any sacrament, since the ministry is functional rather than organic. “We provide pastors (‘elders,’ including teachers and administrators) and deacons in each congregation under the lead of the Holy Spirit; and set them apart for these functions by prayer and quite generally by the laying-on of hands.”5

Sociologically speaking we may note that strict congregational organization limited to a local community is ineffective for communicating the gospel in the modern world. Baptists have found it so and have worked out co-operation among the single units in associations, conventions, or councils. Theoretically Baptists have no “church courts” and no superior organization that has any authority or control over the “local Church” except in an advisory capacity, as an agency for voluntary co-operation.

Owing to modern social conditions, these functional and practical agencies have created an impressive bureaucratic structure. Effective power and authority of some kind is operative. It is one of the most interesting aspects of church bureaucracy to see how power and authority do function in such a free church tradition. The fact and necessity of bureaucracy raises some interesting dilemmas in the strong national conventions of Baptist churches.6

From the foregoing analysis it is evident that bureaucracy is bound to play an important role in questions of unity and disunity. Visible institutionalized organizations have to find a way to unite whether at the level of co-operation or at the level of organic merger. In either case the power, authority, relative autonomy, and mode of organization are significant factors. James Gustafson in his study of the union that has led to the United Church of Christ (described elsewhere in this volume) notes that as much planning, provision, and time must be envisaged for bureaucratic integration as for questions of doctrine,

[167] 4. W.O. Carver, “Baptist Churches,” in R.N. Flew, ed., The Nature of the Church (London: SCM Press; New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952), p. 289.
5. Ibid., p. 290.
6. See Paul M. Harrison, Authority and Power in the Free Church Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959).


ministry, and polity. We have already noted that these groups of questions are not entirely separable.

At this point we must return to the distinction between an “outside” and an “inside” view of the Church and its related organizations. The “outside” view may be that of a public official or a sociologist, for example. Roswell P. Barnes notes that “outside” views may regard the churches as voluntary institutions organized for religious purposes, and recognized by the state as having a right to exist, to be incorporated to hold property and enter into contracts, like many other voluntary associations not organized for making financial profit. From this “outside” point of view the state may regulate some of the organizational features of churches without seeking to interfere in its internal life.7

From the “inside” a church has its basic nature predetermined for it as a creation of God in Christ. Here its theological self-understanding is essential. This self-definition conditions how it conceives its external organization and its bureaucratic agencies. They are seldom purely adjunct organizations uninfluenced as to power, authority, and freedom by the church’s “inside” view.

But we must note that the “outside” view is not only that of a secular politician or scientist. A Baptist may take an “outside” view of what the Roman Catholic approvingly calls the Hierarchy. The Baptist’s “inside” view of the Church predetermines his “outside” view of Roman Catholic sacerdotalism. From a Baptist point of view all sacerdotal developments in the history of the Church would be differently described than by a Roman Catholic scholar. What is theological and what is sociological receives not only a different interpretation but also a different definition.


Church Bureaucracy from the Perspective of Sociology

Students of bureaucracy have found that the problems of authority and legitimation offer a particular challenge. Two typological approaches, those by Max Weber and Joachim Wach, have

[167] 7. Roswell P. Barnes, Under Orders (Garden City: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1961), pp. 15-16.


proved fruitful. Weber’s typological classification divided authority among three forms: charismatic, traditional, and rational-legalistic. Wach’s typology of ecclesiastic bureaucracies embraces the maximum and the minimum type. We shall examine each of these in turn and note certain adaptations currently in vogue.

Charismatic authority roots in “charisma” understood as an extra-ordinary quality of a person, regardless of whether this quality is actual, alleged, or presumed. Hence charismatic authority refers to a rule over men, either external or internal, to which the governed submit because of their belief in the extra¬ordinary quality of the specific person.8 Traditionalism refers to the psychic attitude set for the habitual workaday life and to the belief in the everyday routine as an inviolable norm of conduct. Here domination rests upon piety for what actually, allegedly, or presumably has always existed.9 Such traditionalist authority is evident in patriarchalism. In early religious history, including both the Old Testament and the New Testament, charismatic authority and traditionalist authority have divided dominant authoritative relationships between them. The bearers of charisma could occasionally integrate “new” laws and principles or oracles into the pattern of traditional sanctions.

