Patterns of this World: Institutions and Bureaucracy among the Mennonites, Part 1

A few weeks ago, I referenced Romans 12:2 in a comment on SteveK’s post on fire codes and faith. Tim B questioned whether this was a relevant passage. This post represents my further thoughts on the passages relevance to bureaucracy.

Jesus is the Answer

“In the world, but not of it.” This is a concept long embraced by Mennonites in style of dress and rejection of other “worldy” trappings. But in the last 50 years, the stance of mainstream Mennonites has changed dramatically. Embracing radio, television and lipstick, we’ve come to see our Christian distinctiveness through our dissenting view on war, our commitment to simple living and our Christian service. Unfortunately, in our rush to engage the world on these issues, we have uncritically embraced a piece of this aion (Gk., spirit of this world) far more dangerous then lipstick and ties. That is: institutional structures and bureaucracy.

Tim, you might say, aren’t you being a bit over-dramatic? Can institutional structures really hurt anyone? Aren’t they just neutral tools that can be used for good or ill?

In this first part of my series on bureaucracy and institutionalism, I’ll draw on three writers to make my case. The first is Kathy Ferguson in her book, The Feminist Case Against Bureaucracy.In this quote she clearly names the way institutions co-opt our attempts to form an alternative polis grounded in community:

The [bureaucratic] structures that isolate us undermine politics itself in that they undermine our sociality; they harm our capacity to take the perspective of others unto ourselves and our situation, to imagine alternatives that come from shared experience, to project different futures and redefine past experiences on the basis of other possibilities for individual and collective life. There is a “Catch 22” involved in in this dependency/isolation dialectic: to act socially one must share a common world with others and contribute to the field of meaning that constitutes the world. Any originality of thought or action requires that we be rooted in shared existence; but the more firmly rooted one is in bureaucracy, the less likely one is to think differently, to act differently, or in any way to make a new beginning (14).

In other words, bureaucracy draws us in with its promises of community and shared action, but ultimately co-opts this impulse to the overall goal of keeping the institutional machinery running.

This is the deep, dark secret of institutions: their will to survive will constantly compete with the original vision or mission on which they were founded. Organizations are shaped around the needs of self-maintenance. Those within the institution who value the continued functioning of the institution above all else are rewarded by promotions and more influence. Those who question or challenge bureaucratic self-perpetuation or the rules that enable it don’t do as well. Over time, this carrot and stick approach shapes the thoughts and actions of everyone who is a part of the organization around self-maintenance. (9).

This analysis of the interior life of institutions resonates with Walter Wink’s description of the spirituality of institutions in Naming the Powers: the Language of Power in the New Testament:

Every organization is made up of human beings who make its decisions and are responsible for its success or failure, but these institutions tend to have a supra-human quality. Although created and staffed by humans, decisions are not made so much by people as for them, out of the logic of institutional life itself. And because the institutions usually antedates and outlasts its employees, its develops and imposes a set of traditions, expectations, beliefs, and values on everyone in its employ (110).

Wink is identifying that this corporate culture creates an interior life that forms the spirit of an institution that is more then the sum of the people that work there. It’s not about any one person in an institution and the choices they make. Every president or board member is constrained, shaped and formed by the “patterns of the world” that Paul speaks of in Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Why do we need this renewing of our minds? Paul spent many years working for the Jewish authorities before his Damascus Road experience. He knew precisely how his participation in these institutions shaped him and formed his “expectations, beliefs and values.” He also knew that these forces were constantly at work on Christians in Rome, living in the heart of empire. In the rest of Romans 12, we see him laying out the powerful antidote: “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (Romans 1:1). When sacrificially orienting our whole selves around Christ’s upside down ethic, our lives become absurdity in the eyes of the aion:

  • Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. (verse 14)
  • Be willing to associate with people of low position. (verse 16)
  • Do not repay anyone evil for evil. (verse 17)
  • Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, (verse 19)
  • If your enemy is hungry, feed him;if she is thirsty, give her something to drink. (verse 20)

These aren’t simply nice personal guidelines to help us be better people. They likely won’t lead to self-improvement. Instead, they point to the way the body of Christ (verses 3-8) is oriented fundamentally differently then the powers and principalities of this aion. They are a social ethic inseparable from the living, breathing community.

This all sounds very Anabaptist, doesn’t it? This is supposed to be our specialty. Unfortunately, Mennonite institutions have been headed pell-mell in the opposite direction. In “Mission Community: A New Image for Church-Related Institutions,” John Eby laid out the history of the trends of bureaucratization in the Mennonite church. He describes the massive growth of Mennonite connected institutions from the 1950’s through the 1980’s. Eby describes the effect of the “business bureaucratic” model on Mennonite organizations:

As Mennonite institutions have shared such trends, they have become highly structured, formal bureaucracies … In accepting bureaucratic and business principles, organizations have gained some efficiency, but lost some of the dynamic creativity that could have grown from their unique status as church-related organizations. While the business bureaucratic approach may have served the last several decades, it is already losing its effectiveness and will not serve the future. The challenge for church related institutions is to develop strategies that realistically reflect the current situation in the church and allow organizations to survive in the context of the realities of the world and are informed by the values and theology of the Anabaptist vision. (Eby 397)

Unfortunately, rather then equipping young people to challenge and recognize the institutional patterns of this world, Mennonite educational institutions increasingly seek to justify these patterns, as in the “new school of thought” used by Goshen (Ind.) College president Jim Brenneman to justify Goshen College’s decision to play the national anthem In part 2 of this series, I’ll explore his use of J. Lawrence Burkholder as well as Burkholder’s wider influence in the bureaucratization of Mennonite institutions.

Part 2: Bureaucracy, professionalism and dissent in Mennonite Church USA institutions and Part 3: Patterns of this World, part 3: Patriarchy, Pacifism and Powerlessness

Works Cited

Eby, John. “Mission Community: A New Image for Church-Related Institutions.” Mennonite Quarterly Review LXXI.3 (1997): 395-409.

Ferguson, Kathy E. The Feminist Case against Bureaucracy. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1984.

Koontz, Ted. “Church-Related Institutions: Signs of God’s Reign?” Mennonite Quarterly Review LXXI.3 (1997): 421-38.

Biblical quotations from Bible Gateway.

This piece is cross-posted on The Mennonite and Work and Hope.

Photo by Tim Nafziger

Comments (9)

  1. Sam

    this is nicely done-I think you’re absolutely right that structures of power matter, and how we decide to organize our churches, denomination, and other church related groups will shape what they are becoming, and that we always have to critique their choices and patterns.
    I’m curious to see where you go with this over the next two parts.

    I guess I feel one caution to start out with however-since the 1980’s, Mennonite institutions have been working very hard on this issue. I think of MCC, with its attempts to form new wineskins and break out of old institutional structures. I think of MCs and GCs joining together to form a new denomination with both sides giving up power and traditions, and the ways that MCUSA is designed to not follow a traditional church structure. I think of churches exploring consensus practices, rather than traditions of voting. Even Goshen College choosing to play the national anthem may be a ‘self interested, self perpetuating’ choice, but I’m fascinated by how it also demonstrates a leadership group willing to go against long held practice and institutional momentum, upsetting alumni and donors for what they think is an ethical cause.

    Also, a good word for Mennonite Education-this was all pretty familiar stuff from my time as an undergraduate at Bethel College, and we were encouraged to think about how to shape institutional structures to be most effective at their goal of being part of God’s work in the world.

    Finally, I’d be interested in taking this to a more granular level-what is it about the institution of Goshen College that failed in the national anthem discussion? What are the broken values being expressed? What structures might lead to a more redeeming outcome?
    Equally, I think its interesting to ask what is the institutional spirit of this blog? What are our values? What forces work for or against the fullness of Christ’s kingdom here? Who are we speaking to, appealing to, and challenging?
    Keep up the good work!

  2. AmyM

    This is great.

    The fact that Jesus preached enemy-love while He was raised where crucifixions happened publicly and on a regular basis, not to mention, that He grew up in a region where a legion of the Roman army occupied that territory is an inspiration for us to do this from the creature comforts proffered by Western Civilization.

    It should not be that difficult for us not to become too easily offended or become divided against each other in our Fellowship communities. Also it is not too much for to ask for us not to become intertwined in bureaucracy and working for corporations who elect to oppress us or the nations.

  3. CharlesB

    TimN, thanks for the read. I think you offer an excellent reminder about the fallenness. I would probably have used something more along the lines of ‘fire codes are made for us, we are not made for the fire codes’ approach.

    Also, it seems to me you’re reading Wink selectively here. In my (limited) understanding Wink’s formulation actually goes more along these lines: the powers are good, the powers are fallen, the powers will be redeemed.

  4. TimN (Post author)


    As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m always challenged by Wink’s hopeful vision of the powers. I think the specific quote I used from him holds true when the powers are good and being redeemed as well, though in this blog I was focused on the fallen aspect, because that’s the aspect I feel Mennonite institutions rarely want to look seriously at.

  5. CharlesB


    Thanks for the clarification. Certainly the specific quote holds true for how you used it. But seemed selective because I didn’t hear an affirmation in the larger article that institutions are good/being redeemed. I heard an argument for rejecting them rather than redeeming them.

  6. AlanS

    As I was reading this it brought up the idea of church life cycles. There’s some interesting stuff from the Alaban Institute here. (There are some others out there that say it better but this is kind of the core of it all). What was striking to me was that one of the later stages of the life cycle is named “bureaucracy”. hmmmm.

    Ultimately, I’m a believer that institutions, buildings and bureaucracy aren’t the devil and that they can be used to build up the kingdom of God. But I’m also with you TimN in what you’ve written in this article. Thanks.

  7. Pingback: Patterns of this world, part 2: Breakfast with Burkholder » Young Anabaptist Radicals

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  9. Pingback: Patterns of this World, part 3: Patriarchy, Pacifism and Powerlessness » Young Anabaptist Radicals

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