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Institutional Emphasis: Trusting in Man Rather Than God

June 7, 2010
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A friend of mine was recently summoned to the human resources department at his place of employment and informed that he was being laid off due to budgetary constraints. This was both unexpected and in no way reflective of his three years of service. He had been, by all accounts, a good employee. Shocked and disappointed, he returned to his office, where a security guard was waiting to retrieve his keys, ID card, and so forth. His office phone was blocked, e-mail shut off, and he was immediately escorted from the premises. Sounds like standard operating procedure among large companies, right? Except my friend wasn’t working for a large company—he was working for a church! In fact, he worked in the facilities department of a very large church.

His account of how this process was handled deeply troubled me. For one, what kind of church has a human resources department?

Human resources (HR) is a relatively modern management term, coined in the 1960s. The origins of the function arose in organizations that adopted the principles of “scientific management.” Scientific management emerged as a concept in the early twentieth century following the work of Frederick Taylor (1856–1915). Scientific management methods (or “Taylorism”) called for optimizing the way that tasks were performed and simplifying the jobs enough so that workers could be trained to perform specialized but limited functions in order to maximize productivity and profit. Prior to Taylorism, work was generally performed by skilled craftsmen who had learned their jobs through apprenticeships. They made their own decisions about how their job was to be performed. Scientific management removed much of this autonomy and replaced skilled craftsmanship with a series of simplified tasks that could be performed by more easily trained and unskilled workers.

The establishment of human resource departments reflected the adoption of a more quantitative rather than qualitative approach to workforce management. While scientific management has both its defenders and critics, one negative result has been the dehumanizing tendency to reduce the value of individuals to mere commodities like office machines. This is where the Christian must pause and reflect on the nature of man and the virtue of work. Human beings should not be subordinated to commodities whose value is based on their utilitarian contributions. I would add that HR departments tend to serve a selfish interest of management: insulation from the discomfort of firing employees. Christian love demands that such acts be conducted directly on the part of the decision maker with honesty and compassion. If you don’t have the courage to do this, then you shouldn’t be in leadership!

The adoption of this management trend within the church has encouraged the elevation of the institution over people. The church, first and foremost, is not defined as an institution but as a living body comprising God’s people. This body necessitates some measure of institutionalization certainly (i.e., governance, ecclesiastical authority, and so forth) but only as a means for facilitating the service of people and the mission of God.

The modern trend of adopting the culture’s approach (modernity) to management within the church both reflects and encourages a diminished dependence on the Holy Spirit.

As Os Guinness points out, “In today’s convenient, climate-controlled spiritual world created by the managerial and therapeutic revolutions, nothing is easier than living apart from God . . . Modernity creates the illusion that, when God commanded us not to live by bread alone but by every word that comes from His mouth, He was not aware of the twentieth century. The very success of modernity may undercut the authority and driving power of faith until religion becomes merely religious rhetoric or organizational growth without spiritual reality” (Os Guinness, “Sounding Out the Idols of Church Growth,” [accessed 3 Jun 2010]).

In essence, our confidence can (and I believe has) inadvertently become rooted in the church’s organizational and management expertise rather than the Holy Spirit. Churches operating under this paradigm tend to justify this approach as being necessary to protect the church and further its mission. So employment policies, for example, are increasingly those of the world’s, oriented toward “limiting exposure” and minimizing the risk of legal liabilities. This, however, is a very slippery slope. As the government increasingly encroaches upon the church, many may find themselves being conformed to the standards of Caesar rather than God. What happens when employment law says you cannot discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation? Will these churches conform in order to maintain their tax-exempt status? They say “no way!” now.

However, churches are presently exempt from paying unemployment taxes and many apply this government provision to their advantage. Thus any employee of a church who is laid off is ineligible for unemployment benefits. This is fine if the church makes commensurate arrangements for those who would otherwise be eligible for this temporary relief. In the case of my friend, there were no such provisions other than the obligatory two weeks’ severance. In essence, companies run by heathens offer more consideration to their laid-off employees than many churches! Clearly, in this case the church has already demonstrated a willingness to adopt the provisions of Caesar over and against the biblical admonitions to love and care for one another when it serves its institutional interests!

When the conduct of the church emphasizes the interests of the institution over people, the church has opted for self-preservation at the expense of doing what is right. Instead of acting contrary to the world, trusting in God to provide for and protect it, the church is often relying on the prevailing “best practices” drawn from business, and human strategies. This is the opposite of humble vulnerability that trusts entirely in God, inviting his grace and power. Instead, this humanistic trend fosters pride and self-reliance, which God promises to oppose. 

The Prophet Jeremiah delivered God’s condemnation to Israel saying, “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jeremiah 2:13, NIV). The sin of Israel was that they were trusting in their own schemes rather than God. In essence they were saying, “We need a backup plan.”

