I have been looking forward to Lyndon Shakespeare’s Being the Body of Christ in the Age of Management for some time now (found here and here). Lyndon and I have been in brief contact over the years, mostly with Lyndon graciously taking the time to answer my questions about Herbert McCabe. So when Lyndon reached out to ask if I’d like a review copy of his latest book, I jumped at the chance.
Rather than present the standard book review, however, I’d like to try something different. I plan to offer brief snippets and quick reflections on the book as I make my way through. I think that this mode of review syncs with Lyndon’s approach to ecclesiology with its emphasis on the social, living body. And so, I’d like my reflections to follow suit, more akin to joints and sinews rather than a static, single-sheet recap.
But before I begin, a brief summary:
Lyndon details how managerialist ideology has crept into contemporary ecclesiological thought and practice. The gospel of efficiency, marketing, branding, and bureaucratic rationalization have usurped sacramental forms and traditions. Although this technique-based approach purports to offer a more efficient church structure, the net effect is anything but. As Lyndon explains, functional managerialism is “supremely impractical when examined in the light of the church’s fundamental orientation to the kingdom of God” (13, emphasis mine). It’s important to note at the outset that Lyndon does not offer a simple declension narrative. Rather than pining for the good ol’ days when Bishops ruled, Lyndon offers instead the critical distance necessary to examine how and why management theory holds the ascendancy that it does.
Admittedly, there’s nothing quite new in critiquing management theory. But Lyndon’s reflections take us a step further. Where Lyndon parts ways with his predecessors is that he comes “at the reality of the church in the same way Aquinas comes to the reality of any existing thing, through examining the particular way the items in the world and our understanding of what constitutes our world (i.e., how we talk about it as existing and having a purpose) hangs together in a coherent way” (3).
This unique approach allows Lyndon to detect, specifically, where the rot begins: with the metaphysical biases of physicalism and managerialism – two sides of the same dirty coin. As Lyndon argues, if the body, social or individual, is nothing but an assemblage of mechanical parts or a “Cartesian machine” (96), then so too will be one’s ecclesiology. Cast in this light, the only appropriate response then is to exercise managerialism on the lump of dead ecclesial matter (5).
I’m glad that Lyndon’s book arrived when it did. With the election of Donald Trump, Americans just witnessed one of the most colossal failures of the pundit class, the liberal intelligentsia, and the so-called experts. A consistent theme emerging from post-election data shows that a immense swath of the electorate (particularly, the “white working-class”) was largely driven by their utter disdain for the liberal managerial class incarnated in Hillary Clinton. Going deeper, a recent Harvard Business Review article found that what specifically motivated this class to vote against Clinton was the onerous experience of everyday managers and bureaucrats. About this pervasive resentment toward professionals, Joan Williams observes that “most blue-collar workers have little direct contact with the rich outside of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But professionals order them around every day.”
Given that so many Americans clearly detest the mechanisms of managerialism, why does the church even think about dabbling in this strategy? What does it signal to our congregations when leaders bring in church growth experts or consultants?
Part of me doubts that the tradition Lyndon and I share will read the election results in this way. The steady diet of experts and managers rather than theologically astute bishops or deacons will likely continue, at least in the near future. But I hope that as more and more peoples around the globe continue to reject neoliberalism’s hegemony and it’s ugly spawn, managerialism, our church leaders will also “get the memo” that the business strategy of applying managerial techniques is doomed from the get-go.
I highly recommend Lyndon’s book and look forward to sharing more thoughts as I continue reading. More to come very soon.