An open letter to Lord Green et al

Dear Lord Green and co-authors of the review group,

I read with interest, and a sinking heart, the Church Times coverage of your report this Friday. I also read Martyn Percy’s response, with which I am broadly in sympathy and subsequently, the report itself, on the Thinking Anglicans website.

Before offering some observations of my own I would like to stress that I am in no way anti business, or opposed to the Church learning from secular agencies, as I hope will be illustrated by reference to my resume below:

Before ordination I worked first in the asset management business and, secondly in a business school. I was a director of Old Mutual Asset Managers (U.K.) I have also been a director of an investment company listed on the Dublin Stock Exchange. I hold a M.B.A. and a numerous professional qualifications. I have been the programme director for two post graduate finance degrees and, taught M.B.A. students. I am passionately interested in the relationship between theology and economics. One of the results of this area of interest is a book I co-edited; ‘Theonomics.’

So why am I so concerned and, are my fears legitimate?

One of my biggest concerns is that whilst the report claims to recognise diversity in the Church, it then proposes a model which ignores diversity. For instance there is absolutely no mention of the rural church, the church in areas of deprivation or the complexity of multi-parish ministry. Why?

The inference is that skilled leadership is most required, and most likely to be discovered, in single Church structures. Talented leaders are to be sought for large churches but not, it seems, for large multi parish benefices. I would argue that leading a disparate group of churches is far more complex than leading a single church , especially where that church offers a distinctive ecclesiology.

The rural church, which in many and significant ways is the engine room of the Church of England, will, under your proposals, be further sidelined. There are few, if any bishops, currently in post with significant rural experience and, your proposals if adopted will further perpetuate this phenomena.  Bishops should be able to demonstrate a capacity to lead in multiple and diverse contexts?

The focus on ‘absolute standards,’ and ‘numerical growth,’ is dangerous because it disincentives individuals from pursuing their vocation in areas where success, can only measured incrementally, where every yard gained has to be fought for.

The Church of England already struggles to fill vacancies in the North of England. Compassionate and ‘good’ priests will always seek to pursue their vocation ‘a yard from the gates of hell,’ but lets not denigrate their lack of ‘relative’ success, compared to churches which flourish in softer (Southern?) climes.

The approach to field trips (both in terms of secular institutions and the Church is interesting). ‘Participants will be taken to growing churches’ and businesses that have successfully managed change. Why not take our best leaders to areas that struggle, really struggle, where morale is at rock bottom and then see what they are able to offer? I would like to see our best leaders in the most challenging contexts, not the softest ones. Areas where favourable  social and demographic  factors increase the odds of success can possibly manage with average leaders. Often average leaders look good for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with their own capabilities, despite appearances.

So lets not vest too much of the success or failure, either in relative or absolute terms, in the ‘cult of the leader.’ The factors that contribute to success and failure in business, and other walks of life, are frequently systemic and have little to do with individual leaders (even though ‘leaders’ would encourage us to think otherwise). There is a real and present danger in romanticising leaders, and leadership, sometimes bordering on idolatry.

The danger with absolute standards is that the standards selected are reduced to the narrow range of activities, or outcomes, which can be absolutely measured. This is a statement of the obvious. The problem is that ultimately an institution, body or corporation becomes defined solely by that which it can measure, and you can only measure that which you can attribute.

Attribution analysis is difficult, so many organisations don’t even attempt to understand success or failure systematically, nor are they able to ‘account’ for randomness and luck (or what about the work of the Spirit in the Church) instead preferring to identify a single explanatory factor, such as ‘leadership.’ Ironically ‘leaders’ are often happy for success to be identified with their unique range of skills and capabilities, failure on the other hand is far more complicated!

The comment that ‘if there is a decline in measurable performance or potential the individual will be asked to leave’ is therefore extremely worrying, because it strongly implies that success will defined solely by reference to institutions measurement capability, which by definition is going to be fairly narrow and ‘unsystematic.’  Strange for any form of organisation, bizarre in the ‘mystical body.’