We are doing the same thing when we structure and operate the institutional church like a business. Businesses may operate in the light of cultural realities and natural limits but the church lives and acts in the light of spiritual reality and the unlimited power of the Living God. If we do not recover this essential truth, we may preach love but act unlovingly, thereby undermining our witness to a watching world.

© 2010 by S. Michael Craven

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Response from : Karyn Brownlee  

June 7, 2010 11:33 AM

Great article as always, Michael. Your observations and warnings are equally applicable to parachurch organizations and ministries. God has been revealing to me that after I heard and responded to His call to leave my career, I have come to rely too much on the guiding words of well-intentioned ministry leaders, speakers and writers in leiu of listening to the One who called me into ministry in the first place. We must remain intent upon hearing His voice and following His lead for the spreading of His message and the doing of His work.

Response from : David Allburn  

June 7, 2010 12:07 PM

The most popular lawsuit brought against all forms of nonprofit employer, Michael, is "wrongful termination." Precluding that is a risk management function requiring an informed HR department, or individual.

Response from : Jeff Woods  

June 7, 2010 1:14 PM

Very, very helpful. Thank you Michael

Response from : Greg Williams  

June 7, 2010 1:39 PM

Great article! I couldn't agree more as this is just one more of those "slippery slopes" that the Church has gone down in conforming to the world! While in and of itself there is no "sin" it makes the Church (churches) very vulnerable as you've described to govt. changes and control which they are already subscribing to and often never even know or admit it!

In our ministry one of the first things that we point out is that much of the 'modern' and 'postmodern' Church, especially that in the 'Western culture' has already flip flopped the first and second greatest commandment (in line with the title of your article) and made both essentially null and void as we really can't love ourselves or our fellow man outside the love of God in Christ!

The Bible calls the Church God's household or family numerous times in the NT clearly referencing the familial relations that God desires to have with us in Christ and of course this was always referring to family settings (marriages, homes, parents, larger family structures) in which the early Church was founded and thrived until Constantine, in a mostly political move, made the Church the "official religion" of the Roman Empire and brought the families of the Church out of the homes and into the pagan temples!

This same 'institutionalization' has also clearly removed the true servant leadership as taught and modeled by Christ and His apostles/disciples in the early Church as the desire for "leadership in the Church." Of course the replacement are financial, corporate, business and political 'leaders' who often (not always) have neglected the very marriages and families from which true leadership is to mature and come from within the Church!

Thanks so much and God bless in Christ!


Response from : David  

June 7, 2010 2:25 PM

What you speak of is one of the reasons that I admire the organizational style of the Mormon Church. Every position in their church is unpaid and all callings are fulfilled on a voluntary basis--even their Pastors!

Maybe Christian churches should experiment with this type of organizational style.

Response from : Heather  

June 7, 2010 7:55 PM

This really saddens me to hear. What came to mind was Nehemiah 5:9--

What you are doing is not right. Shouldn't you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies?

I can honestly say I have not felt such antagonism simply for being a Christian (a Bible believing Christian) as I do now. The world is watching--waiting for whatever fodder we can feed them to fuel the fires of their hostility toward God and His people. We need, like never before, to walk in true humility and love--nothing less will get the attention of a world that has never known a love that values the inestimable worth of every individual.

Response from : Alan Garner  

June 9, 2010 1:06 PM

Well said! I worked for a "Christ-centered" therapy center in AZ whose HR department was anything but Christ-like in their "termination" of employees. Employees were targeted by upper "management" and supervisors were directed to document reasons to justify firing the employee. Usually it was for personal reasons vice poor job performance, or because the person openly disagreed with some company policy - while others agreed but remained silent. Godly Christian therapists, who were helping others recover from addictions and trauma, were traumatized themselves when - without warning- management showed up to pack up their office and directed them to go to HR for outprocessing. It was so cruel and so upsetting to all of the rest of us. We were left with grief and fear and confusion as we wondered why this brother/sister in Christ was being cast off. After two years of watching this, and trying really hard to "fly under the radar", I was relieved to be called up for military service so I could leave this hostile work environment. I predicted that God's judgment would eventually come, and it did. Recently, five years after I left, I learned that there had been a corporate takeover of this organization and that several of the VPs and other "sharks" had lost their positions or had left. James chapter five promises that God hears the cries of the oppressed and will ultimately deal with cruel bosses. How sad when God's people walk in the paths of the ungodly!

Response from : Gary Halbedel  

June 9, 2010 7:46 PM

I heartily concur! I have always despised the term "human resources" as a mechanistic reduction of people to things (resources)of the "human" variety. For the church to adopt such language and practice is despicable and disheartening.

Response from : Darrell Mims  

June 10, 2010 8:35 AM

I appreciate your article. Based on the example outlined at the beginning of the article the position you take is understandable. You may not understand all the functions and responsibilities of a Human Resource (H/R) Ministry. There are many required activities that H/R must perform. Many churches have no clue what those requirements are and therefore are out of compliance with the law. The key for a H/R Ministry is that the function operates out of the principles in the Word of God with a loving, redemptive spirit.


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