With the development of religious institutions there has emerged a third type of authority, rational-legalistic. In the Occident this rational, juristic, formal or legal authority appeared at the side of the transmitted types. In legal authority, submission does not rest upon devotion to charismatically gifted persons nor upon tradition, but upon an impersonal bond to the generally defined and functional “duty of office.” The official duty (together with jurisdictional competency) is fixed by "rationally established norms, by enactments, decrees, and regulations, in such a manner that the legitimacy of the authority becomes the legality of the general rule, which is purposely thought out, enacted, and announced with formal correctness.”10

A church body may actually appeal concurrently to all three of these types of authority. Bureaucratic administration tends, however, to rest more typically on the rational-legalistic foundation

[167] 8. Max Weber, “The Social Psychology of the World Religions,” in Gerth and Mills, From Max Weber, p. 295.
9. Ibid., p. 296.
10. Ibid., p. 299.


of constituted authority than on the other bases. The various forms of hierarchy noted above reflect the mixture of these types. In the corporate authority of church bodies their hierocratic patterns of power are supported by their presumed or alleged monopoly in the bestowal of sacred values. As we shall note, these merge with the polar typologies of maximal or minimal constitutions.

Weber's fruitful typology has not been systematically used in studying voluntary associations. The types are primarily applicable to three forms of social system: an army, a business enterprise, and a totalitarian bureaucracy. Weber held that it applied explicitly to the Roman Catholic Church of modern times. Paul M. Harrison has attempted to show that Weber’s categories can be fruitfully applied to a voluntary association like the American Baptist Convention if certain subcategories are added and developed. To the charismatic he would add quasi-charismatic; to traditional, mimetic-traditional; and to rational-legalistic, rational-pragmatic.11

Bureaucratic control has an important relationship to the way administration is legitimated. The nature of the claim to legitimacy determines, Weber held, the type of authority as well as the mode of social organization of the group. Conversely, we may add, the requirements of social organization may influence the type of authority and its legitimation, the later stages of an organization modifying in due course the operating system of bureaucratic authority, whether theoretically acknowledged or not. Bureaucracy and the theory of leadership thus have a close correlation.12 A variety of factors bind staff members to their administrative superiors: affectual ties, custom, material interests, ideal motives, and the like. In addition, the element of legitimacy of authority is highly effective.

Summarizing then the Weber typology, we note that in the charismatic type of authority validation, the leader “is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.”13 In the traditional type of legitimacy the authority is based

[167] 11. Paul M. Harrison, “Weber’s Categories of Authority and Voluntary Associations,” American Sociological Review, 25 (April, 1950), p. 233.
12. Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, tr. by A.M. Henderson and Talcott Parsons (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), pp. 324-385.
13. Op. cit., pp. 330, 333.


on the belief in “the sanctity of the order and the attendant powers of control as they have been handed down from the past, ‘have always existed.’”14 In the rational-legal legitimated bureaucracy there is a continuous organization of official functions bound by rules. The member lowest in the organizational structure accepts the statutory authority of the leader. Moreover, within the bureaucracy there is a specified area of competence related to functions delineated in a systematic division of labor; there is provision of necessary authority to carry these out; and there are appropriate compulsions and definite conditions for applying sanctions.

