Religious Organizations Research Paper

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Religious organizations seek to establish, promote, and regulate relations between human beings and divinities, supernatural orders, or supreme metaphysical principles. This research paper explains why religious organizations have been distinguished from nonreligious organizations and why their distinctiveness lies mainly in their varied patterns of authority and leadership.

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1. Diversity

Religious organizations are immensely varied but they typically aim to promote worship, prayer, meditation, teaching, healing, and spiritual well-being in accordance with authoritative revelations, texts, codes, laws, and principles. They range from the groups of ‘clients’ who regularly consult self-appointed healers, gurus, and shamans to worldwide ecclesiastical bureaucracies such as the Roman Catholic Church. Informal and irregular religious practices can be nested inside highly formal religious organizations.

The distinctive ‘products’ of religious organizations are equally diverse: sacred knowledge, transcendental experiences, prophecies, worship and meditation, rituals with the power to cleanse or heal, rites of passage, religious ethics, recruiting missions, political, welfare, and educational outreach, local fellowship, and so on. They also have much in common with nonreligious organizations in so far as they face the need to secure adequate resources, to train and control staff, to retain their authority, to cope with dissent and conflict, to interact with other organizations in their environment, to defend their share of the religious ‘market,’ and to deter ‘free riders,’ and unwelcome takeovers. Religious organizations have therefore established schools, seminaries, hospitals, welfare agencies, publishing enterprises, and missionary orders in order to extend and protect their boundaries.

2. History

The history of studies of religious organizations can be divided into two streams. The first is concerned primarily with the distinctiveness of religious organizations and with their subtypes. The second, which has flourished since the 1950s, deals with the internal dynamics and shifting fortunes of religious organizations in their social environments.

2.1 Types And Subtypes

The intellectual rationale for the pioneering and highly influential studies written by Max Weber (1864–1920) and Ernst Troeltsch (1865–1923) had its roots in their respective interests in the interplay between modernity and religion. Having established the crucial but unintended contributions of Ancient Judaism and Christianity towards the forms of modern rationalization, Weber analyzed the ironic implications of rationalization for the differentiation of religion from other institutions and value spheres. Secularization, bureaucratization, and the disenchantment of the modern world were all shown to have reduced the cultural and social significance of religious organizations. Weber perceived clearly that church-type organizations (large, territorially based, and inclusive in membership terms) had the potential to exercise power but were constrained by their ties to the secular world from translating their Christian ethics into uncompromising programs of action. By contrast, sect-type organizations (voluntaristic, relatively small, and exclusive in membership terms) were capable of maintaining a distinctive and often radical version of Christian theology and ethics but were prevented from exercising much influence on the world around them because they distanced themselves from it.

Troeltsch was less preoccupied with relationalization as a process and more concerned with the historical evolution of the social forms of ‘church,’ ‘sect,’ and ‘mysticism’ in which the New Testament’s ethical message had found expression. Troeltsch was particularly exercised by the question of whether liberal Protestantism was robust enough and sufficiently well adapted to the conditions of modernity to serve as an effective vehicle for Christian ethics in an increasingly secular world.

The concepts of ‘church’ and ‘sect,’ plus numerous variants and subtypes such as ‘established sect’ and ‘denomination,’ have played an important part in many attempts to explain patterns of change in Christian organizations throughout the twentieth century. Some scholars have tried to apply these concepts to the analysis of religions other than Christianity, but it remains questionable whether this is appropriate in the case of religions lacking strong notions of membership and corporate authority. Yet, refinements of the sect concept have undoubtedly helped to explain the highly varied developments of minority religious movements, not only in Western societies but also in East Asia. Bryan Wilson’s (1970) scheme of seven subtypes of sects has proved particularly fruitful and influential. The concept of ‘cult’ has also undergone extensive refinement, coinciding initially with public interest in the new religious movements which became controversial in many Western countries and Japan in the 1970s.

