Peter Drucker told Forbes magazine that "pastoral megachurches" are "surely the most important social phenomenon in American society in the last thirty years." Bob Buford, a cable-TV businessman who pioneered Leadership Network for large-church leaders, says this is "way ahead, out on the thin branches. Tell me how many people, even in the churches, believe it." In 1991 Drucker told an audience of church leaders that American churches are in the midst of a remarkable renaissance. "This, to my mind, for my lifetime, is the greatest, the most important, the most momentous event, and the turning point not just in churches but perhaps in the human spirit altogether."
Peter Ferdinand Drucker is an old man now, 90 this year, yet his reputation in the world of business has not dimmed. He wrote "Beyond the
Information Revoluation," the October cover story for the Atlantic Monthly. Last year Forbes had him on its cover, Fortune ran a long article, and Wired, the hip techno magazine, featured an interview asking not about the past, but the future. What other 90-year-old gets asked his thoughts on the future? The Atlantic Monthly's Jack Beatty published a biography. Forbes proclaimed Drucker "Still the youngest mind." And this mind is increasingly preoccupied with the work of the church.
The kingdom of the nonprofits
Drucker is known as a management guru. (He is said to detest the description.) Many would call him the world's pre-eminent management thinker. Oddly, this management expert has little management experience. Adventures of a Bystander is the title Drucker gave his memoirs, and it's a revealing choice. Drucker works alone. He has no assistant, and he answers his own phone. (It's a startling thing to punch up the number of a person this famous and to hear a gravelly voice, with conspicuous Austrian accent, croak "Peter Drucker.") Now a days he hardly travels; people have to come to him, a constant stream of visitors to his home in Claremont, California, paying fancy prices to talk to him about their concerns. He has done this for 50 years, notoriously with businesses, but equally and increasingly with nonprofits and churches, often on a pro bono basis.
Drucker presents himself as a worldly wise man, who has devoted his life to studying very this-worldly realities. It comes as some surprise, therefore, that he gives so much of his time and interest to nonprofit organizations, and particularly to churches. For most business consultants, for most Americans, these are worthy but weak institutions. Do other management gurus offer the Girl Scouts as a model?
Drucker preaches incessantly that leaders must find out what their own unique contribution can be. He applies the sermon to himself, taking two weeks every year to evaluate what he has done and to plan for the coming year. Drucker does not work with nonprofits simply as a goodwill gesture. He involves himself with nonprofits because he sees them as strategic—indeed, as the fastest-growing and most important sector of American life.
Drucker is a Christian, a practicing Episcopalian, but from his writings it would be hard to say much more than that about his faith. He tells us that after growing up in a nominally Christian home, he was absolutely poleaxed by the accidental discovery of Soren Kierkegaard's writings. This was so important an event that he taught himself Danish in order to read Kierkegaard's then-untranslated works. Unfortunately, Drucker spends little time explaining how this momentous event of his youth affected him. Drucker has written 30 books, including his memoirs, but exactly one essay, written in 1949, discusses the meaning of Kierkegaard. (Kierkegaard shows that "society is not enough—not even for society," and that "though Kierkegaard's faith cannot overcome the awful loneliness, the isolation and dissonance of human existence, it can make it bearable by making it meaningful. … Kierkegaard's faith … enables man to die; but it also enables him to live."
Drucker's writings seem determined to keep his faith a secondary characteristic for his readers. Adventures of a Bystander seems quite worldly in the way it presents, utterly without judgment, baroque and incredible sexual behavior from some of Drucker's friends and acquaintances. Drucker hardly ever uses theological or biblical terminology to express himself, even if he is writing about something that easily fits theological categories. With some other management writer this might be an accident, but Drucker is so well educated in philosophy and theology that it has to be a conscious choice.
The point is that Drucker is not a man of pious gestures. He is not drawn to donate his extra time to charity to show that he is a good Christian. He sticks to what he does best: offering his expertise where he thinks he can make the maximum difference.
Drucker has made a career out of seeing the world from an unfamiliar angle—of noticing the significance of some factor that others miss. Fortune introduced him as "the most prescient business-trend spotter of our time." They credited Drucker with being among the first (in the early 1950s) to see how computers would transform business, first (in 1961) to perceive Japan's impending economic miracle, first to describe such ideas as "privatization," "knowledge workers," and "management by objectives." Drucker is sometimes wrong, but he has been spectacularly right so often (not to mention interesting and stimulating) that business leaders flock to read and hear him.
