Tradition and Change

Models of organisation 4

Many years ago I had a Sunday out with friends.  It was hot, sunny, idyllic.  We wandered as the mood took us.  In the Oxfordshire country we came upon a medieval church in the centre of a village.  We went to evensong.  We may even have sung ‘The day thou gavest Lord is ended’.  We went to the village pub afterwards.  We felt not only uplifted spiritually but immersed in an almost mystic vision of England.  I loved it and I still do.  It is rather wonderful that it can still feel like this, and there is something in it that is important to hold on to.  But there is also a nostalgia for a world that is disappearing fast.

It is a truism that people tend not to welcome change and that is as true of our corporate selves as of our personal lives.  Over time organisations develop processes and habits that seem to work and which become part of the organisation’s sense of itself.  These are not readily questioned or given up.  If the organisation becomes less successful people in it may even start to believe that its declining fortunes are a failure not of the organisation but of those who are no longer supporting it. They have ceased to ‘get it’.  The answer is to work harder, to ‘keep calm and carry on’ or to develop a new marketing strategy.  These responses don’t usually work.  If it is suggested that the customer may have a point and that more radical change is required, the organisation will often defend the way it does things as a matter of principle.

The organisation that is frequently referenced here is Kodak. I cannot say with confidence that the story often told about its decline is true but it works well as a parable at least.  The story runs that the business was so wed to film that it refused to recognise the evident probability that digital imaging would render film obsolete until it was too late.  But Kodak may not be the only one to make such a mistake.

Several years after the experience recorded at the beginning of this blog I found myself advising a Vicar in a rural diocese.  Her situation was more extreme than most but in essence, typical.  She had 24 churches in her care, with the assistance of two other clergy and a team of volunteers.  It was clearly an unsustainable situation but no-one was willing to rationalise it by, for example, closing some of the churches only attended by 2-3 people in an environment where everyone drives a distance to do anything.  Now, there may well be good reasons for keeping all those churches open but the question I want to ask is this: is the reluctance to make changes founded in a view of how the Church should be that is profoundly and properly rooted in its core purpose and principles or, instead, in an adherence to an outdated cultural and organisational model – a model that has become confused with the core identity?

Max Weber’s analysis of management and organisation suggested three models of organisation and leadership. (1)  The first he described as ‘traditional’.  He characterised it as based on ‘the sanctity of immemorial traditions’.  It grows and thrives in stable societies with shared norms where certain classes of people and certain institutions are vested with a widely accepted authority.  This model describes well the Church and the role of the clergy in popular imagination, and, perhaps, in history.  According to Peter Rudge the “leader has his place among the elite of elders, the wise and the sacred…he is the fount of wisdom; he expounds what the tradition is…Decision-making…is non-reflective: there is no need to reflect because there is no alternative to doing what has been done before”. (2)

On other occasions I have sat in meetings in boardrooms, of a type that many readers may recognise.  The agenda is largely composed of reports from the heads of this and that.  Many are somewhat inconsequential but it becomes obvious to the observer that there are a number of quite deep problems.  But these are not faced directly, perhaps because they are too difficult, but mainly, perhaps, because there is no mechanism or habit of putting all the pieces together and seeing the overall picture.  Everything happens and is seen through the lens of the departments with their own viewpoints, identities and political interests.  Perhaps, if the leader is a bishop, under pressure from the national church, the need to develop a diocesan strategy comes on to the agenda.  The decision is made to present the responsibility for this activity to a department or a new sub-group.  They will make some recommendations at an indeterminate time in the future. Everybody feels something has been done but not so as to make it likely anything will need to change a great deal – a bit of tinkering is about the best that can be expected.

In this instance the organisational model at work is the classical, bureaucratic theory, also first described by Weber. In this understanding the organisation is modern, rational, managed by the division of tasks and labour, designed to maintain well-conceived processes and make them more efficient.  The classical model is as ill-equipped as the traditional model to cope with external change, especially when it requires perhaps radical reconsideration of basic aspects of the organisation and the way it works. In the Church (and might this be true – to some extent – of medicine and teaching too?) there is the added complication that the bosses, the ‘centre’, operate with the classical model and the grassroots, the parishes, for example, with the traditional model.  No wonder that there is so much conflict and misunderstanding.

In recent blogs I have been championing the systems model of organisation, partly because it includes and holds together the best insights of other models, such as the need for efficiency, the importance of people and behaviour, the power of culture and the need to maintain a strong identity, to value what is passed down to us.  But it is also has at its heart the recognition of the fact of change in the world, and at a time of rapid and profound change it seems more useful.

On the systemic understanding the organisation is characterised, brought to life, by a set of relationships and interactions, and managed by the exchange of information.  To be more precise I should add, perhaps, that I am referring to an open system – one characterised by interaction with the wider world and designed so as to be able to co-evolve with its environment.  (An example of such a system would be a plant or a person.  An example of a closed system would be a clock.)  As the world changes, the organisation changes in response.  This model is obviously far more supportive of change and growth – but there is a problem.  Are there not risks in adapting to the environment?  Does it not risk fatal compromise, a mere running after popularity?  What does it profit us to gain the world and lose our souls? You might think only the Church might be concerned with a question like this but it is an issue for many organisations – not least those that depend on their being perceived as embodying certain values, inspiring a certain kind of belief, businesses amongst them, like Apple, or Virgin or Google perhaps.