A further impetus for sociological studies of ‘sects’ and ‘cults’ began to develop in the 1980s when proponents of rational choice theory claimed that previous usage of these concepts has been largely ad hoc and untheorized (Iannaccone 1988). On the assumption that people rationally try to attain their ends by the least costly means, in religion as in any other area of life, the theory holds that people incur the costs of participating in religious organizations in order to derive supernatural compensators which purport to give answers to questions of ultimate meaning. In this theoretical perspective, churches are believed to offer answers which conform with prevailing norms, whereas sects and cults allegedly deviate from the norms and incur sanctions or costs which are nevertheless experienced by their followers as selective benefits unavailable to members of ‘lax’ churches. The historical formation of sects (by schism) and cults (by innovation) can be accounted for in rational choice terms as a never-ending process of competition between religious organizations standing in different degrees of tension with society.

By comparison, the sociological concept of ‘church’ underwent relatively little change in the twentieth century. Moreover, little interest has been shown in refining or even applying the kind of cognate concepts of ‘ecclesiola in ecclesia,’ ‘fraternitas,’ and ‘order’ that Joachim Wach (1898–1955) and others elaborated. Nevertheless, studies of Christian organizations in Africa, Asia, South America, and the former Soviet Union have brought to light the importance of such organizational forms as ‘independent churches,’ ‘base ecclesial communities,’ and ‘underground churches.’ The continuing significance of relations between religious organizations, nations, and states in some countries has also preserved a place for ‘church’ in analyses of, for example, civil society (Casanova 1994) or international relations (Johnston and Sampson 1995). And extensive research in North America has thrown light on numerous aspects of ‘denominations’ as distinctive organizations. Beginning with the embeddedness of denominations in social classes (Niebuhr 1929) and ethnic groups, studies have analyzed the organizational conditions of schism, the ambiguous position of theological seminaries, the differential responsiveness to female clergy, the increasingly complex webs of ‘interorganizational fields’ in which denominations operate, and tensions between religious hierarchies and functional agencies. Another rich vein of research has investigated the contributions of denominations towards ideologies of pluralism, pluralistic provision of social welfare, social movements, and the ‘independent sector.’

The study of religious organizations has been understandably less important in relation to religious traditions which tend to lack the formality, corporate authority structures, and membership principles characteristic of Christianity. Nevertheless, common foci of scholarly interest have emerged in the study of Muslim ‘orders,’ brotherhoods, and charitable endownments (waqf ); Buddhist monastic institutions (sangha); Hindu devotional groups (bhakti) and nationalist organizations; Jewish and Sikh communal organizations; and Shinto parishes.

2.2 Dynamics Of Religious Organizations

The emerging concern with the organizational dynamics of religion in the 1950s was partly a reflection of the growing salience of ‘organization theory’ in the burgeoning social sciences, and partly a function of Christian theological interests in ‘ministry’ as a modern profession and in churches as complex organizations responding to rapid social change (Harrison 1959, Winter 1968, Beckford 1975). Yet the impact of these analyses of religious organizations on the development of organizational theories in general was modest. This state of affairs began to change slightly in the mid-1970s when notions such as ‘organizational climate’ and ‘organizational culture’ directed attention towards the significance of cultural factors which had always loomed large in analyses of religious organizations but which were emerging as important influences in virtually all kinds of organization. Investigations of communes gave a further impetus to research into the force of strong commitments and normative beliefs among organizational participants. Subsequent discoveries about the importance of rituals, retreats, flexibility, and networking in many organizations have only enhanced the interest that religious organizations now have for some organizational analysts (DiMaggio 1998). This minor rapprochement between the study of formal organizations and the study of religious organizations received a further boost in the 1980s when so-called New Age and quasireligious business began to attract attention for their practice of combining profit seeking with ethical business practices and of contributing towards the ‘spiritual development’ of their staff and clients. And fresh insights into the tensions between the ‘religious’ and ‘agency’ structure of US denominations (Chaves 1993) offer the prospect of explaining comparable tensions between the normative and functional bases for coordination and compliance in other organizations as well.