Weber’s typology may be fruitfully supplemented by that of Joachim Wach who has observed the significance of minimum and maximum types of ecclesiastical organization. In passing we may note that these types bear some resemblance to the classical distinction made by Ernst Troeltsch between sect-type and church-type, a nomenclature hardly suited for classifying member denominations of the World Council of Churches. The minimum type, according to Wach, “is represented by a highly spiritual conception of fellowship with partial or total rejection of organization, law, and discipline within the body, insistence upon the principle of equality, and periodic returns to the ideals of its inception.” The charismatic factor is obviously strong in such a body. Such bureaucracies as may develop in such bodies raise distinctive problems both internally between the administrators and the members, and externally in relationships to other bodies of Christians. We shall note below the usefulness of the categories “quasi-charismatic” and “mimetic-traditional” in analyzing such bodies.

At the polar extremity from the minimum type is the maximum type. It is “characterized in the first place by a more or less unqualified acceptance of tradition.” This attitude is justified by the church both on historical grounds and as a matter of principle. A second characteristic “is the active encouragement of the development, standardization, and codification of expressions of religious experiences, which are deemed adequate.”15 Bureaucracies

[167] 14. Ibid., p. 341.
15. Joachim Wach, Sociology of Religion, pp. 145-146.


developed in the maximum type raise fewer internal problems of authority than those of the minimum type, but they present formidable obstacles in efforts at church mergers.

Among the Christian minimum groups Wach would place dissenting Protestant bodies like the Anabaptists, Baptists, Quakers, Mennonites, Disciples, spiritualists, mystics, and rationalists, including Unitarians and Universalists. Among the maximum groups he would place Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman and Oriental Catholicism, Anglicanism, and to a lesser degree Presbyterianism, Lutheranism, and Methodism.

In Roman Catholicism the administrative structure is highly authoritarian, but in Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicanism the hierarchical authority tradition takes on a markedly conciliarist form. The administrative posture of the authoritarian monarchists hierarch together with the bureaucratic substructure of cardinals and congregations, or national organizations, and of diocesan organizations is quite in contrast with the over-all posture of councils and diocesan structures among Orthodoxy and Anglicans. Among the minimalist groups the tendency is to stress the authority of the local congregation in opposition to a hierarchy or to any centralized or collective authority. In congregationalism today the rejection of hierarchy does not preclude a recognition of regional associations or a well-developed board structure to carry on associational, benevolent, educational, pension, and mission activities.

In bringing this section of our analysis to a close we must anticipate some of the problems which ecclesiastical bureaucracy poses for unity and disunity of the churches. We must always keep in mind the organic relationship between the church as koinonia and as a social organization. Taken as organized wholes many churches are incongruent with respect to each other. Though bureaucratic procedures and patterns have, as we shall note, their own autonomous tendencies, their own reality and stubborn givenness, they are influenced significantly by the parent body’s historical development and its “inside view” of the church, its nature and mission. A.V.G. Allen emphasizes this


point in saying that “the form which the government of the church assumes in any given age is not an accident, but must be regarded as an outward expression of a spirit working from within — the embodiment of an intelligible purpose. Just as a deep significance attaches to the variations of Christian doctrine, so also there is a meaning in the changes which have taken place in ecclesiastical organization.”16 The other side of the issue is, of course, that churches are socialized by the varying forces of their historical and social environments.


Problems Endemic to Bureaucratic Administration

Some bureaucrats have used the platform, power, status, or prestige of their office to promote ecumenical unity. The Stated Clerk of a General Assembly, the Secretary of a Council of Bishops, the President of a Convention can throw into the ecumenical conversation a great deal of energy and can involve others in processes toward mergers and church co-operation. Bureaucracies are often sufficiently removed from the day-by-day problems of local churches and diocesan units of denominational life that they can strike out in new directions. Denominational leaders who know each other well and who have learned trust and confidence through co-operative action are often far in advance of rank-and-file officials and church members in thinking through the theological and organizational problems of united church life. In this way bureaucrats can anticipate further benefits in efficiency, expertness, economy, and effectiveness when division is overcome and the walls of separation have toppled.

