Organizations lose their relevance when the rate of internal change lags the pace of external change.

Business Writer Gary Hamel of the Wall Street Journal is a bit of an outsider when it comes to religion. His background is much more wall street than the pulpit.  I have no doubt that in his life he has had some experience in regards to faith, but, based on his writing credentials, Hamel is a very serious expert on business.

So what was surprising to me was to read an article that he penned in the Wall Street Journal about a conference that he attended and spoke at for Willow Creek Community Church.  The article appeared in the Wall Street Journal’s blogs section and was filed under the title “Organized Religion’s ‘Management Problem’”.  And, in a nut shell, it analyzed the growing decrease in church attendance and the lack of shake up taking place in the churches at the front of providing the service to the attendees.  Essentially, he addressed the lack of response by churches to the change in attendance comparing it to the business sector, where a business to act in the same manner when faced with the same problem. The analogy was simple, quoting from Hamel:

Organizations lose their relevance when the rate of internal change lags the pace of external change. And that’s the problem that besets many churches today. And guess what?  A lot of secular institutions are in the same boat (Freemasonry). Think about General Motors, Sony, Motorola, United Airlines, AOL, Yahoo, Sears, Starbucks—how have these companies been doing in recent years? Not too well. And not just because of the recession, but because they got stuck in the mud; they fell in love with status quo. Their employees were prisoners of precedent, locked in jails run by the custodians of convention. …Your problem isn’t unique, and it isn’t materialism, atheism, skepticism or relativism—it’s institutional inertia. And if it makes you feel better, it’s not entirely your fault. Like leaders everywhere, you’ve been mugged by change.

The rant that Hamel goes into (his words, not mine) is a good lesson to learn from, and recitation of an old rally cry, that change is necessary, t least in some respect, and that from it, new growth can come. Quoting again from Hamel:

Historically, business leaders and church leaders didn’t have to worry about fundamental paradigm shifts. They could safely assume that their basic business models would last forever. In the case of church, this meant loyal pew-warmers who would show up every week, sit passively through the same unvarying church service, drop $20 into the plate as it passed, and politely shake the pastor’s hand as they headed off for lunch. But business models aren’t eternal—and their mortality rate has been rising. In industry after industry we’ve witnessed profound paradigm shifts . . .

There is a lesson to be learned here.  Does the same business model from 60 years ago apply today? Hamel continued:

The Second Law of Thermodynamics applies to organizations as well physical systems. Over time, visions become strategies, strategies get codified into policies, policies spawn practices, and practices become habits. That’s organizational entropy—and it’s why success is usually a self-correcting phenomenon. And it’s also why the hard thing—the really hard thing, isn’t inventing a brilliant strategy, but reinventing it! Given all of this, the most critical advantage a church (or any other organization) can build is an “evolutionary advantage”—an ability to constantly morph and adapt.

And, drawing from Hamel again:

Moreover, it’s usually necessary to decapitate the old leadership team before an organization can embark on a new course. In other words, fundamental change in large organizations happens the same way it happens in poorly governed dictatorships—belatedly, infrequently and convulsively. And that’s pathetic. It shouldn’t take the organizational equivalent of a deathbed experience to spur renewal. We need to change the way we change. Over the centuries, religion has become institutionalized, and in the process encrusted with elaborate hierarchies, top-heavy bureaucracies, highly specialized roles and reflexive routines. (Kinda like your company, but only more so). Religion won’t regain its relevance until church leaders chip off these calcified layers, rediscover their sense of mission, and set themselves free to reinvent “church” for a new age.

Really, there are some very sound bits in here, that Freemasonry can learn from, or that it can learn from before its to late. I highly recommend you read the article by Gary Hamel, and if you find it worthy, forward it along to your Grand Lodge leadership.  There is still time to adjust the rate of internal change before it lags to far behind the pace of external change and we get lost in obscurity.

Posted in Masonic Traveler and tagged , .

A devoted student of the Western Mystery Traditions, Greg is a firm believer in the Masonic connections to the Hermetic traditions of antiquity, its evolution through the ages and into its present configuration as the antecedent to all contemporary esoteric and occult traditions. He is a self-called searcher for that which was lost, a Hermetic Hermit and a believer in “that which is above is so too below.” Read more about Greg Stewart.


  1. In an engineering management class I just finished, this was briefly alluded to. The solution is to institutionalize a regular SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weakness, Opportunity, Threats) and use the results wisely.

    On the religious / masonic side, shouldn’t these institutions be influencing the changing society rather than responding to it? Perhaps the real reason for losing relevance is disengaging from the game. A lot of people don’t like the way the world is going right now and their answer seems to be “I’m taking my marbles and going home.”

  2. Actually, the 60 year old business model item, in churches, is a bit off. Approx. 30 years ago, the mainstream Protestant Churches, such as Episcopal, Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist sort of shut down their evangelical outreach in the form of missionaries actively seeking converts, like the Mormons and the Jehovah’s witnesses. The mainstream still have a missionary program, but the urgent motive of proselytizing just isn’t happening.

    Congregations are growing older, and new blood isn’t being recruited. Congregations are therefore growing smaller.

    This is the business model that Freemasonry is following. Don’t recruit; don’t really reach out; hope for the best. The antimasonic movement shouts loudly and does recruit. Freemasons are aloof from such vulgar things.

    Sure seems to be working.

  3. Freemasons are culturally schizophrenic. In the last ten years of reading various Freemason web groups, forums, blogs, etc., I’ve noticed that Freemasons like to:
    a) Complain that things don’t change within the fraternity, and
    b) Complain that things can’t be the way that they always were.

    Yes, it would be less of a paradox if I didn’t sometimes see the same people doing both of these.

    Many of us join the fraternity because we want some connection to some George Washington, Ben Franklin, Elias Ashmole, Enlightenment, Revolutionary period that we’ve read about in those history books. The desire to tie ourselves to the Templars, despite the lack of all but circumstantial evidence to the contrary, is one more nod to the idea that we enjoy thinking about ourselves as some kind of repository of ancient secrets.

    Over the last few years, though, I’ve seen more brothers complaining that the pot-luck dinners, fish fries, and pancake breakfasts are actually evidence that we have devolved from some imagined Golden Age. The desire to return to some fictional roots is not a paradigm shift, though — it’s just one more tie to the past.

    Is the future of Freemasonry tied to blogging and Facebook? I don’t know, but utilizing online social networking tools has got to be more helpful to us than trying to advertise that we are just another variation on the Society for Creative Anachronism.

  4. “Moreover, it’s usually necessary to decapitate the old leadership team before an organization can embark on a new course. In other words, fundamental change in large organizations happens the same way it happens in poorly governed dictatorships…”

    This statement encapsulates the current problem very concisely. The issue I find within Masonry is indeed a generational divide between the way things ‘were always done’ versus a new generation which thrives within a ever-changing world.

    If a decapitation doesn’t occur, entropy will prevail and those who hold positions of leadership will finally succumb to the laws of the universe, leaving an opportunity for those with a vision of the future to finally have their say.

    The real question is, will the institution survive the wait?

    Write On!

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