Two inter-related aspects of religious organizations stand out as the central foci for past and present research: authority and leadership. This does not mean that issues of organizational effectiveness, efficiency, and complexity are irrelevant in the case of religious organizations. It simply means that organizations purveying allegedly timeless truths and the highest normative commitments tend to be relatively more preoccupied than nonreligious organizations with establishing, reproducing, and defending their teachings and practices against corruption, subversion, or apathy.

3. Authority

Like profit-seeking organizations, religious organizations are engaged in competition with purveyors of rival versions of ultimate truths and in conflict with opponents, but they are also obliged to monitor and police their own members or followers. This is why questions of authority are central to religious organizations and why change often meets with strong resistance. In this sense, religious organizations are distinctive, if not unique, for the extent to which the connections between their founding truths and their organizational structure and everyday activities are constantly rehearsed in rituals, symbols, exegesis of sacred texts, preaching, prayers, teaching, meditation, and the training of leaders.

3.1 Sources Of Authority

Christianity is virtually unique among the world’s religions for the extent to which its practice has been controlled by centralized, formal organizations cutting across ethnic, tribal, and political groupings. By contrast, Hinduism, Judaism, and Shinto crystallized slowly out of predominantly tribal and ethnic cultures, giving rise to temples, synagogues, and shrines as centers of rites and ritual worship rather than as agencies of civil administration. Diasporic Judaism, lacking the authority previously vested in the Temple at Jerusalem and its hereditary priests, regrouped around rabbis as teachers of the law and around synagogues as ritual centers. Communal organizations have played a major role in preserving the ethnic and religious identity of Jews under persecution, but centralized organizations to control Jewish beliefs and rituals are relatively weak.

Buddhism and Islam emerged from more deliberate attempts to cultivate religious and philosophical systems partly at odds with prevailing culture and social arrangements, and this feature of their historical emergence may help to account for the fact that they have been closely allied with political regimes at various times. Thailand and Japan, for example, have had something approaching Buddhist parish systems. Modern Japan has also seen the rise of massive, hierarchical organizations of Buddhist laypeople such as Rissho Kosei-kai and Soka Gakkai. But elsewhere in Asia, Buddhism functions like a diffuse folk religion supported by monastic institutions and temples.

The organization of Islam is subtle, multistranded and variable by region of the world. As a conversion faith Islam has been interwoven with political regimes, but it does not have a single, authoritative organization. There are multiple, competing sources of theological, legal, spiritual, and moral authority in Islam, for the authority of learned experts, jurists, hereditary sheikshs, leaders of brotherhoods and clergy (among the Shi’ites) are all part of the complex organizational tapestry of Islam. This high degree of complexity makes it difficult for any single organization to claim convincingly that it represents all Muslims. Now that tens of millions of Muslims live as religious minorities in the predominantly Christian countries of Europe and North America, pressure may be increasing for would-be representative organizations to seek to represent all Muslims in their collective relations with nation states, nongovernmental organizations, and the European Union.

3.2 Forms Of Polity

The variety of organizational forms and processes which translate these concerns with authority into action is bewilderingly wide. They range from loosely structured fellowships to vastly complex and formal organizations which require their members to accept centrally imposed dogmas and rituals mediated by authoritative officials. In practice, most religious organizations fall somewhere on a continuum between these two extreme positions, but their precise location may change in response to factors internal or external to the organizations. Moreover, the time-honored distinction between church and sect-type organizations cannot be mapped on to the distinction between religious organizations with either strong or weak systems of authority.