On the other hand, there are some problems which are endemic to bureaucratic administration and which must be confronted if they are to be overcome. The problems listed here are taken not only from studies of church life but from analyses of bureaucracy in a wide range of social institutions. For this very reason they are instructive. They cut across the typologies of Weber, Wach, and Harrison and reflect issues which are, in a sense, the vices which are the other side of organizational virtues, the dysfunctional

[167] 16. A.V.G. Allen, Christian Institutions (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark; New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, International Theological Library, 1897), p. 5.


aspects of otherwise functional attributes. Function and dysfunction are always, of course, relative to particular social contexts in concrete historical situations.

• Bureaus and bureaucrats have a tendency to protect the interests assigned to them in their terms of reference. In their representative capacities church bureaucrats are often in conflict with each other. This roots in the drive for institutional self-preservation. The protective tendency may be partial, that is, by one bureau or office, or total, by a denomination as a whole. Max Weber observes: “Once it is fully established, bureaucracy is among those social structures which are hardest to destroy.”17

• Bureaucracies tend not to take a whole view of problems but only of a limited set of interests and goals. Their efficiency often resides in the specificity of the tasks assigned. The official is entrusted with specialized tasks and normally the mechanism cannot be put in motion or arrested by him, but only from the very top. Though bureaucracy generates and commands great power, subordinate units may lack freedom of motion and experience general impotence. Sometimes power is so organized that few in an organization have any responsible comprehensive overview. Yet, commitment to church unity requires this. Operational agency roles may overrule inclusive Christian vocation. Missions may thwart mission and the unit may block unity.

• Bureaus tend toward rigid structures and attitudes because of the rules and regulations which legitimate them and which are used for rational effectiveness. They are subject to “the iron law of oligarchy,” rule by the powerful few. Bureaucratic organization is technically a highly developed means of power in the hands of the man or men who control it or its units.
Organizational success tends to become the criterion of institutional life, and this success is then emulated. Often the criteria of measuring success become quantitative. Quantitative administrative development makes for quantitative standards of success. The impersonal element in bureaucracy in contrast to charismatic leadership makes for objective and calculable rules and for the calculability of results.

[167] 17. Max Weber, op. cit., p. 228.


• Bureaus encourage introversion and complete self-absorption in institutional life. Administrators tend to promote and cultivate support for their own unit in the division of labor. Thus, means become ends in themselves.

• Bureaus have a tendency toward “empire building,” that is, developing their agencies to include activities not originally or necessarily assigned to them. Thus, they tend to become the expanding centers of power rather than remaining the servants among other servants with diverse tasks.

• Bureaus are inclined to resist piecemeal attrition by other bureaus or by more general authorities in an organization. Jurisdictional lines are carefully guarded. Jurisdictional or agency conflict is frequent.

• Bureaucrats tend not to communicate significantly with bureaucrats in other offices or aspects of an organization. As bureaucracy perfects communication in one dimension, it inhibits it in other dimensions. Church leaders may use the limitations of authorization as an excuse for noncommunication across denominational lines. For example, they may hold that churches should not do those things together which they are able to do separately. On the other hand, they may not know how to behave apart from specific authorization.

• Various bureaus tend to develop ideologies appropriate to their own limited goals and thus to splinter the philosophy of the organization as a whole into competing fragments of truth. Sometimes these are ideologies of loyalty to the group within which one is at work.

• The group processes of large bureaucracies encourage the personality traits of the “organization man.” Committee decisions protect personal indecision, and they conceal and inhibit the emergence of vigorous personal dissent and independence of judgment. Individuals tend to hide behind board actions. In the words of William H. Whyte, Jr., “Ideas come from the group, not from the individual.” When the organization develops in this way the processes of control may vary considerably from that envisaged in strict vertical control or in an oligarchy.


