2016-06-30

Reprinted with permission from Christianity Today.

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."

"This...is the turning point not just in churches, but perhaps in the human spirit altogether."

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 Revolution," the October 1999 cover story for Atlantic Monthly. Last year Forbes had him on its cover, Fortune ran a long article, and Wired 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.

Drucker is known as a management guru. (He is said to detest the description.) Many would call him the world's preeminent 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.") Nowadays 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.

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 pole-axed 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. In one essay, written in 1949, he 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."

Organizations had become central and omnipresent, trumping tradition and doctrine.

The rise of Nazism is the starting place for everything Drucker writes.

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.

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, and watched Hitler rise. Drucker's first book, an admiring account of a 19th-century Jew Friedrich Julius Stahl, was banned 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.

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."

After a few years in England, where he met and married his wife, Doris, 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--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 is what Drucker calls management. As much as any single individual, he is responsible for the modern interest in it.

In the 1940s, Drucker saw something so fundamental it has held his attention in the 50 years since: we have become a society of organizations. Drucker knew that organizations were not new, but organizations had become central and omnipresent, trumping tradition and doctrine and forcing "great leaders" to show that they could exert their powers through vast bureaucracies.

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 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 crucial element was leadership, enabling various specialists to work together.

Drucker understood that the growth of industry had torn people out of community.

Drucker began to study business management when there were no business schools or management texts. Nor did business want to be studied. Only by a fluke did he latch on to General Motors, which gave him complete access. The result was a highly influential book, "Concept of the Corporation."

Drucker developed an understanding of management that was deeply humane. 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. 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 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. Drucker's unstated assumption is that the best thing you can offer a person is the chance to contribute to a worthwhile cause.

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 cannot grow and innovate. Nor does business, in Drucker's mind, exist to make and sell things. Business exists to meet human needs.

Broadly, then, management is ministry for helping people. In the largest sense, Drucker defined management as a ministry for saving our society--not, probably, from damnation, but certainly from despair.

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.

Church leaders eventually 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.

From the very beginning of his work, Drucker understood that the growth of industry had torn people out of community. Industry efficiently produces goods, but it just as efficiently destroys traditional communities. Yet community is a fundamental need for humans.

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. Churches play a particularly critical role. 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."

"I have a strong suspicion that the church is growing stronger, precisely because you go by choice."

Our society is extraordinarily cutthroat, Drucker says. "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."

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 that explains nearly all current economic development.

Drucker has invested much energy in understanding how "knowledge workers" can be managed in "information-based organizations."

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. Second, church members--who actually do the work of the church--are highly educated. 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."

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. 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. 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. His vision picks out signs of hope amidst the burning rubble.

That's how Drucker thinks about community in America today. He sees the losses, but he wastes no time bemoaning them. Drucker points out that now people choose what community to belong to. "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 represents a 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.

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.