Total Quality Management: A Strategic Opportunity for a Local Church

December, 2013

Total quality management (TQM) is a broad-scoped management model in which an organization seeks “to realize continuous improvement in its business processes for the benefit of its end customers” (Prokop, 2008, p. 2078). The model became popular in American business in the 1980s, but its theoretical constructs can be traced decades earlier to the work of W. Edwards Deming and Joseph M. Juran. Enthusiasm for TQM has subsided somewhat since the 1990s, but the model continues to exert influence on managerial practice, most notably through the techniques and tools entailed in Six Sigma (Stanhope, 2006; Buch, 2007; Prokop, 2008).

TQM was initially applied in manufacturing settings where quality could be measured in terms of objective physical attributes (Kearns, Krasman, & Meyer, 1994). Over time, however, the model has been implemented in service industries as diverse as health care (Trenchard & Dixon, 1999), education (Stanhope, 2006), banking (Peschel & Ahmed, 2008), and libraries (Moghaddam & Moballeghi, 2008).

There is no consensus definition of TQM (Buch, 2007). Kearns et al. (1994) conceived of TQM in terms of “five distinct, but interrelated, themes: customer satisfaction, problem detection and prevention, employee empowerment, quality measurement, and long-term commitment of top leadership” (p. 448). Katz (1995) reduced TQM to three essential organizational capacities: “focus on the customer; develop a work environment suited to teamwork; [and] know how to analyze processes to improve operations” (p. 4). A more thorough analysis of TQM’s features appears later in this paper.

A generation or two ago business management and church leadership may have seemed to be essentially non-overlapping endeavors. However, as Frank (2006) observed, leadership and administration have gradually emerged as significant—if not yet mature—concerns within the field of practical theology. The assumption that the management sciences have nothing at all to offer to ministry leaders no longer seems tenable. It is important to consider the extent to which any particular management technique can be applied to the realm of ministry, and if so, whether that technique must be adapted in certain ways to reflect the realities of church operations. Therefore, this paper will explore the potential for using TQM as a vehicle for guiding strategy development in a specific local church—Unnamed Local Church (ULC) [name and location withheld to protect confidentiality].

Rationale for Applying TQM to ULC

TQM stands out as one of the more promising management techniques that ULC might seek to import from the world of business. This is the case for four reasons which are discussed in this section.

Adaptability to the Nonprofit Realm

TQM is fairly adaptable to the needs of a nonprofit service organization. Blocher, Stout, Juras, and Cokins (2013) identified 13 contemporary techniques commonly used by management accountants. Many of these are best suited to organizations that engage in the production of physical goods, aim to earn profits, and/or employ processes that are readily described in statistical terms. By contrast, TQM’s orientation toward organizational processes, efficiency, and customer satisfaction (Prokop, 2008) signals its potential applicability to local church work.

Compatibility with Christian Values

The values that underlie TQM are arguably consistent with the Christian worldview. According to Kinast and Schloegel (1998), “TQM is not a business substitute for the gospel, but it does have the potential for business charity, customer community, corporation conversion, workplace discipleship and company charism that harmonize with gospel values and enhance the world of work” (p. 21). TQM’s organizational virtues led Pinwell (1997) to pose the following question: “So, as we take our understanding and belief from our Christian fellowship into the workplace, is there room for us to bring the learning of the workplace back into the church?” (p. 151).

ULC’s Orientation toward Quality Principles

In this observer’s judgment, ULC’s ministry operations already exhibit some of the attributes of TQM. For example, the church’s leaders are committed to operating efficiently, evaluating performance in critical areas, and seeking to satisfy constituents’ needs. The church has not consciously or systematically adopted a TQM philosophy, but the values implicit in its ministry choices have positioned it to contemplate a more formal adoption of TQM.