General Bureaucratic Problems in Church Union Processes

As part of the “organizational revolution” of modern times church bureaucracies develop two distinct sides, one which they present to their constituencies and one which they present to outsiders. From the foregoing analyses we can appreciate more fully the “two-sidedness of organizations,” especially in the case of the churches as they relate to church union processes. Every organization is an expression of solidarity within the organized group and an expression of lesser solidarity (or complete lack of it) with those outside the group. Bureaucracy by definition is the administration of a complex organization for the enhancement of its values and the achievement of its goals. Many of the problems which confront church unity arise from the two-sidedness of organizations. How can the churches manifest their inclusive unity in Christ? How can the churches command the effective loyalty, devotion, and fellowship of their members, without violating the inclusive unity of Christ? What are the problems which bureaucracy poses with respect to processes of exclusion and inclusion in the ecumenical movement? Seven of these can be isolated for further analysis and study:

• Administrative church bodies with long histories, procedures laden with custom, and incongruent with respect to each other in range of goals and responsibilities, offer formidable problems in negotiating mergers.18 There is often a blindness to needed change, a trained incapacity to sense new needs, inadequate flexibility in the adaptation of skills to changing conditions, occupational psychoses whereby personnel develop special preferences, antipathies, discriminations, and emphases not adapted to social reality, a fixation on goals and objectives however obsolescent, an excessive conformity to prescribed patterns which have become routinized, and a transference of sentiments and motivations from the aims of the organization to the particular details of behavior required by rules and rubrics.19

[167] 18. The following paragraphs emphasize and partly draw on, occasionally verbatim, James M. Gustafson’s essay in the present volume. See also World Council of Churches Commission on Faith and Order, The Old and the New in the Church (1961). W.G. Muelder, “Institutional Factors Affecting Unity and Disunity,” Ecumenical Review (January, 1956), p. 110. The work by Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Research (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1949) is instructive here. See also the studies by K. Mannheim, C. Kluckhohn, O.H. Mowrer, and Burleigh Gardner.
19. Robert K. Merton, “Bureaucratic Structure and Personality,” in C. Kluckhohn and Henry A. Murray, eds., Personality in Nature, Society, and Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1956), pp. 376-385.


• When churches are to be integrated the primary question is likely to be not what the mind of Christ means for the structure of administration, nor what pattern of administration immediately corresponds to the theoretical political organization of the church, but how to allocate effectively the available personnel and resources in order to expedite certain tasks to which the churches are committed. Since they have ongoing programs, the churches are reluctant to change the machinery which these programs have required for implementation. There is likely to be absence of any euphoria or enthusiasm about a projected church union, because the staffs of the respective denominations are always deeply involved in their given commitments. The process of unification may therefore be quite bothersome to these staffs.

• The two typical clusters of problems indicated in the paragraphs above have led some organizations to attempt loose federal types of mergers rather than to create completely new institutions. The National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. became a kind of loose ecclesiastical cartel for the member councils that entered into it; there was relatively little organic fusion. The federal and conciliar solutions are not so potent when denominations merge or otherwise unite, but compromises in agency structure and control are likely to be pragmatically arrived at rather than based on a redefinition of basic polity growing out of theological reappraisal.

• Bureaucratic organization intensifies the contrasting differences among denominations with respect to the sense of mission, the style of life, and the focus of program. Moreover, class status is reflected in the operations of an administrative staff. Churches differ greatly in all these factors. The amount of energy and concern which denominations devote to the world mission of the Church varies considerably and is reflected in the size and scope of mission board activity. In some cases the boards are relatively autonomous; in other cases they are controlled directly by the denomination. Analogous problems arise with respect to education, social action, pensions, and so on.

• There is always an acute problem of what to do with the


excess personnel in specified areas of competence and status during the period after the merger. The key personalities in a staff are focal points for the resolution of difficulties in effecting union or greater unity. Because of these problems of handling key personnel, a transitional period may be employed for balancing the representation and perhaps for assigning quotas among the varying interests. The problem of reducing key personnel may be complicated by the fact that different types of hierarchical authority have been dominant in the negotiating churches.