The convention of classifying the polity of Christian churches as Episcopal, Presbyterian, or congregational relates to the distribution of authority as laid down in their respective theologies and legal constitutions. In particular, the distinction between ordained clergy and laity is given theological justification, and the differential authority accorded to different grades of religious professionals is explained in the same terms. Yet this classification can only be a starting-point for social scientific analysis, since the readiness of subordinates to comply with authoritative commands form their superiors is variable, and pressure from outside the churches may make it necessary to modify the practical implementation of the ecclesiastical principle. For example, the Episcopal polity of churches in the worldwide Anglican communion conceals a wide diversity of relations between bishops and other church members. Presbyterian and congregational polities have also come under pressure to adapt the exercise of authority to prevailing sociocultural values and conditions. Thus, critics of the patriarchalism allegedly underpinning many forms of Christian organizational polity have challenged the gendered distribution of authority in churches and tried to infuse them with feminist, antihierarchical values (Wallace 1992, Nesbitt 1997). Moreover, the ideal of congregational autonomy finds itself in tension with political or economic pressures to extend the authority of regional or national officials.

3.3 Fundamentalism

The increasing popularity and influence of so-called fundamentalist forms of religion roughly since the 1950s in many parts of the world and in most of the major faith traditions has prompted social scientists to pay greater attention to religious authority (Marty and Appleby 1991). Fundamentalism centers on faith in the authority of certain principles, usually enshrined in sacred texts, to generate unequivocal guidance for the conduct of personal and public life, and it favors assertive leadership and a strong suspicion of anything outside the group of committed believers. Yet the organizational bases of fundamentalism are diverse and subtle. There is no single, monolithic organization in any faith tradition or country which promotes fundamentalism. Instead, it has spread by personal witness, small group discussion, and the use of computerized mailing lists, terrestrial and satellite television and radio broadcasts, video cassettes, email, and the World Wide Web. Fundamentalists utilize modern technology and/organizational forms in order to transform the world, and are not traditionalists, ‘antimodern,’ or withdrawn from the world. On the contrary, their aim is to make the world conform with their authoritative principles, and this calls for forms of organization which are flexible and responsive to local circumstances.

4. Leadership

4.1 Roles

Leadership roles, structures, and training vary widely between faith traditions, between their different ‘schools’ or denominations and between different parts of the world. The precise pattern of leadership at any level is shaped mainly by prevailing ideas about the source and nature of sacred power. Leaders of religions which identify sacred power exclusively with scriptures and laws derive their authority mainly from the capacity to read and interpret them. Judaism and Islam exemplify this pattern of leadership by scholars, teachers, and jurists. Priesthood, by comparison, is found in religions such as Hinduism, Shinto, Christianity, and Sikhism which combine reverence for sacred texts with belief in the capacity of priests to perform rituals allowing humans to interact in various ways with divinities and sacred power. The office of a priest enables this power to be effective through properly conducted rituals. Prophets and charismatic religious leaders may reform religion by opposing institutionalized practices and beliefs with radically new or different ones. Ministers of religion in most of the Protestant traditions offer leadership mainly through their preaching, exposition of scripture and, at least in evangelicalism, efforts to persuade individuals of their sinfulness and urgent need to seek redemption. Monks, nuns and ‘holy men,’ as the ‘virtuosi’ in some religious traditions, exercise leadership on the strength of their extraordinary discipline, devotion, and selflessness. The sangha, or monastic community, remains at the heart of Buddhism in many parts of the world; monastic institutions were the bulwark of Christianity throughout the European Middle Ages; Catholic religious orders were in the forefront of missionary work in Africa, Asia, and South America in the modern era; and monks continue to occupy the highest leadership positions in Orthodox churches. But religious traditions which locate authority in the spiritual freedom of individuals to cultivate their own, relatively independent path to the sacred tend to resist strong notions of leadership, preferring at best to have spiritual exemplars, teachers, or gurus.