Precedents for the Application of TQM to Ministry

Since the mid-1990s a number of Christian leaders have explored the possibilities for implementing TQM in a church context. These leaders have described or advocated the application of TQM in congregations of various denominations, including United Methodist (Jones, 1993), Lutheran (Kallestad & Schey, 1994), Southern Baptist (Vokurka, 2000), and Wesleyan (Baldwin, 2006). For some, implementing TQM was a conscious choice (Baldwin, 2006), whereas others attested to “pursuing and implementing the processes of Total Quality Ministry for many years, without realizing the parallels from the for-profit philosophy of Total Quality Management” (Kallestad & Schey, 1994, p. 15).

In a recent distillation of management concepts for a pastoral audience, Babbes and Zigarelli (2006) commended TQM as an effective mechanism for designing ministry operations characterized by excellence. However, not all Christian observers are enthusiastic about TQM. Chater (1999) expressed concern about the fact that some proponents of TQM fail to acknowledge the value-laden assumptions that are inherent to the system. Gasser (2002) addressed the danger of adopting the wrong definition of quality when assessing a church’s health. More recently, Frank (2006) decried the tendency of religious leadership books “to adapt fads (like ‘total quality management’) to the churches, just at the time when the corporations that originally tried them have moved on to keep up with the next trend” (p. 116). In light of these words of caution, there is reason to employ critical thinking when attempting to apply TQM to church ministry.

Features of TQM

Five Key Principles of TQM

As noted in the introduction to this paper, there is no authoritative definition of TQM. Nevertheless, according to Prokop (2008), “Despite a lack of agreement on a precise definition, TQM has been used as a clarion call to initiate a change in process—which may or may not conform with any other type of organization’s attempt to raise quality” (p. 2078). Furthermore, essential themes of TQM are readily discernible from the literature. A review of the definitions appearing in six sources published between 1994 and 2012 revealed the five principles discussed in the paragraphs that follow. Figure 1 conveys the frequency with which each principle appeared in the six definitions.

Figure 1. Analysis of TQM Definitions

Business process improvement/problem detection and prevention. According to Stanhope, “Organizationally, TQM is about developing and continuously improving quality systemic processes” (¶ 1). In Buch’s (2007) words, “quality improvement efforts should focus on cross-functional processes” (¶ 2).

Employee empowerment/development/teamwork. TQM presumes “a work environment suited to teamwork” (Katz, 1995). An organization committed to TQM is designed, in both its structural and functional dimensions, to make it possible to meet customer needs (Stanhope, 2006).

Customer satisfaction. Stanhope (2006) labeled TQM as “a philosophy and practice where organizational members strive to meet the needs of customers” (¶ 1). Fliedner (2012) stated succinctly that TQM “must have a customer focus” (Introduction section, ¶ 8).

Analysis/measurement. TQM prizes “data-driven decision making” (Buch, 2007, ¶ 2). According to Prokop (2008), an organization characterized by TQM must measure its success in the areas of customer focus, business process improvement, and teamwork.

Leadership commitment. Buch (2007) stated that “quality must be driven from the top, by senior managers who are committed to and responsible for quality” (¶ 2). Fliedner (2012) affirmed this principle with a simple observation: “It must have top management’s utmost commitment” (Introduction section, ¶ 9).

Other Important Aspects of TQM

The five principles discussed in the previous section outline the essential parameters of TQM. This section provides further clarifications pertaining to quality.

Focusing on quality. It is important to understand that TQM is distinct from conventional quality control. “TQM focuses on preventing quality problems before they occur and throughout the production process instead of detecting and monitoring quality problems after they occur at the very end of the production process” (Kearns et al., 1994, p. 449). Furthermore, TQM recognizes that quality is a function of all processes that contribute to production, and thus looks beyond the organization’s own resources to those of its suppliers (Kearns et al., 1994; Prokop, 2008).

TQM defines quality in terms of customers’ satisfaction—meeting and exceeding their expectations (Fliedner, 2012). In fact, TQM is more oriented towards quality enhancement than cost reduction. Process improvements can lead to efficiencies and ultimately lower costs, but these benefits typically follow a substantial investment of employee time and energy (Kearns et al., 1994; Prokop, 2008).