• Administrative staffs vary widely in the amount of freedom that they have as professionals and the manner in which their authority is validated. Where bureaucratic processes are set by denominational rules and where these procedures affect the fundamental goals of the respective bodies, major difficulties are bound to be experienced. Whatever the best arrangements of polity may be, it is evident that the practical problems of integrating bureaucracies accentuate the more basic issues of freedom and authority.

• The concluding problem is the need to allow adequate time and planning not only for the resolution of questions of faith and order in the dimension of doctrine and polity, but also for other institutional processes. Many of the details of administration and polity are subject to processes and procedures as characteristic of politics and the market place as they are of the Church and they are governed not only by theological convictions and traditions but by cultural factors which are deeply intertwined with them.


Church Bureaucracy and Councils of Churches

There are some significant interrelationships between the bureaucratic (including other administrative) structures in denominations and the conciliar movement in church co-operation. Where there are many different types of denominations in a given area (local, state, national, global), the practical step toward unity is generally to form a council of churches. The council


provides for the maximum autonomy of the various church bureaucracies and for the least risk to denominational life while patterns of co-operation and ecumenicity are being explored and formed. Obvious practical areas of co-operation can be developed on a piecemeal basis, while denominational bureaucracies are left largely intact. In their early stages councils of churches are, of course, weaker than their constituent members. Council officials have sometimes been little more than errand boys for denominational executives. Under these circumstances a great deal of strain may exist between denominational bureaucrats and strong council executives.

As a council of churches grows it develops its own specializations and bureaucratic structure. The churches participating in the new conciliar patterns begin to modify their practices. Just as the pluralistic bureaus of the churches shape the institutional growth of the councils in the first instances, so the conciliar process in time modifies the bureaucratic structure and shape of the churches.

Comity committees, for example, develop professional standards of surveying community needs which influence the procedures of research and strategy in the participating denominations. Departments of institutional chaplaincy tend to standardize, along with hospital chaplaincy associations and theological seminaries, the way clinical training is conducted for most churches. Other forms of pioneering or specialized ministries tend to be basically patterned by conciliar institutions. Radio, television, journalism, the preparation of church school materials, approaches to government, church lobbying, strategies of social work, policies on church-state questions in education and welfare — these are a few of the areas in which bureaucratic development in ecumenical bodies tends to modify and make more uniform the corresponding boards and commissions of the denominations. All this can be and is done without radically challenging the doctrinal distinctiveness or the theological foundations of the polity of churches.20

[167] 20. See Robert Lee, The Social Sources of Church Unity, p. 82.


These observations do not ignore the fact that the several bureaus of a church may vary a great deal from each other in theological emphasis. They may even fail doctrinally to communicate with each other. Departments in church evangelism both in denominations and in councils of churches may differ a great deal in theological orientation from those developed to handle chaplaincies, social work, or legislative action in the political and economic field. The Bible Society leaders both denominationally and interdenominationally may have different theological emphases from the religious education personnel. In the U.S.A., at least, it must be recognized that the specialized ministries in a number of churches and their counterparts in councils of churches tend to socialize theological and ethical emphases in distinctive ways. There is, therefore, often a different theological climate in the various bureaus of a large complex denomination or an interdenominational body. Such distinctiveness does not rule out a great deal of difference from one denomination to another as well. Sub-bureaucracies form in-group patterns of thought and action which shape and determine conflict within the power struggles of denominations and across denominational lines.

These tendencies stand in contrast to a force which has been called a “lay doctrine of equivalence.” This means that the laity who migrate a great deal from one denomination to another look upon the functional or practical side of church life more than they do upon the theological uniqueness of a local church. Functional effectiveness is what they favor. They are impatient with competition on “nonessentials.” “Success” or “practical efficiency” is what seems important to them.

