The 2003 election of Rev. Gene Robinson as the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop set off an internal debate that led a number of members within several conservative dioceses and parishes to leave the church.

But in the end the church retained about 90 percent of its membership, including many conservatives who opposed Robinson’s consecration as bishop. How did Episcopalian leaders and members reconcile their church’s identity with such a momentous change?

For the past decade, Illinois State Business Professor Mathew Sheep has worked with four other researchers from across the United States to study how the church viewed itself during this period. Their study has been accepted for publication in the Academy of Management Journal.

What the team found was that, rather than organizational identity being a fixed set of descriptions of the organization, it is instead a set of dialectical tensions that people attempt to balance or navigate every day in the way they talk about identity. In other words, organizations can stretch their identity—a concept the researchers called organizational identity elasticity—to allow for major changes.

Sheep spoke about the study—“Elasticity and the Dialectic Tensions of Organizational Identity: How Can We Hold Together While We’re Pulling Apart?”—in the following Q&A.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Why would a business professor study a church?

The first three authors shared first authorship on this paper, and we all arrived at the University of Cincinnati at the same time—they as professors, I as a doctoral student. So I was basically doing research with them. We’ve done quite a number of studies with the Episcopal Church as our source of data.

We study organizational identity. So to do good research you have to have an interesting context for identity. People just don’t sit around talking about their identity. It takes some sort of catalyst to bring that sort of talk to the surface.

And so the Episcopal Church and our association with them we began to ask, “Why don’t we study how the Episcopal Church constructs and talks about its own identity?” In 2003 the Episcopal Church had just had its General Convention in Minneapolis and had elected its first openly gay bishop. This obviously was a controversial event in the church. It was one that a lot of people were very, very excited about; others were very resistant to it. So it was a time of conflict.

Our study really wasn’t about that or that issue per se; it was, “How does this impact how people talk about their organization’s identity?” That’s why we suggested this research context. We were given very broad access to people in the church to interview them and to thus get our data for the study.

It was a 10-year study, correct?

Yes, we started this basically in 2004. The year after the general convention we began to collect data. This is qualitative research. It is a much lengthier process than more quantitative methods, because with qualitative data you really have this massive amount of interview data spanning hundreds of pages and you have to code that. It’s a very rigorous method but it is still a lot more interpretive, if you will, than simply sitting down and crunching the numbers from a survey.

Then there is the matter of writing it up. What does all this mean? How can you contribute to theory? Because journal articles have to show that they have a major theoretical contribution, something that no one has done before. So that part takes quite a while to fashion and just to make sense of what the contribution is and how you are advancing knowledge—in our case, organizational identity and what that means.

We really problematized the conventional definition for organizational identity in this. The conventional definition is that an organization’s identity is that which its members would say are the central, distinctive, and enduring characteristics of that organization. But our study and more recent studies have problematized that. In other words, we question the assumptions of that and say, “Is that always really central? How enduring is it? And really how is it distinctive?” Or is it more of a dynamic tension in these things, which is how we theorized it in this paper.

Your approach was social constructionism. Tell me why you chose that approach and how it worked with your findings?

That actually is one of the major differences in how people theorize organizational identity. And all these differences are good. Some people theorize organizational identity as very a priori. In other words, you come up with these preconceived notions of identity categories. Then you group organizations more or less quantitatively into these categories or groups.

Another way to look at identity is social construction. Identity is what people say it is. It’s really not being enacted in everyday life unless this is the way people actually talk about identity and construct the identity of their organization. So how are they doing that? And that is a social construction, which is a dynamic thing. It’s not a given. It’s contested. And it’s negotiated. And sometimes it has to be re-established periodically and changed periodically.

There are really some interesting quotes in the study. One quote from an interviewee that really grabbed me was, “I think there are two perceptions—those who think the Episcopal Church is prophetic and moving forward and those who see it as adrift into oblivion.”

It was a description of the way they saw the different ways … and what we eventually— from that and other interviews—theorized as elasticity. Those who would view it as prophetic would be taking the more inclusive, expansive view of identity as, “This is who we can be.” Interestingly they would also link it back to, “This who is we have always been. This is just part of our journey. This is just part of the trajectory of our identity.” Identity is not a stagnant state. It’s a moving stream, so to speak. So if they can think of it as who we are now and this is who we are becoming, but it’s not really inconsistent with who we have always really been at its foundation, then that is what they mean by this is of a prophetic sort of stance.

Those who would say, “It’s drifting into oblivion,” they would be saying, “It’s not a good path to take. It’s not a part of who we are. Therefore, it is a departure from who we have been.” And therefore that’s the way they would be constructing it.

What are the implications outside of the Episcopal Church for what your findings were?

This research is published in a major—some would argue the major—management journal that we have for empirical research. So why are they interested in this if it is about a church? Any organization has certain things in common. One, they all have an identity of some kind and they all negotiate that identity. The things that change that identity might vary, but how they negotiate it and the whole principle of how elastic or inelastic that identity might be is pretty common to any sort of organization.

People might be constructing (identity) when an expansion is going on, like for a merger or an acquisition or when there is a strategic change. So when you do that, there are members and leaders in your organization who will say, “Great. Welcome. Come on in. It’s a big tent. Let’s include everybody. Let’s include all of these identities. Our identity is elastic enough to accommodate all this.” There are others who will say, “That’s not who we have always been. That isn’t true to our roots. It isn’t true to who we have been in the past.” So they are constructing it in a more inelastic sort of way.

So you will have that sort of verbal, discursive contest going on no matter what the impetus for the change or the expansion or the contraction of the identity is.

Did going through this study change how you view yourself?

I think it is really relevant to people. We have this thing now called protean careers. People change careers now much more frequently than at perhaps at times in the past. And so it becomes a real question. So every time you think about, “Maybe I will change my career,” you’re really kind of posing yourself with an elasticity question, like, “Am I that elastic? Can I think of myself in that new role? Is this part of who I can be or who I am?” So you kind of experiment with that in terms of testing it a bit if that will fit you. So yeah, it does relate at all these different levels.

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