In the Church, as in other organisations, there are those who think that listening to voices from outside is dangerous.  They want the organisation to be a closed system.  But that is to choose irrelevance and death: the thought that we have been true to ourselves may not be that consoling as we disappear into history.  So are we simply faced with a choice to shut the doors or to take on board some estimate of ‘what the public wants’? We are not.  The trick is to change whilst remaining who we are.  To become ourselves, only different.  And we do that by making sure we put a lot of effort into two things.

Firstly, we understand our core identity and distinguish it from the accretion of habits and customs that we have gathered over the years. Secondly we work to understand what is happening in our environment, think deeply about it and hear what it is telling us.  We then put the two things together in what might prove a challenging ‘conversation’.  We will likely not only get ‘market insights’ from such an activity but some new and vital information about who we really are and what we need to do.  We do not always understand ourselves completely, and the tendency to isolate ourselves can have the effect of reinforcing our ideas to the point where we become caricatures of ourselves.  We need the voice from elsewhere and to listen to it with care.  If we get it right the outcome is a wise judgement about what we need to become to meet the needs of the future.

This requires a set of activities involving considerable energy, focus and time – this will be all the more demanding if the habit of doing it is not built into the organisation’s design and culture.  Plenty of people I come across neither see the need, nor wish to invest the time and trouble.  But I see no other way of responding to major changes in the world around in ways that will prove sustainable, that meet the real nature of the challenge and neither compromise us, nor leave us stuck in the past.

The ideal is to build in the capacity for adaptive change, more or less in real time.  But the Church has a lot of catching up to do first.  The world is and has been changing faster than the Church’s capacity to respond to a degree where the gap has got very wide indeed. In the 1990s Loren Mead wrote of the need posed by the times to ‘reinvent the Church’. (3)  This still looks like the challenge and the Church seems no nearer rising to it than it was then.



1 Weber, M (1947) The Theory of Social and Economic Administration, Translated by Henderson, A.M.and Parsons, T., The Free Press, Edinburgh

2 Rudge, P.F. (1968) Ministry and Management: The Study of Ecclesiastical Administration, Tavistock, London p.24

3 Mead, L.B. (1993) The Once and Future Church: Reinventing the Congregation for a New Mission Frontier, The Alban Institute, Washington DC


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2 thoughts on “Tradition and Change

  1. Sound analysis and exemplars, Keith. The problem of change – often fundamental, as in the case (true or not) of Kodak – is exacerbated by the pace of change these days. The internet world is characterised by swift rises to giddy heights and equally swift plunges into the abyss. That is a fact of life for your e-entrepreneur, who has a chance to make a fortune by selling out at the peak to established – often ‘classical’ – organisations that then find the value of their purchases running through their fingers like dry sand.
    Organisations whose products are in the virtual realm have it easy compared with those operating in the real world, delivering real goods and services in real time. In fact it is often the delivery model for those goods and services that has to change – as in the case of Amazon and other on-line retailers, whose website effectiveness must be buttressed by strong practical techniques for ensuring the products reach the customer on time, and by sound after-service. Rather like vicars.
    I think one of the – any – church’s problems is that of achieving critical mass – no pun intended – during services. The success of the evangelical and fundamentalist churches is surely that the Sunday services are full-on social events during which the church is packed out. We all know the power that a single charismatic figure can have facing such a throng. It’s just not the same when, as you note, some church services muster a handful of parishoners at most. So, as with the high street, the delivery model based around centuries-old buildings, however redolent of sanctity and uplifting architecture, is stuttering. People’s social lives lie outside the parish – whether meeting far-flung friends or via internet interactions – and no longer react to the localised glue of the Sunday service attended by neighbours.
    So fewer, ‘better’ churches with larger congregations? But then you lose the personal interaction with a priest who is known to and knows the family and can provide that ‘after-service’.
    Some evangelical churches, especially in America, forego the personal touch in favour of fervour – religions that can monetise what they are selling by demanding regular large contributions from the faithful that keep the priesthood in luxury. This is hysteria, not faith.
    And at the very foot of it all: is there demand for the product? In societies where virtually every need or want can be satisfied within seconds online for money, where is the void that used to be filled by religion, particularly by organised religion? Hence, I suppose, the growth of pick’n’mix faiths and of religions like Buddhism that are less focused around buildings and congregations, more around personal introspection and meditation.
    A Kodak moment. It’s a tough one.

    • Thank you John. As you say, the dilemmas created are difficult to negotiate and it is perfectly possible that the changes in our environment may simply prove fatal for some organisations – including the Church. If we are indeed at a stage where the Church has to reinvent itself, if a new ‘paradigm’ is needed (as I am inclined to think) part of the difficulty is that the different future is, by definition, hard to imagine, to describe in advance. This makes the normal type of ‘visioning’ activity much harder. Maybe what is required is to combine the activity I describe above (the conversation between identity and context) with some conscious experimentation.

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