Bureaucratic successes of co-operative bodies may tend to produce an indifference toward advanced ecumenical unity, since laymen are often satisfied with the practical level of unity in its external manifestations which co-operation has expressed. The resistance to self-criticism and radical revision which any denominational bureaucracy exhibits is likely to have its analogue in all levels of conciliar ecumenism as well. If the goal is evangelism,


seen simply as establishing churches for the unchurched, an inter-denominational board may respond to the growing interchangeability of church membership with an indifference to denominational claims. The erosion of allegiances and the modification of loyalties found in extensive interdenominational migration provides fertile soil for the growth of interdenominational approaches to membership evangelism.

Several additional tendencies should also be noted in the relationships of bureaucracy to church unity. Professor Lee has shown how certain drives toward institutional strength in church mergers parallel those which we have already recognized above. He says: “In view of the organizational revolution characterizing present-day society, and in order to exercise significant power, the pressure toward centralization and organizational co-ordination operates as a contributing source of organic merger. As with organized bureaucracies in other areas of life, so churches are caught up in the inherent logic of established boards and agencies to expand in outreach, to solidify their gains, to multiply their functions, and to perpetuate themselves. In addition, the increasing demand for technical services calls for specialized and technically trained personnel, for which the supply is hardly adequate. Such organizational pressures often function covertly, but remain a reality underlying many mergers.”21 Bureaucracy obviously persists under ecumenical auspices.

Bureaucracy presents problems to the ecumenical movement through the tendency of the various denominational administrators to predominate numerically at ecumenical assemblies. The Christian Century has observed: “The procedure now being followed is not propitious for the World Council of Churches, which cannot maintain its leadership unless it can find a way to summon to its assemblies the best minds of Christendom. Not all of these are found in the ranks of denominational administrators, who tend to outnumber all other categories among the delegates who have been chosen to date. As usual, lay men and women, pastors of local churches, college, university and seminary teachers,

[167] 21. Op. cit., p. 105.


are conspicuous by their absence. As usual too, the delegations are hoary with age.”22

A chief purpose of studies of institutional factors is to help churches and church leaders to be more self-aware of the relationship between doctrinal and nondoctrinal aspects of church unity and disunity. Such awareness should help to release critical thought and creative response in dialogues and negotiations within the ecumenical movement. This essay on bureaucracy, as part of an analysis of institutionalism, should function, therefore, as a counterfactor to some of the main tendencies of bureaucracy especially as they affect leadership. Bureaucracy’s virtues in organizational devices readily become its vices in the personality traits it develops in its leaders. At the very moments when flexibility, originality, and creativity are most needed to meet the challenges of a new ecumenical situation, the highly disciplined bureaucrat may exhibit what Veblen called a “trained incapacity” to see what needs most to be seen and to do what needs most to be done. As one writer puts it, “people may be unfitted by being fit in an unfit fitness.” In an age when the ecumenical movement has made all the participating agencies and institutions obsolescent, self-awareness about bureaucracy may help to overcome some of the “unfit fitness” of the churches’ organizational life and the bureaucratic professional deformation of its leadership. Denominational fitness may mean ecumenical unfitness, and denominational efficiency may mean ecumenical inefficiency. But it must also be noted that the organizational instruments contrived to serve the unity and mission of the churches up to the present may also have developed characteristics which inhibit the fullest possible manifestation of the unity, witness, and service of the Church.

[167] 22. Editorial, The Christian Century (July 13, 1960).


Bibliography for Essay 7


Gerth, H.H., and Mills, C. Wright, From Max Weber (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1948).
Harrison, Paul M., Authority and Power in the Free Church Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959).
Kluckhohn, G, and Murray, Henry A., eds., “Bureaucratic Structure and Personality,” in Personality in Nature, Society, and Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1956).
Lee, Robert, The Social Sources of Church Unity (New York: Abingdon Press, 1960).
Merton, Robert K., Social Theory and Social Structure (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1957).
Wach, Joachim, Sociology of Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944).
Weber, Max, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, tr. by A. M. Henderson and Talcott Parsons (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947).
Whyte, William H., The Organization Man (New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1956).