Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Most religious institutions emerged in traditional societies where actions were largely and automatically determined by precedent and custom without much need for rational calculation. Societies were held together by "natural" institutions like the family, and role assignments were largely prescribed by traditions of age and gender. Religious groups tended to be monopolistic and supported by the community-at-large. In the modern world, however, religious groups are voluntary associations, governed by written constitutions and operated as parliamentary assemblies. Their support is not automatic, and congregations as well as denominational bodies must attend to raising budgets, developing pay scales, and handling housekeeping and maintenance.

Decision making involves the processes of making explicit major values (assumptions), prioritizing objectives (goals), adopting larger means (strategies), and smaller means (tactics). The preceding are all essentials in what administrators term the organization's policy . John Dewey outlined the basic steps in the idealized model of rational problem solving—diagnosing the break in habit/routine; "defining the problem"; determining the immediate goal(s), the means (resources under your control), and the limits (circumstances not under your control such as the law, funds); evaluating the possible alternative choices to control the problem; and, finally, prioritizing and applying alternative solutions to the problem one by one. (A new stage, evaluating outcomes, has recently been added.) Lindblom, however, says this ideal model is seldom used, because there seldom are time or resources to formulate ideal solutions. Furthermore, traditions, "sunk costs" (previous investments of time, effort, "human resources," money), lack of expertise and/or information, and human fallibilities prevent ideal solutions. Thus most committees "muddle through" as best they can.

Thompson proposed a fourfold typology of decision models involving the agreement or disagreement on available ends and means. (1) Computational decisions are those involving agreement on both ends and means—engineering or bureaucratic situations where technical knowledge (space exploration) or a manual of rules (tax solutions by the Internal Revenue Service) determine outcomes. (2) Political-compromising decisions are those in which the means is agreed upon (voting) but the ends are not always clear—representative assemblies or councils run by negotiation and voting. (3) Judgmental decisions are those in which the goal is agreed to but the best means may not be—medical and other professional decisions. (4) Inspirational decisions are those in which there is little agreement on either ends or means (termed the garbage can model), such as devising an entirely new social policy for health care, welfare, evangelism, governing a country, or inventing an electric car; religious and utopian movements and "think tanks" would seem to operate by this model.

Sometimes particular decisions can combine two or more of the above models (e.g., 2 and 3). Probably most religious groups will decide via "muddling through," because religious groups are more encumbered with traditions, sentiments, and loyalties than business or community groups. Usually church groups can little tolerate conflict, and decisions tend to be unanimous. Probably most decisions by denominational assemblies and congregational councils tend to be of the computational and political varieties (replacing an organ, expanding or repairing the building). More complex decisions (adopting new liturgies) will begin with recommendations by the clergy followed by ratification by a representative assembly. The "inspirational" decision strategy is rare but can be peculiarly religious, as when a denominational or congregational assembly decides to venture to adopt a new policy involving, for example, ethnic-gender quotas in staff hiring or an interracial evangelism campaign. Although most modern voluntary associations have adopted parliamentary voting as the dominant decision strategy, congregational groups have difficulty operating other than by unanimous vote. This means that if pastors are to lead their congregations in prophetic ways, they must be astute not only in theology but also in the political dynamics of voluntary organizations.

See also Organization Theory, Evaluation Research

Ross P. Scherer


R. L. Daft, Organization Theory and Design (St. Paul, Minn.: West, 1983)

C. E. Lindblom, "The Science of Muddling Through," in Readings on Modern Organizations , ed. A. Etzioni (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1969): 154-166

J. D. Thompson and A. Tuden, "Strategies, Structures, and Processes of Organizational Decision," in Comparative Studies in Administration , ed. J. D. Thompson et al. (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1959): 195-216.

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