Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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An organization is a social formation in which the parts appear to belong more to each other than to something outside; that is, an organization has a boundary around it more or less. Organizing happens whenever some want to do or carry out something. Organizing is ancient and probably first emerged to carry out hunting or military campaigns. The first organizations were clans or clusters of families and were probably organized according to principles of seniority and gender (oldest males first), what today we term patriarchalism . This "clan" principle still dominates in many societies, in both political and religious sectors, and is frequently conducive to "corruption," nepotism, and lack of fairness to women and children.

The ancient Romans perfected the bureaucratic military model, and when the Roman Empire ceased, the emerging Roman Catholic Church borrowed much of its organization and nomenclature from Rome, converting caesar into pope, senators into cardinals, and so on down to converting plebeians into lay folk. Up until the Second Vatican Council, the RCC officially consisted of only the pope, cardinals, bishops, and clergy, but now the "faithful" too are included as essential.

Modern Organization Theory

Modern organizing began with the rise of the European nation-states out of the combining of regional principalities in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. England and France led, followed much later by Germany and Italy. Central kings became powerful and needed to secure their boundaries by more permanent military forces, which in turn required central treasuries, new forms of taxation, and civil organization separate from the king's household.

In the nineteenth century, many attempted to codify thoughts and rules of organizing. Theorizing in Europe tended to start with the society as a whole and to work down to the civil unit or specific organization (civil agency); whereas, in the United States, theorists started with the lowest level, the "small (work) group," and worked their way up to the organization unit (the factory, union, congregation), but seldom dealt with the wider external environment.

Individual social theorists tended to conceptualize organizations and organizing as they wanted to see them. Adam Smith, for example, saw organization as somewhat flat and inchoate with firms or partnerships competing opportunistically to form unstable markets . Decisions are made purely in terms of rational costbenefit analysis. Émile Durkheim, in trying to characterize religious organization, went back to nonliterate, tribal clans as the prototypical, feelings-based model for religious group solidarity, and argued that the solidarity of society itself was based on religious feelings. Max Weber was impressed with nineteenth-century German civil service—bureaucracy —typifying this form by its use of hierarchy and rational rules for managing complex social tasks with efficiency and fairness. He thought bureaucracy had overcome the evils of patriarchalism and nepotism.

Weber also was aware of the existence and power of "mission" movement organizations whose leaders were endowed with charisma , although he thought such organizations would eventually be "routinized" into either patriarchal or rational-legal bureaucratic forms. Alexis de Tocqueville, in his early nineteenth-century tour of the United States, was impressed with the prominence of the mutual-benefit voluntary association as the organizing principle for communal, religious organization on the American frontier. The decentralized, sociopolitical environment of the United States thus contributed another organizational form.

Each of these observers, then, discovered a portion of the truth, but a fuller measure of truth lies in seeing markets, bureaucracies, clans, missions, and voluntary associations as complementary to each other and perhaps even as sequential. That is, it will be most helpful if we try to see how individual organizations can embody bits and pieces of all types simultaneously. Historically, religious organizations have tended to be clanlike and to be fused with common ethnicity and/or nationality. Even today, in some American denominations (which we may term European transplants , such as Catholics, Lutherans), the members predominantly are not adult converts but have been "born" into the faith and so descend from certain characteristic, territorial ethnic ancestries. The denomination is the truly American form of religion, and because of American church-state separation and "nonestablishment," all religious organizations in the new society are definitionally voluntary associations, as Tocqueville noted. To the extent that congregations (and denominations) are fully "voluntary," to that extent they are "coalitions," meaning that the members are free to leave at any time (although they normally don't). We may term a council of churches a federation (an organization of organizations) with member units also free to leave at any point.

Through time, some American denominations have had to become somewhat centralized and to develop central bureaucratic departments to organize evangelization and new congregation formation, publication, ministerial education, and overseas ministries more effectively. Although the central offices underwent some bureaucratization, the congregations still remained rather flat in structure with much mainly volunteer participation. Harrison (1959) notes, with reference to American Baptists, that while official ideology was antihierarchic, Baptists have had to develop the functional equivalent of bishops (a hierarchy) to pursue their tasks of evangelizing and congregation building. In recent decades, however, more and more "megacongregations" have been developed with thousands of members, which tend to look and behave more and more like religious crowds or "markets" with the turnover, "shopping," and loose ties associated with modern shopping malls and TV audiences. Mission forms will tend to be exceptional, short-lived, and dominated by charismatic or quasi-charismatic personalities. If enduring and institutionalized as parts of denominations, missions will be supplemental and devoted to specific tasks (e.g., Catholic religious orders). If freestanding, mission forms will come and go as parts of wider societal social movements, some acting defensively (e.g., "right to life") and others liberatingly (e.g., Amnesty International). They all will be voluntary and supported by the gifts and volunteer efforts of members. Some missions will even self-destruct because of internal rivalry and a preponderance of "evil" outcomes.