Never, perhaps, has Drucker been so out of phase with conventional wisdom as in his fascination with nonprofits and churches. To understand why Drucker considers the nonprofit sector of society so pivotal, to see why he devotes so much time to the success of charities and churches, you must step back to see his whole career.
A moral passion
Drucker grew up in Vienna between the world wars. As a 17-year-old just out of school, he moved to Germany, where he worked as a journalist, studied (a doctorate in law), and watched Hitler rise. Drucker's first book, a brief, admiring account of a nineteenth-century Jew, Friedrich Julius Stahl, was banned and burned by the Nazis a few months after they came to power. Drucker had hoped for that, he says, deliberately choosing to write "a book that would make it impossible for the Nazis to have anything to do with me." With no future in Germany, Drucker at 24 fled to England. One of his last conversations the night before his departure was with a newspaper colleague who would go on to be nicknamed "The Monster" for his role in the Nazi SS.
The rise of Nazism is the starting place for everything Drucker writes. He is haunted, not so much by Hitler as by the vacuum that Hitler filled. The Europe of Drucker's youth lost its way, Drucker says—economically, spiritually, governmentally. Europe lacked "management," which Drucker defines as the ability to make human strength productive under new and challenging conditions. Instead, Europe as he remembers it was fixated on nostalgic memories. The church was irrelevant. People were constantly speaking of "prewar" (World War I) as though it were the lost continent of Atlantis. And so they got Nazism, which posed as "The Wave of the Future" against this "Wave of the Past."
Drucker's work is dedicated to "never again." "To make our institutions perform responsibly, autonomously, and on a high level of achievement is … the only safeguard of freedom and dignity."
After a few years in England, where he met and married his wife, Doris—they have been married more than 60 years—Drucker moved to the United States. This new home is also an important context for his work, for while Drucker has kept his accent, he is very American in his sensibilities—that is to say, practical and optimistic. In Depression America he found a hopeful and cooperative spirit, very unlike the bitterness and despair he had felt throughout Europe. When war came, America's economy quickly mobilized to produce huge amounts of war materiel. Hitler was defeated not so much by bravery (as exemplified in Saving Private Ryan) as by industry.
Drucker, while haunted by Europe's failure, is fundamentally an optimist. He believes in human strengths to counter human weaknesses. The science of discovering those strengths, of fitting them into a productive framework, is what Drucker calls management. As much as any single individual, he is responsible for the modern interest in it.
A society of organizations
In the 1940s, Drucker saw something so fundamental it has held his attention more or less constantly in the 50 years since. Drucker saw that we have become a society of organizations. Drucker knew that organizations were not new—he often said that the greatest manager in history was the man who built the pyramids. But organizations had become central and omnipresent, trumping tradition and doctrine, eclipsing families and dynasties, forcing "great leaders" to show that they could exert their powers through vast bureaucracies. (Think of Eisenhower's military victories.)
The trend was most obvious in business. Most business leaders a generation before had owned the firm. They made all the important decisions themselves. Now, a new kind of creature had taken over: the manager. He was not an owner, an inventor, or a financier. He worked for a salary. His expertise lay in getting a team of people to work effectively for a goal.
Henry Ford's assembly line was more than a manufacturing technique, Drucker realized; it was a way of conceiving of work. The idea that any job can be broken down into its constituent parts, that different people can be trained to specialize in those parts, that they can work together in a disciplined and harmonious framework—this was not merely the way to build cars, it was the way to accomplish almost anything through organization. The crucial element was leadership, enabling various specialists to work together. That leadership, analogous to conducting a symphony, is management.
Drucker began to study business management when hardly anyone had noticed that such a thing existed. There were no business schools or management texts as we know them today. To study business was considered a sure dead end for an academic career. (Drucker was teaching at Bennington College in Vermont, where president Lewis Jones warned him, "You are going to destroy your career in academia forever.")
Nor did business want to be studied. Drucker says his first attempts to find a company to study met with suspicion and rejection. Only by a fluke did he latch onto General Motors, which gave him complete access. The result was a highly influential book, Concept of the Corporation. Businesses began to come to him for insight and help.