Validating quality. Finally, efforts to implement TQM can be validated in multiple ways. Since 1987 the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award has recognized “quality excellence in business, health care, and education in the areas of strategic planning; leadership; customer and market focus; measurement, analysis, and knowledge management; human resources focus; process management; and business results” (Buch, 2007, Evolution of TQM section, ¶ 4). An organization’s commitment to quality can also be established through certification—for example, under the auspices of the International Organization for Standardization.

Implementation of TQM

Buch (2007) set forth four essential elements of a successful TQM implementation:

  1. Senior management commitment and training . . .

  2. Employee training . . .

  3. Initiate quality improvement/Six Sigma projects . . .

  4. Monitor progress and reward results (Implementation of TQM section, ¶ 2-5)

These four points provide a useful framework for understanding how any organization—and ULC in particular—can adopt TQM’s philosophy and practices. The following three sections will explore the process of implementing TQM within a nonprofit organization, in the ministry environment, and at ULC.

The Nonprofit Organization

Changing organizational culture. According to Fliedner (2012), implementation of TQM follows the execution of a SWOT analysis (Introduction section, ¶ 6). Therefore, TQM is not to be adopted in isolation from other management and planning techniques. Regardless of what other techniques an organization may use, a successful TQM deployment is rooted in commitment to improve quality over the long term. This begins with top management; in the case of a nonprofit, the board should understand and support the implementation (Katz, 1995). If TQM is to yield its promise of improved organizational performance, quality principles must come to pervade the organization, and thus leaders must persistently seek to effect a change in organizational culture. Bedwell (1993) described this process:

In its implementation, TQM is even broader than strategic planning, in that it is tactical, begins quickly, and involves staff at all levels of the organization. It is an all-out effort to improve the organization in every way possible—through productivity, customer service, service delivery, technical competence, management, governance, and community image. All these facets build a useful framework for establishing a pervasive organizational culture of continuous service improvement. (p. 29)

Changing roles. As noted earlier in this paper, one of the key principles of TQM is employee empowerment: “Organizations function most effectively when employees take part in running them” (Bedwell, 1993, p. 29). According to Kearns et al. (1994), the empowering of employees proceeds through three stages: forming quality teams at managerial and project levels; training team members to use TQM methods; and opening channels for all employees to recommend or even implement needed changes.

The fact that employees at large come to play a new, empowered role implies that managers undergo a role change as well. Kearns et al. (1994) explained that “the cultural transformation of TQM involves a gradual process of reeducating managers and supervisors and challenging traditional assumptions about the very nature of their jobs” (p. 451). They went on to observe that “management’s role shifts from directing and controlling to motivating and supporting, thus shifting their frame of reference from managing to leading” (p. 456).

Another key role for management is the elucidation of what the customer considers to constitute quality. An effective TQM implementation achieves “a consensus over what defines quality along the supply chain and what is necessary to maintain it over the long run” (Prokop, 2008, p. 2078). Managers engage with customers in a variety of ways—for example, “through surveys, monitoring of complaints and other forms of feedback, and focus group methodologies” (Kearns et al., 1994, p. 448)—so as to identify customers’ conception of quality.

Challenges of the nonprofit environment. If an organization is to achieve continuous improvement, it must have some means of measuring quality. In fact, in its conventional form, TQM is known for employing statistical analysis and graphic visualization. While nonprofits may be overwhelmed by the prospect of sophisticated measurement, they must seek out effective metrics and develop their capacity for evaluation. Proficiency in the practice of TQM may not emerge promptly, but success can be built incrementally (Kearns et al., 1994; Katz, 1995).

Nonprofit organizations may find it challenging to adopt other aspects of TQM’s mindset and practices. The notion of empowerment may threaten employees who are already burdened by the reality of thin staffing (Kearns et al., 1994). Furthermore, nonprofits may struggle to see their clients as customers and their services as something that they sell. Recognizing this concern, Bedwell (1993) offered the following advice:

Clients of a nonprofit organization buy an answer to a need. To do that, they engage in a series of activities, all of which are identified as a ‘transaction.’ It is their overall perception of quality—the quality of that total transaction—which determines their decision to use the service or to come back again. (p. 29)

The Ministry Environment

Since the early 1990s, some local churches in the United States have explored the application of TQM principles to their ministries, and leaders associated with several of these congregations have documented their experience in the form of published materials. This section will provide a brief review of some of their experiences and derive practical insights that may prove helpful to ULC.

The history of TQM in local church ministry. The earliest known application of TQM principles to church ministry was Jones’s (1993) book, Quest for Quality. Jones’s model consisted of six steps:

  1. Clarify the aim of the system.

  2. Evaluate to determine whether to improve the present system or build a new system.

  3. Identify key processes within the system—or key subsystems—which, if improved, will provide leverage for total system improvement.

  4. Form teams of people who have responsibility for constellations of processes to study those processes and act to improve them.

  5. Provide team members with the knowledge, skills, and disciplines they need to improve the processes of their parts of the system.

  6. The leader then makes sure that all processes and subsystems are aligned together to achieve the purposes for which the system was established. (p. 25)

At the time that he wrote his book, Jones was not pastoring a local church; rather, he was serving in an administrative and consulting role with The United Methodist Church. It is not readily clear, therefore, whether he was able to implement TQM in a thorough manner within a particular congregation.

As noted earlier in the Rationale section, Kallestad and Schey (1994) attested to practicing the principles of TQM in their church before being introduced formally to the concepts from the business sector. However, by the time they wrote their book, their model was fairly mature, incorporating elements such as (a) customer satisfaction; (b) quality planning, control, and improvement; (c) performance indicators; (d) supply chains; (e) measurement and evaluation; (f) teamwork; (g) process improvement; and (h) benchmarking.

Vokurka (2000) documented the experience of a Baptist church in Texas that had employed TQM principles and practices during an extended period of growth. The church was reportedly customer-focused, characterized by participation and teamwork, continuously assessing and improving the quality of its operations, and building capacity for future growth. However, it was apparent that the church’s leaders had not intentionally adopted TQM as a management philosophy, but rather had gravitated to its principles because they perceived them to be rational and/or effective.

By the turn of the millennium, various authors reported making a strategic choice to implement TQM in a church context. Praschan (2000) constructed a TQM-oriented model for ministry at an Assembly of God congregation in Ohio. This model was labeled as CIMPLE, an acronym standing for the dimensions of “customer, improvement, measurement, processes, leadership and employee” (p. iv). Ahn (2001) researched the results of a six-month TQM implementation in an existing congregation. He found that within this time span, TQM principles and practices led to measurable improvement in certain areas (leadership, team/involvement), but not in others (training/education, measurement). Interestingly, Ahn (2001) reported using a version of the Total Quality Management Assessment Inventory that had been modified specifically for use in Protestant churches. The fact that TQM did not lead to improvement in every area measured is not necessarily surprising, as its practices are intended to lead to improved quality through sustained implementation.

Insights from the application of TQM to local church ministry. It is fitting to consider how the five key principles of TQM noted earlier in this paper might be applied in a church context. This will be the focus of the paragraphs that follow.

The principle of customer satisfaction warrants special treatment in the realm of ministry. Jones (1993) recognized that church leaders might find it difficult to identify with TQM’s language—not least its reference to customers—but urged them not to dismiss the opportunities associated with applying quality improvement to ministry. He suggested that a nonprofit organization might find it more appropriate to view itself as serving stakeholders.

Most authors who have sought to apply TQM to ministry have focused on the church’s target audiences—the members of congregation and the wider community—as its customers. This was Vokurka’s (2000) general approach:

Staff members are analogous to ‘product managers’ for certain market groups. Ministers have been assigned responsibilities for children, youth, university students, and singles. These managers have the responsibility for identifying the interests of these groups and how their needs might be met by the church in a spiritual way. This approach provides a segmented approach to focusing on customers. (p. 26)

Vokurka (2000) also asserted that a church differs from other kinds of organizations in that “the customers are also the major resources of the organization” (p. 23). This is an important insight, but there is another, more critical distinction to be drawn. TQM defines quality in terms of customer satisfaction. However, if the church is acknowledged to be a divine institution (Eph. 2:19-22; 1 Tim. 3:14-15), success cannot be defined solely in terms of satisfying human stakeholders. Among the authors cited in this paper who advocated using TQM in ministry, only Praschan (2000) explicitly acknowledged that God is a church’s ultimate Customer: “Ministry has three primary customers or foci: God, target audience, and the congregation. All ministry, while it is done for and through people, has ultimately God as the focus” (p. 160). Gasser (2002), taking a more cautious position regarding TQM’s utility in ministry, concluded:

Church health as quality can be a good definition, depending on how quality is defined. If quality is measured as matching the best scoring churches in Schwarz’s test group, that might not be good enough. But if quality means being conformed to the scriptural standards of faith and practice, that’s more than good enough. (p. 117)

The conviction that the church’s human customers are not to be satisfied at the cost of God’s satisfaction has significant implications for definitions of quality and measures of successful performance. In Gasser’s (2002) words, “The best definition of health in a church is simply biblical conformity. A church is ‘healthy’ when its values and practices, what it is and does, match the standard of the New Testament” (p. 121). The recommendations for ULC stated later in this document will take this delicate matter into account.

Kallestad and Schey (1994) addressed the principle of empowerment from the perspective of the recruitment and development of paid employees—a necessary but insufficient focus. By contrast, Vokurka (2000) explained: “The church strongly exercises the concept of ‘employee involvement.’ There are over 500 people involved in the leadership and workings of the church, the vast majority of these volunteers” (pp. 27-28). With church members serving both as customers and as volunteer staff, it is imperative to provide for their training and empowerment in a TQM implementation.

Kearns et al. (1994) observed that nonprofit organizations may be reluctant to accept that the principle of problem detection and prevention applies to them. They countered this tendency with the following response: “Every organization, whether service-oriented or product-oriented, undertakes its mission through relatively discrete and identifiable tasks, functions, and subprocesses” (p. 449). Jones (1993) addressed this issue by acknowledging that a church’s ministry, like a firm’s operations, is a system: “The system is designed for the results it is getting. If you want different results, you will have to redesign the system” (p. vi).

Effective analysis and measurement must be part of a well-managed ministry. Kallestad and Schey (1994) advocated listening to customers through formal means (e.g., surveys, suggestion boxes, worship service evaluation forms distributed to selected listeners, focus groups, demographic data) as well as informally (e.g., counseling sessions, negative feedback). Furthermore, they described their church’s practice of collecting and analyzing data pertaining to membership, attendance, pledges and offerings, and demographics. Similarly, Vokurka (2000) affirmed that “there is continual assessment of current programs and changes initiated to better accommodate the members and attract new people” (p. 28).

In regards to leadership commitment, Praschan (2000) reasoned that church leaders face the challenge of balancing ministry and management, and that they are often ill prepared for the latter. He presented TQM as “a systematic approach” (p. 167) to the administrative side of church work. Furthermore, he articulated his view that in systematizing the principles of TQM, business leaders have developed principles that are rooted in the Bible, and that the church can benefit from them.

Unnamed Local Church

Thus far this paper has introduced TQM—its principles and practices—and has discussed its implementation in a range of organizational contexts, including manufacturing, financial services, education, nonprofits, and even local churches. There appear to be some affinities between TQM’s principles and church ministry, both in methodology and values, giving reason to expect that TQM could be applied usefully in the ministry of ULC.

It is no less valid to surmise that a management technique can further a church’s work than it is to posit that a computer-based information system can do the same. Techniques and systems are useful and necessary tools; however, both are the product of human design, and as such are not without defect. Whereas TQM may generally be compatible with biblical principles, it is not to be considered infallible, and thus is always to be subordinate to Scriptural teaching. As noted above, when applying TQM to church ministry, it is imperative to recognize God as the church’s primary Customer. However, this does not preclude ULC from considering the perspectives of its human customers.

Application of the five key principles. TQM’s principle of business process improvement suggests that if ULC is not achieving its mission, it should retool its processes. Repeating Jones’s (1993) statement, “The system is designed for the results it is getting. If you want different results, you will have to redesign the system” (p. vi).

The principle of empowerment points to the opportunity for ULC to strive towards the New Testament ideal for ministry. As postulated by TQM, empowerment entails imparting training and authority to employees to adjust business operations in pursuit of higher quality. In the case of a church, empowerment means that members are trained to assume responsibility for the church’s ministry, and in so doing, to adapt their methods within the boundaries of biblical norms. Successfully empowering members would conform ULC to the New Testament norm, wherein church leaders equip believers to carry out ministry (Eph. 4:11-12).

Ministry leaders who have sought to implement TQM have focused strongly on the principle of customer satisfaction (Kallestad & Schey, 1994; Vokurka, 2000). As noted above, ULC may legitimately defer to its stakeholders’ preferences as long as doing so does not violate a biblical command or principle. Schaeffer (1970) described the church’s freedom and limitations as follows:

It is my thesis that . . . anything the New Testament does not command in regard to church form is a freedom to be exercised under the leadership of the Holy Spirit for that particular time and place. In other words, the New Testament sets boundary conditions, but within these boundary conditions there is much freedom to meet the changes that arise both in different places and different times. (p. 67)

Nonprofit organizations, including churches, tend to struggle with measuring performance, and ULC is no exception to this generalization. Building a “culture of assessment,” to borrow a phrase from the higher education industry (Lakos & Phipps, 2004), may prove to be a challenge for a congregation that has not emphasized the collection of quantitative data. ULC may stand to benefit from (a) administering occasional surveys; (b) collecting feedback constantly through a suggestion/comment box; (c) monitoring key metrics via a balanced scorecard; and (d) commissioning an occasional ministry audit by a pastor experienced in leading a church of similar size and complexity.

Implementing TQM in any setting requires sustained commitment. ULC’s leaders would need to communicate their commitment to quality through both word and action. It could prove challenging to communicate the vision for quality in a way that motivates people to support it enthusiastically rather than viewing it as a threat or a passing fad. Public communication regarding quality issues is to be expected, especially with the “inner circle” of members that attends Sunday and Wednesday evening services.

Other implementation issues. Katz (1995) encouraged leaders of nonprofits to strive for early successes when implementing TQM—particularly by selecting achievable targets. This is useful advice for ULC. More complex projects can be addressed once the stakeholders have witnessed the positive outcomes associated with the emphasis on quality, thus helping to transform the organizational culture. New, ad hoc structures may be needed to implement innovation, as existing structures may find a stronger interest in protecting the status quo (Shawchuck & Rath, 1994, pp. 78-79). However, this needs to be balanced with the supply of information to existing power structures in exchange for their support of the new emphasis.

Team-based problem-solving is a core practice of TQM. With this in mind, ULC would need to consider how to build its teams. It would be advisable for ULC to build its teams around the four dimensions of its mission. The focus of each team would transcend the responsibilities of any individual staff member or specific ministry. Each evaluation team would ideally include a combination of paid staff members, elected officers, and lay leaders and/or members with a stake in the ministry.


There are many management techniques in use in today’s business world. Not all of these are readily applicable to the operations of a local church. TQM, with its orientation toward organizational processes, efficiency, and customer satisfaction, has proven to be useful in a variety of contexts, both for-profit and nonprofit.

Local church ministry entails a balance between intrinsically spiritual activities and management functions that are analogous to those of any organization. Local churches thus stand in need of management techniques and tools. However, the Scriptures represent the church as a divine institution, subject to God’s ultimate authority. Therefore, churches must consider carefully the application of “secular” techniques to the management of church operations.

Local churches around the United States have explored the applicability of TQM to their ministry management, and several have testified to achieving positive outcomes thereby. ULC’s ministry already exhibits tendencies toward TQM. However, a fuller and conscious adoption of TQM principles and practices would require organizational change in areas such as performance measurement, empowerment, and team-based problem-solving.


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Source withheld to protect confidentiality.

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