4.2 Local Groups

It is common for religious leaders to be attached to a particular building or social center where they conduct teaching, preaching, meditation, workship, prayer, or pastoral functions. Some also have responsibility for the spiritual oversight of institutions such as schools, seminaries, orphanages, hospitals, refuges, and pilgrimage sites. Christianity went further than other religious traditions in establishing a comprehensive system for delivering religious and pastoral services to geographically demarcated areas known as parishes, which represented subdivisions of national or international churches. The idea that the residents of a locality would belong to a parish and form a congregation of regular worshipers under the leadership of local clergy was especially effective in European regions where the dominant church was closely aligned with political regimes.

4.3 Congregations

Congregations are the basic unit of most Christian organizations in the sense of being the social group with which their members in particular localities feel most closely associated. The precise status of congregations varies with the theology and authority structure of the larger religious organizations to which they belong. The congregations of hierarchical churches are local outlets of ideas and practices controlled by regional, national, and international authorities such as bishops, cardinals, and the Pope. By contrast, religious organizations which have little or no theological justification for hierarchy or central control tend to regard local congregations as relatively autonomous units. This is common among, for example, independent fellowships of conservative Protestants, the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain, and the Christadelphians. The implications of the balance that Christian organizations achieve between centralization and local autonomy have been extensively researched because it reveals differences in the extent to which congregations can generate resources, mobilize members in campaigns, respond to internal problems, and influence public life (Hong and Roozen 1979).

As Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism are not structured on the basis of inclusive, unitary organizations at national or international levels they have not generated congregations or systems of parishes. Yet, temples, mosques, synagogues, and gurdwaras do function as ritual and pastoral centers for people living in their vicinity or choosing to visit them. Lacking strong integration into higher level organizations, however, these local centers are accountable either to their private owners or to their management committees. Consequently, their religious leaders are retained as professionals or qualified volunteers by local groups rather than as employees of ecclesiastical organizations at a higher level.

4.4 Recruitment And Training

In advanced industrial societies the attractions of work in positions of religious leadership are weakening, and the rate of applications for training as religious professionals has been declining since the middle of the twentieth century. At the same time, the characteristics of recruits to religious leadership in Christian churches have also changed. They now include a much greater proportion of women, of people over the age of 30, of people retiring early from other occupations, and of people from a wider range of ethnic and social class backgrounds. The ‘feminization’ of religious leadership is occurring in many churches in so far as the proportion of women entering theological training and Christian ministry has been rising steadily since the 1960s (Wallace 1992). Yet the upper echelons of most churches are still controlled by men, and there is evidence that various mechanisms still prevent women from enjoying genuinely equal opportunities for professional advancement. Women are even more strongly excluded from leadership roles in the other world religions, although they have been admitted to the rabbinate in some traditions of Judaism.

It is only in developing countries that there is still a relatively strong supply of young men and women for theological training and preparation for the ministry or monastic vows. The disproportionately large numbers of trainee priests and ministers originating in developing countries may mean that the organizational ‘center of gravity’ of some large Christian organizations is in process of shifting away from Europe and North America. In effect, the new international division of labor is affecting religious organizations as well as transnational businesses.

5. Questions About The Future

Three emerging trends in religious organizations call for special comment. The first concern settlers in countries of large-scale immigration who seek to establish their own faith communities or congregations (see Warner and Wittner 1998). How far will these communities conform with prevailing forms of religious organization in their new setting? How far will their forms of organization come under pressure to meet the criteria laid down by stage agencies if they wish to deliver health, welfare, or educational services? And to what extent will their forms of organization influence longer established religious groups?

The second concerns the effect of new information technologies on the capacity of religious organizations to extend their influence to virtually all parts of the world. Will satellite broadcasting, video recordings, and the Internet increase competition between religious organizations? And will they cultivate a globally standardized form of these organizations?

The third emerging trend is for the appeal of ‘special purpose’ agencies to cut across the boundaries between Christian congregations and between denominations in the USA, thereby making ideological differences within religious organizations more challenging than the differences between these organizations (see Wuthnow 1988). Is there evidence of this kind of restructuring in other world religions? Does this repositioning of organizational ‘fault lines’ facilitate or hinder transnational religious developments?


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