Burnham among the Churches

The Rise of Managerial Ecclesiology

James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution is the most important book you haven’t read yet.  Burnham traces the shift from a capitalist society to a managerial society during the interwar period. Though dated in details, his analysis of societal change is perennial. I commend it to any who love this land and her people.

Society is the conglomeration of institutions such that what happens in one part of society bleeds into and affects the other institutions. Under Burnham’s analysis, the managerial revolution began when the captains of industry (capitalists in the traditional sense, think Rockefeller et al.) were slowly separating from the actual work of production. Leaving the factory floors, they moved to the E-Suite. From the E-Suite, they moved to the Wall Street Office. From the Wall Street Office, they moved to their house in the Hamptons. During this slow transition from producer/owner to merely owner, from making steel (for example) and owning the steel company to hiring out the steel making but retaining ownership, the managers stepped in. 

The managers were at first necessary to keep these large operations going while the founder/owner focused on other aspects of the business. Over time, this move away from production to being a figurehead and enjoying the profits of the company surrendered control of the institution to the managers. Though they did not own the institution on paper, the managers became the de facto owners. They ran the company and hence in fact, though not in law, they eventually owned it as well. This is a sketch of Burnham’s analysis.

Today, the managerial revolution has moved far past where it was in Burnham’s day. The presence of D.E.I. officers, HR departments, and other regulatory agencies, both within corporations and without, signals that the managers are running the shops. There is still some of the profit motive left in the economy. “Go woke, go broke” is still a valid rule of thumb.  But, my concern is not with economies and profits. My concern is with ecclesiology and pastors.

To think that the visible church is not subject to the same forces that revolutionize society is to be a blind leader.  When I say visible church, I mean nothing more than the body of Christians who profess the true religion and their ecclesiastical institutions. This church, the visible church, being an institution participating in the ebb and flow of contemporary society, is part of the conglomerate of institutions we call America. Hence, it is subject to the same cultural shifts and changes that have, are, and continue to corrupt American society.

In order to apply Burnham’s analysis to the church, we will need to swap out some parts.  Under Burnham’s rubric, the managerial revolution involves the products of the institution, the institutions themselves, the owner of the institution/producer, the benefits that the owner’s enjoy, the concept of ownership, and the managers. 

The product of the church is saints. Granted, I am using this term metaphorically.  I do not mean to imply that people are products. I merely intend to point out that there is a result in the work of the church. This result is saints. 

The institution is the visible church. This would include actual churches and parachurch organizations who have as their professed goal to convert, equip, train, educate, or in any other way produce saints in this life. 

The owner/founder of the institutions are the officers of the church. The officers control the institution on paper, and in many cases still in fact. Again, do not get lost in the metaphor.  This article is not meant as a theological statement. It is merely an attempt to understand the facts on the ground in America today.

The benefits that accrue to the officers of the church are honor, salary, and a certain lifestyle.  Pastors are to be honored, financially supported, and given liberty to study for the sake of laboring in the field of souls. This work is called shepherding in the Scriptures.  Being a shepherd requires a man to fulfill the roles of prophet, priest, and king. A shepherd must know the Word of God and proclaim and apply it to those he labors among. A shepherd must pray for and suffer for those he labors among. A shepherd must investigate, discern, and judge cases that come before him. Thus, you have the work of prophet, priest, and king all encompassed in the work of a shepherd. The benefits that are traditionally granted to officers are compensation for the work that they do.

The managers we have in view would be any persons or entities brought into the church to take over any or all of the functions of prophet, priest, or king in the work of the shepherd.  Recall Burnham. The managers stepped into the institutions of capitalism when the owner/founders retreated from the work of production.  They retained ownership on paper but practiced it less in actual fact. This created the space for the managers to take over control and eventually ownership of the institution. 

This leads us to the final piece of Burnham’s analysis: ownership.  The concept of ownership implies control. Ownership is control. Once a division emerges between de jure ownership and de facto control, a revolution is underway. Slow at first, this revolution inevitably changes the face of society. A new ruling class emerges, a new set of owners who control the institutions.

What we are witnessing in all major conservative ecclesiastical institutions is the managerial revolution entering the church. This has been going on apace for some time but is now becoming more and more pressing. Especially this summer. With most major conservative organizations meeting at their annual meetings, each of them is dealing with the effects of this revolution.

As the officers of the church move away from the work of shepherding and focus more on enjoying the benefits of their office, ecclesiastical managers step in to carry on the work of the church.

Though the pattern of the managerial revolution can be discerned in the church, the players are different than they were in his day. Today, it is not technical skill that marks the managers who are slowly taking over the churches. It is “empathy.”  It is thought that in order to shepherd, “empathy” is the key skill one needs to care for souls. To be fair, empathy, rightly understood, is a good thing. The problem we have is that empathy has been elevated beyond its own proper scope. Recall the work of the shepherd: Prophet, Priest, and King. In the priestly functions, empathy would rightly be regarded as necessary. In the proclamation of the word and in judicial decisions, however, empathy can blind the eyes. The important point here is to note the “skill” that these managers are supposed to bring to the work of the church. That “skill” is empathy.

In future articles, I hope to explore in greater detail examples of the managerial revolution in the churches, as well as actions churches can take to reverse the tide. The hour is late. The time for action is now.

Image Credit: Unsplash

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B.A. Castle

B.A. Castle is a son of Virginia, a Confessional Presbyterian, husband, father, and dog owner, deer hunter. Graduating from GPTS in 2019, he served for 4 years as the pastor of Grace OPC Lynchburg, VA. He edited and modernized Theodore Beza's "Learned Treatise on the Plague" (Canon Press, 2020). He published "The Analogical Day View: Exegetical and Systematic Critique" (PRJ, 2018).

4 thoughts on “Burnham among the Churches

  1. Incisive analysis. We are seeing an increasing drive to use 3rd party organizations under the guise of “abuse” to judge ministers. Likewise, on the ground it is common for churches to use church funds to send congregants to Christian counselors. Mega church pastors have already been farming out their sermons to organizations like the Docent group.

  2. Since empathy is the standard, it seems women who are naturally more empathetic, make the most sense as the new managers. Be careful what you measure.

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