Rethinking Church as an organisation: Keith Elford on beginning a new PhD

Starting out: Keith Elford reflects on what led him to embark on a PhD examining what may be learned from thinking about the Church as an organisation.

The Church has been around rather longer than most organisations so might be considered the archetypal example but to what extent is it right to see the Church as an organisation like others?

Which elements of organisational theory and practice might have some applicability?

What might the Church have to say to organisational theorists and practitioners?

These questions will take me deep into ecclesiology, organisational theory and both contemporary and historical examples of the Church’s application of what might, at least, be seen as organisational ideas.

I have worked as an organisational consultant since 1998.  For the most part I’ve worked on projects designed to contribute to an organisation’s long term sustainability and success, often in circumstances where large scale change is necessary.  My clients have come from diverse sectors; my favourite and most satisfying being a Roman Catholic Order of Sisters who run care homes for the elderly in several parts of the world.  My experience of working with them on a complete ‘turnaround’ has undoubtedly been the most significant of my career, partly, at least, because it taught me so much about the power of a committed sense of vocation and purpose when it is directed towards positive organisational change.

I am also an Anglican clergyman. In the 90s I was a curate and then an incumbent (in charge of a parish) and Chaplain to the Bishop of Guildford.  It was in that latter role that I first got interested in organisational change – my job involved supporting the bishop in a time of significant change in the diocese.  This, in turn, led me to take the rather unusual step of becoming ‘non-stipendiary’ and earning my living as what I then called a management consultant.

Ever since taking this step I have increasingly seen my role as a consultant to be an extension of my priesthood.  As I say this I am aware of the extent to which the world of ‘business’ and the world of ‘religion’ are seen by many as alien to each other – or (even worse in my view) existing in different worlds with different rules.  I have tended to see these attitudes as symptomatic of an unhealthy fragmentation in our society.  I wrote the following in 2000 in an unpublished paper:

“Work and business do not constitute a special, other world.  The culture of business has its own conventions and its own proper concerns, but it does not exist separately from the rest of life.  Whatever we are at home, in our other activities, we are in business…

…But there is a more specific question of the place of modern business organisations in our society.  Do they exist merely to generate profit for themselves?  Or to create employment, which though it may be in other ways unrewarding, gives people the material means to live?  Or even to contribute to a healthy and prosperous economy, from which the rest of society will, indirectly, benefit?  This is quite a lot, but is it enough?  Should we not seek to find some sense of value and purpose in the specific activities of the company?”

I got into consulting partly because of my pursuit of a vision of what a healthier, happier, more connected world might look like.  And my vision was absolutely grounded in my Christian faith and a conviction that we live in God’s world, one in which organisations of various kinds, were playing an increasingly significant role that needed to be given far more attention.  It seemed to me then, as it does now, that it would simply not do to see the world in compartments.

In other words, in helping organisations and their people to change and grow I was adding something of real value to the world and serving God in so doing.  Of course, many organisations do not see it that way, but I worked with colleagues (and clients – there are more of them than cynics imagine) who shared a philosophy that success and sustainability arose precisely from adherence to a larger sense of purpose and positive values.

In making the move into consultancy (for which I was not really qualified) I had an awful lot to learn.  A lot of what consultants do is impart a broader body of wisdom about dealing with yourself and others into an organisational context.  So I learned a lot about myself and other people (rather more than I did at theological college).  And when I started I didn’t know much (well, nothing really) about the harder aspects of organisational life.  A steep learning curve indeed. But as I gained in knowledge and experience I began to look back at the Church with some concern.  I noticed that the long story of numerical decline was continuing; I became aware of the demographic ‘time bomb’ that threatened more catastrophic collapse (there are a lot of old people and few younger joiners to replace them).  And nobody in the hierarchy (e.g. bishops) seemed to be doing anything about it or even admitting it.  And I also noticed that the Church was doing few or none of the things that I spent my time advising other organisations to do.

I began to develop a strong urge or calling to bring what I’d learned about organisations back to the Church of England and help the Church address decline and manage positive change.  I wrote a book which examined the Church in organisational terms and set out a process for change which could be applied, in principle, at any level within it.  In 2013 ‘Creating the Future of the Church: A Practical Guide to Addressing Whole-system Change’ was published by SPCK.

Since it was written the atmosphere in the Church has changed quickly and rather dramatically (not because of the book!) and now everyone knows about the threat posed by declining numbers and influence.  The archbishops now want change and they want it yesterday and there have been a number of reports and initiatives to implement this change.  Having urged change when there was not much appetite for it, I now found myself trying to get people to stop and think! I am concerned that the Church is in real danger of uncritically adopting business practice and of attempting change without proper consideration of the deeper questions of what the Church is, and what it might properly become. On the other hand there are still many who don’t trust anything with origins outside the Church and who particularly dislike what they rather easily dismiss as ‘managerialism’.

I want to explore all this much further and more deeply.  I want to do some work which, ultimately, might help the Church to make sense of itself in a world of organisations and to sift what will ‘add value’ from that which will not.  And I’d also like to help it speak its own wisdom back to the world of which it is a part.  And, before that, I want to learn a great deal that I know I don’t know and work out exactly what I think in the light of a significant process of study and research.  It’s not a field in which there is a great deal of existing work and I am keen to add something substantial.

I’ll be bringing to it all the experiences and ideas I’ve described and I’m aware that they’ll be thoroughly tested and that the ideas will likely have to change.  I am delighted to have been given encouragement and support from the Susanna Wesley Foundation and such an enthusiastic welcome from both the business school and the humanities department.  I have discovered elsewhere that although a cross-disciplinary PhD is theoretically a very good thing in practice some institutions seem unable to deal with one.  So the ease and enthusiasm which Roehampton has brought to it is a great boost.  I’m excited about the work and the new community I shall be getting to know.

Meanwhile, a conviction about the nature of truth I expressed in my book continues to inspire and drive me:

 “I am wary of the need to put the words ‘Christian theology of’ in front of everything, as if there is, on every subject, a special Christian truth, accessible only to religious people.  I say this because I understand God to be the Creator of this world and His Spirit to be the source of all life and truth.  So there is no ‘Christian’ truth, as in truth which is the special preserve of the Church or of Christians, but only God’s truth, or the truth. “