Serving the System

Although written over thirty years ago, Gene Goetz still makes a valuable contribution to church life and the dangers it may encounter from within.  When a church loses its expressed faith and vision it becomes a prisoner of its own nostalgia.  Instead of focusing upon objectives the details become the menacing overlords; the “means” become more important than the “end,” which is all together lost in the process.


Rather than defining “institutionalism” per se, it may be easier to look at the symptoms of institutionalism—when has it happened? Or, when is it beginning to happen? Some of these symptoms are as follows:

  1. The organization (the form and structure) becomes more im­portant than the people that make up the organization.
  2. Individuals begin to function in the organization more like cogs in a machine.
  3. Individuality and creativity are lost in the structural mass.
  4. The atmosphere in the organization becomes threatening, rather than open and free; people are often afraid to ask uncomfortable questions.
  5. The structural arrangements in the organization have become rigid and inflexible.
  6. People are serving the organization more than the objectives for which the organization was brought into existence. In other words, means have become ends.
  7. Communication often breaks down, particularly because of a re­pressive atmosphere and lots of red tape.
  8. People become prisoners of their procedures. The “policy manual” and the “rule book” get bigger, and fresh ideas are few and far between.
  9. In order to survive in a cold structure, people develop their own special interests within the organization, creating competitive de­partments and divisions. The corporate objective gives way to a multitude of unrelated objectives which, inevitably, results in lack of unity in the organization as a whole.
  10. Morale degenerates; people lose their initiative; they become dis­couraged and often critical of the organization and of others in the organization — particularly its leaders.
  11. As the organization gets bigger and as time passes, the process of institutionalization often speeds up. A hierarchy of leadership de­velops, increasing the problems of communication from the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top. People toward the bottom, or even in the middle of the organizational structure, feel more and more as if they “really don’t count” in the organization.

When you have these symptoms in an organization, institutionalism is already in its advanced stages.

“Organizations differ from people and plants in that their cycle isn’t even
approximately predictable. An organization may go from youth to old age in two or
three decades, or it may last for centuries. More important, it may go through a
period of stagnation and then revive. In short, decline is not inevitable.
Organizations need not stagnate. They often do, to be sure, but that is because the
arts of organizational renewal are not yet widely understood. Organizations can
renew themselves continuously.”

— John W. Gardner, “How to Prevent Organizational Dry Rot,” Harper, October 1965,
p. 20


Gene Getz, Sharpening the Focus of the Church (Moody Publishers 1976), p. 193f.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *