Patterns of this World: Institutions and Bureaucracy among the Mennonites

February 28th, 2011 – by Tim Nafziger, Editors Blog

“In the world, but not of it.” It 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 (9).

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 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 GC 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 bueracratiziation of Mennontie institutions.

Works Cited

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

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

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

Biblical quotations from Bible Gateway:

This blog post is cross-posted on The Mennonite . Nafziger is an activist, writer, organizer and web developer. This blog is part of a two-part series on Mennonite institutions.

This entry was posted on Monday, February 28th, 2011 at 10:51 am. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

5 Responses to “Patterns of this World: Institutions and Bureaucracy among the Mennonites”

  1. Patterns of this World: Institutions and Bureaucracy among the Mennonites, Part 1 » Young Anabaptist Radicals Says:

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

  2. Michael A. King Says:

    Tim, I think your take on institutions is insightful and that there are bureaucratizing Mennonite trends. I’ve felt them in all my church-related jobs including the current one. Bureaucracies are indeed principalities and powers with potential to enslave. I’m with Wink on institutions having spirits that can take us over.

    At the same time, I wouldn’t be in seminary/university leadership if I thought institutions held no potential for good. I tend to think can’t live with ’em and can’t live without ’em–and to fit with John Howard Yoder’s take that in a fallen world the principalities and powers are also fallen yet can be used by God as dikes against chaos. So we look for how we can discern yet in the power of Christ not be entirely subject to the “elemental spirits of this age.”

    I don’t know if it’s much more than shouting into the wind, but it happens that just today at an Eastern Mennonite University luncheon I was asked to present as dean on my vision for Eastern Mennonite Seminary and included on a handout this leadership theme: “USING POWER FOR THE LESS POWERFUL: aiming for styles of administration that provide clear, consistent, coherent policies while encouraging maximization of justice, providing rules while remembering that rules are made for people rather than treating people as made for the rules, managing power and status considerations to uplift the less powerful rather than aggrandizing the powerful (Beatitudes, Matt. 5:3-12). Establishing such values at the core of EMS institutional life will also undergird EMS theological and ministry education likewise radiating passion for justice, above all for ‘the least of these.'”

    Looking forward to seeing what you do with Burkholder, Tim! Thanks for the prophetic words. –Michael

  3. TimN Says:


    Thanks for your reflections. I am always challenged by Walter Wink’s reminder that the powers are not only fallen, but good and being redeemed. When we see clearly what institutions are, we can do our best to work with them as tools, recognizing their place without aggrandizing them. As you say, this means remembering that “rules are made for people rather than treating people as made for the rules.” I think the way Jesus put it in Mark 2:27 was: “The Sabbath was made for humans, not man for the Sabbath. Thanks for your work to maximize justice at EMS.

  4. Work and Hope » Patterns of this world, part 2: Breakfast with Burkholder » Eastern Mennonite University Says:

    […] Patterns of this World: Institutions and Bureaucracy among the Mennonites […]

  5. Work and Hope » Patterns of this world, part 3: Institutions through the Window of Jesus » Eastern Mennonite University Says:

    […] Patterns of this World: Institutions and Bureaucracy among the Mennonites […]

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