"Open Systems" Theory

More recently, organization theorists have been concerned to explicate two dimensions of organizational structure and functioning. On the one hand, there is a new awareness of how individual organizations are no longer isolated from events around them and how they are affected by other organizations, religious and secular, by the sociocultural environment, and especially by the state (including the courts, legislatures, and executive) and its regulatory powers. In the United States, at least, the interorganizational situation of the nineteenth century seems primitive compared with the complex organizational, environmental "fields" of today. Few relationships are very "closed," and everything seems "open" to everything else. This is the meaning of open systems . It is interesting that recent research on congregations reveals that those congregations that are most "open" to the "outside" (i.e., participate in providing shelter for the homeless, have members of differing ethnic backgrounds, and so on) appear to grow the most compared with more "closed" congregations.

On the other hand, nineteenth-century organization theory seemed to place a premium on rationality, with early theory seeing the organization (or its subunits) as utilitarian, as means to an end. With liberal optimism, managers saw themselves in control of their situations and as able to marshal people and group components efficiently in accord with the mangers' biddings. Frederick Taylor, the founder of "scientific management" in the late nineteenth century, thought there was "one best way" to do everything. Today, we realize that, while not just "any way" will do either, there are many contingencies in the situation that make it impossible to develop only "one best way" for all situations. The alternative to "rational" systems is the notion of "natural" systems. That is, many organizations should be viewed as being based on feelings and as having "lives of their own." The uniqueness and "naturalness" of an organization comes not only from the human traits of the member-employees (which they bring with them when they enter the organization) but also from what today is called the "organizational culture"—the traditions, memories, and symbols of the organization itself as it develops in its own life history. Thus an organization may have very rational aims, but it doesn't necessarily always behave in a rational manner.

A "systems" or process view of organizations thus sees the organization as existing within an environment—a "network" of other organizations that can be its sister units (e.g., other congregations) in the same denomination or its competitors, rivals, or allies outside (e.g., other denominations or faiths). "Systems," furthermore, means that one must view organizations as processes . That is, organizations must (1) mobilize resources, personnel, funds, reputation, ideology, and so on (inputs); (2) seek to transform these resources by doing something with them (throughputs); and, finally, (3) exchange these products with other organizations or the community at large (outputs). Organizations, in turn, exchange their own outputs for other organizations' resources or inputs.

Religious organizations are not only like other organizations—unions, corporations, stores, armies—they are also unique or different . Like other organizations, especially other voluntary associations, congregations must assemble resources, educate and enthuse the members to do the will of God, and, they hope, motivate the members to bear witness to their faith in their families and in their external occupations and communities. On the other hand, religious associations as "normative" organizations are unique in having transcendent resources—God, the "Holy Spirit," sacramental acts and rites, prayer—that provide them with far superior motivations and loyalties in comparison with secular "utilitarian" organizations, which employ people mainly for money. The far antithesis to "normative" organizations (like churches) are "coercive" organizations (like prisons) that tend to alienate the more they coerce. Like other voluntary associations (unions, political parties, professional associations), religious organizations can suffer what Michels called the "iron law of oligarchy," whereby a few leaders can become entrenched, undemocratic, and distant from the rank and file, perpetuating themselves in leadership to the detriment of the organization and its members.

Voluntarism a Mixed Blessing?

Societies with "multicultural pluralism" such as the United States offer both possibilities and limits for religious organizations. On the one hand, pluralistic-democratic societies such as America have kept their religious organizations from making war on each other by declaring that religious preference—from the community's standpoint—is officially a private matter. The typical American church form, the denomination, thus can only maintain a policy of "intolerance within but tolerance without ." That is, American religious groups may adopt strict codes for their members within but have to agree to an "agree to disagree" policy with those outside. This situation, together with religion's general exemption from having to pay income taxes to the state, tends to make denominationalism as a system rather bland and nondecisive vis-ŕ-vis external "power" and authority. That is, there is a trade-off, which in general has been benign for religion and religious organizations but that also has demanded a price, the possibility of total privatization and social irrelevance for the religious enterprise. But as James R. Wood shows (1981), religious privatization in the face of the external community's common problems and divisions can be overcome with time, education, and skilled and dedicated church leadership.

See also Charisma, Church-and-State Issues, Denominationalism, Leadership

Ross P. Scherer


A. Etzioni, Modern Organizations (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1964)

P. Harrison, Authority and Power in the Free Church Tradition (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1959)

J. F. McCann, Church and Organization (Scranton, Pa.: Scranton University Press, 1993)

R. P. Scherer, "The Church as a Formal Voluntary Organization," in Voluntary Action Research , ed. D. Smith (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington/Heath, 1972): 81-108

R. P. Scherer, American Denominational Organization (Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 1980)

R. P. Scherer, "A New Typology for Organizations," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 27(1988):475-498

W. R. Scott, Organizations (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1981)

M. Weber, Economy and Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978)

J. R. Wood, Leadership in Voluntary Organizations (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1981).

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