Management is about people
Drucker developed an understanding of management that was deeply humane—not mechanical, not technical, but pastoral. As Drucker wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 1994, "All managers do the same things, whatever the purpose of their organization. All of them have to bring people—each possessing different knowledge—together for joint performance. All of them have to make human strengths productive in performance and human weaknesses irrelevant. All of them have to think through what results are wanted in the organization—and have then to define objectives."
Management by objectives is a management style identified with Drucker. Sometimes, unfortunately, the phrase has come to mean something quite different than Drucker intended. For some, management by objectives means setting targets and insisting that your staff meet them. It can stand for a relentless bottom-line mentality.
That is almost the opposite of Drucker's idea. Drucker calls for the worker, together with his boss, to develop meaningful objectives based on a thorough understanding of the work. Meaningful objectives begin with the mission of the organization and require much thought and understanding of the unique contribution a worker can make to that mission.
Management by objectives means giving workers autonomy—helping them to set goals and freeing them to find their own way to reach those goals. This is quite different from supervision, in which a manager sets goals, tells the worker how to achieve them, and then keeps a close eye on the worker to see that he follows directions. Management by objectives expects a lot of creativity from workers—and offers them considerable dignity.
A manager, whether in a ball-bearing manufacturer or in a large church, should spend hours placing people in the job to match their strengths, helping them to define their objectives, finding the resources they need to work effectively. Management is largely about people, not so much about their feelings as their effectiveness. Drucker's unstated assumption is that the best thing you can offer a person is the chance to contribute to a worthwhile cause.
Organizations exist to meet needs
Drucker's understanding of business is also humane. He has never accepted profit as a goal for any enterprise. Rather, profit is a necessity—for without an adequate margin of profit, business cannot survive, or if it survives, cannot grow and innovate. Profit is always a means to an end, never an end.
Nor does business, in Drucker's mind, exist to make and sell things. Business exists to meet human needs. Drucker's starting place for management is very simple but also very stimulating: you have to define what needs you will meet, and how.
One of Drucker's examples is the emergency room of a hospital. "It took us a long time to come up with the very simple and (most people thought) too obvious statement that the emergency room was there to give assurance to the afflicted . …In a good emergency room, the function is to tell eight out of ten people there is nothing wrong that a good night's sleep won't take care of. … Translating that mission statement into action meant that everybody who comes in is now seen by a qualified person in less than a minute. That is the mission; that is the goal. The rest is implementation. Some people are immediately rushed to intensive care, others get a lot of tests, and yet others are told: 'Go back home, go to sleep, take an aspirin, and don't worry. If these things persist, see a physician tomorrow.' But the first objective is to see everybody, almost immediately—because that is the only way to give assurance."
Another Drucker favorite is from Sears, which around 1900 built a hugely successful business on the premise that it was their "mission to be the informed and responsible buyer for the American farmer." Note the surprise: not to sell to the American farmer, but to buy for—and to buy well.
Broadly, then, management is ministry for helping people. It helps its employees to make a contribution to something worthwhile. It helps those outside its organization by identifying and meeting their needs. In the largest sense, Drucker defined management as a ministry for saving our society—not, probably, from damnation, but certainly from despair. For if management does not do its work well, a society of organizations will not function. It will not meet human needs. The result will be frustration and an opening to totalitarianism.
Given this humane framework, it was inevitable that church and parachurch leaders read Drucker and found much they could apply to their work—especially as their ministries grew into organizations. Leo Bartel, a Catholic diocesan administrator in Illinois, tells of going to a Leadership Network weekend where he first heard Drucker speak. "My impression of management in the business style equated to ruthlessness, getting the job done at any cost. Peter's whole outlook was eminently Christian. He showed great concern for the enterprise and the folks in the enterprise. He spoke from principle rather than expediency. He dealt with the human condition in a compassionate as well as a very practical way." Bartel got his hands on Drucker's management tapes and never looked back.
Church leaders discovered Drucker—but would Drucker have discovered them? Perhaps not, except that Drucker was also discovering a fundamental problem of modern society that business could not solve.
The problem of community
From the very beginning of his work, Drucker understood that the growth of industry had torn people out of community. Where once, as farmers or tradesmen or craftsmen, they worked within their community, now they spend the most important part of their day working with people who don't live in their neighborhood or go to their church or know their family. Industry efficiently produces goods, but it just as efficiently destroys traditional communities.
