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,” http://gospel-culture.org.uk/guinness.htm [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.