Yet community is a fundamental need for humans. That's why, when Drucker wrote about gm in his first large-scale study of an organization, he recommended that companies try to create a "plant community," in which ordinary workers have significant control over the environment in which they work. He also recommended a guaranteed annual wage, to create the job security that would help workers to identify with the company. His idea was to create community on and around the job. Such recommendations went nowhere in the post-World War II corporate world, but ironically were recognized and accepted, with modifications, in Japan. Drucker be came a renowned adviser to Japan's economic miracle. Its "lifelong job" and emphasis on worker morale owe much to Drucker's thinking.
He has long since realized, however, that community will not come from business. In an era of downsizing and outsourcing, the "plant community" has become almost laughable. "Fifty years ago I believed the plant community would be the successor to the community of yesterday. I was totally wrong. We proved totally incapable [of that] even in Japan. The reason is that everybody does the same job. What holds them together is what they do from nine to five, and not what they aspire for, what they live for, what they hope for, what they die for. That's a community."
Drucker never took seriously the possibility that government could provide community. He thought that the more we ask of government, the more frustrated we will feel. If government can't do it, and business can't do it, who can? Drucker shifted his hopes to nonprofit organizations. He doesn't think it's accidental that the nonprofit sector is growing rapidly, or that voluntarism has increased. They expand to meet a dramatically growing need for community. Drucker goes so far as to say, in his book Managing the Nonprofit Organization, "The non-profits are the American community." Nonprofits give disengaged workers a place to make a contribution through serving others. They draw rich and poor into a web of common concern.
Churches play a particularly critical role. "The community … needs a community center. … I'm not talking religion now, I'm talking society. There is no other institution in the American community that could be the center." Drucker gladly stresses the church's spiritual mission, but he notes that churches also have a societal role. That's what he meant when he told Forbes that pastoral megachurches are "surely the most important social phenomenon in American society in the last thirty years."
Our society is extraordinarily cutthroat, Drucker says. Children are pressured to succeed from the time they are very young. "The knowledge society—with a social mobility that threatens to become rootlessness, with its 'other half' [of under-educated citizens], its dissolution of the ties of farm and small town and their narrow horizons, needs community. … It needs a sphere where freedom is not just being passive, not just being left alone … a sphere that requires active involvement and responsibility."
"There is an enormous need to build … I call it the person," Drucker told a gathering of church leaders. "That's more than self-respect; it's also the awareness that there is something beyond you, and something beyond the moment, and something that is not only greater than you but different from you. That is why what you are doing in the churches is so incredibly important."
Knowledge and knowledge workers
Drucker perceives a new form of society struggling to get out of its chrysalis, with churches and other nonprofits playing a new and central role. The key ingredient to this new society is knowledge, Drucker says. The agricultural and industrial revolutions depended on brute strength, raw materials, land, machinery, and capital. In our era, it is the increase of knowledge (including the management skills to make use of it) that explains nearly all current economic development. "The comparative advantage that now counts is in the application of knowledge—for example, in Japan's total quality management, lean manufacturing processes, just-in-time delivery, and price-based costing," wrote Drucker in the Atlantic Monthly. The most economically important workers are "knowledge workers"—those who possess an expertise, whether brain surgery or systems analysis, youth culture or marketing, that makes them a necessary (and often scarce) commodity. Today, Drucker says, they make up the largest single group in the work force. "They differ fundamentally from any group in history that has ever occupied the leading position."
Drucker has invested much energy in understanding how "knowledge workers" can be managed in "information-based organizations." The hospital is an example Drucker often uses, where doctors and nurses and technicians, all specialists knowing far more about their work than anyone in management, are organized in a fairly "flat" structure to work together. "Knowledge, especially advanced knowledge, is always specialized. By itself it produces nothing." Management is therefore not less important among knowledge workers, but more. Everything depends on highly trained people who know very little about each other's work learning to work fluidly and efficiently together. Drucker writes, frighteningly, "The health maintenance organization is an attempt—a first and so far very tentative, and none too successful attempt—to bring the entire process of health care delivery under partnership management . …And what the HMO is attempting to do in health care delivery will have to be done in many other areas" (Forbes).
Knowledge workers need the church and other nonprofits more than ever, because their jobs are so specialized and their placement so mobile that they have little connection with community. At the same time, churches and nonprofits are part of the knowledge society. Churches have been transformed just as much as industry. First, the pastoral staffs of large and midsized churches are increasingly specialized. The minister to single adults is a knowledge worker, not just because he went to seminary, but because he has an expert familiarity with singles culture. Second, church members—who actually do the work of the church—are highly educated. They may know more than the pastor about many aspects of their ministry—whether it involves tutoring programs, contemporary music, or Christian education. Lay people are knowledge workers. The pastor, as manager, has to identify their strengths and specialization, place them and equip them for service, and enable them to work in the harmonious and productive whole known as the body of Christ.
"The knowledge worker," Drucker says, "is … a colleague and an associate rather than a subordinate. He has to be managed as such." Or as Catholic pastor Leo Bartel told Drucker of his church's volunteers, "They are no longer helpers. They are partners."
Over the last 20 years Drucker has had a good deal of interaction with what he calls "pastoral" churches. These include megachurches like Bill Hybels's Willow Creek or Rick Warren's Saddleback Community. Bob Buford's Leadership Network has invited Drucker to speak to conferences of large-church leaders and has linked him to many pastors seeking advice.
Drucker calls these pastoral churches because their size is not nearly so significant to him as their orientation around meeting needs. They find their guiding light not from church tradition or doctrine so much as their analysis of their target audience. Hybels is a leading example: before beginning Willow Creek, he went door-to-door asking unchurched people why they didn't attend church, and then built Willow Creek around their answers. Pastoral churches waste no time regretting a changing world, but see change as their opportunity for ministry. This is precisely the approach that Drucker has urged on businesses and nonprofits for decades. In many ways, pastoral churches echo the management thinking that Drucker has long emphasized.
Drucker sees these pastoral megachurches as an enormous success. They have, he believes, revitalized the church, demonstrating its relevance to a knowledge society.
Church consultant Lyle Schaller, a Drucker admirer, cautions that Drucker's exposure to megachurches gives him a skewed perspective. Most churches have fewer than a hundred members, Schaller says. Their main goal is survival. They are too small and too lacking in resources to look much beyond themselves.
That caveat serves to highlight the kind of perspective Drucker brings. He doesn't accurately reflect the whole landscape. He's not interested in statistics. His vision picks out signs of hope amidst the burning rubble. His feats of optimism find opportunity where others see only shattered remains. That's how Drucker thinks about community in America today. He sees the losses, but he wastes no time bemoaning them. Rather, he points to ways in which the past can be transcended. Regarding community, Drucker points out that now people choose what community to belong to. They choose whether or not to attend church, rather than attending because of conformist pressures. "I have a strong suspicion that the church is growing stronger, precisely because you go by choice," Drucker says. He believes that the surge of American voluntarism—a phenomenon unique in the world, he says—represents a felt conclusion that people must make their own solutions, taking personal responsibility to build community rather than looking to government or to social theories. This sense of personal responsibility, he says, is a remarkably hopeful sign. Nonprofits must recognize and use it.
That's management, as Drucker teaches it—seeing and seizing opportunities in new situations, mobilizing and organizing people to meet them. Good management is not inevitable, but it is possible. Human strengths can overcome human weaknesses. Drucker has dedicated his life to seeing that they do.
"I knew at once," Drucker wrote of his discovery of Kierkegaard in 1928, "that my life would not and could not be totally in society, that it would have to have an existential dimension which transcends society. … Still, my work has been totally in society."
It is no accident that some of the people Drucker admires most, to judge from his writings, are managers of large businesses and pastors of large churches. These are consistently people with a vivid sense of the reality of the human world. They rarely have time for theories that don't produce results.
Such a practical perspective can lead Christian leaders into mere marketing and packaging, in fact into greed and competitive one-upmanship. Drucker won't point you that way, though. His questions—what are we trying to do? What needs are we competent to meet?—go too deep to be answered glibly. And in the background, always, is his deep moral concern: we must work well on earth, lest destroyers like Hitler and Stalin get a foothold to do their work. Heaven and hell may not always be at risk. But human suffering and despair certainly are.
Copyright © 1999 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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