Let me provide an example: rightly the report suggests that ‘there is an emerging opportunity for senior leaders in the Church to be innovative and to initiate new forms of social and political capital. This will involve being daring enough to open conversations which politicians fear to start on their own.’ But, how can this be measured?

Innovating new forms of social, political and I would want to add economic and financial capital, doesn’t just happen. Innovation and initiative take a great deal of thought (and thought leadership – which is intangible), often over the course of many years. Are we to reward to individual with the most sound bites, the greatest number of press releases, the most appearances on the BBC or, the leader who makes one society changing contribution, but who for many years remains silent, or allows others to take the credit for his / her thoughtfulness and intelligence? Or what about the ‘lucky leader’ blessed with some excellent, possibly inherited rather than carefully selected, number twos and threes, people who have the ability to quietly play the hardest instrument in the orchestra, second fiddle?

Absolute standards of measurement (or indeed relative ones) do not, necessarily, apply in the field of innovation and initiative. The entrepreneurial skills we require of leaders transcend measurement and accounting techniques.

The focus on measurement could well deliver competent managers (no bad thing), but not innovative and ‘entrepreneurial’ leaders. And leadership, not management, is the topic the report seeks to address.

So, it seems that the review is actually hopelessly unclear in its objectives, confusing two overlapping but distinct sets of skills; management and leadership. Cathedral Deans are to be offered a mini-MBA. Just pause for a second and reflect on what the initials M.B.A. stand for: Master of Business Administration.

I also worry about the regard in which the report seems to hold business schools. It shouldn’t be forgotten that many of the examples ‘academics’ have presented as exemplars of success subsequently turned out to be failures! Good to Great (Jim Collins) and In Search of Excellence (Peters and Waterman) both testify to this. Business schools were also described as ‘authors of the apocalypse,’ because many of the strategic and financial tools that led to corporate failures were pioneered in business schools.

They were pioneered to a large extent because  business schools forgot that their mandate was to teach the techniques and skills required to exercise professional stewardship of a business over the long-term and, began focusing instead on the far sexier subject of leadership. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Shand’s endowment of the Harvard Business School was in response to the decline in ethical standards that led to the savings and loans crisis.

Strategies that lead to long-term decline are perfectly capable of robing in the vestments of  success in the short-term. Leading a single church to short-term success shouldn’t be too difficult for an aspiring leader! The problem is that short-term success often fuels long-term decline and, this brings me to my final concern.

The Church, whilst having to face current concerns, exists for the long-term, the very long-term. But, what is the average shelf-life of a corporate executive? (Answer: not very long). How long do most companies exist (same answer). Over what time period are most corporate executives incentivized (same answer)? So why do we, the Church, assume business and business schools have much to teach us about long-term sustainable success, when the very notion of long-term cannot be found in the DNA of the vast majority of corporations?

So these are some of my fears, fears which I believe to be legitimate. I hope that those invited to join the elite cadre of potential leaders will reflect on the nature of what they are being offered and the extent to which it can truly help shape their vocation.

Your sincerely,

The Rev’d Andrew Lightbown







6 thoughts on “An open letter to Lord Green et al

  1. Brilliant.

    I come from the Military world, where leadership is identified early and developed alongside management skills. Those leadership qualities, nurtured can than lead to extraordinary leadership in situations of life or death, where the cost is the human capital that you’ve invested in, or are seeking to protect.

    Leadership in the pastoral context of the church needs to be firm, fair, but discerning, looking below the many levels that decision making follows and to be able to have insight into the complex web of relationships that exist and develop between the human capital of our clergy and laity and to be able to inspire and encourage them toward taking a Vision of the redemptive Christ outside the walls of the church and wider. It’ not about bums on seats, it’s about the promise of Salvation, a word that is quite often missed in the big ideas bandied about as part of the various mission strategies proposed to halt the perceived decline in Church attendance.

    You can’t do mission on the basis of a spreadsheet or from the seat of a bishop, arch deacon or dean. You need to be at the coal face of parish ministry, chaplaincy in all those places that don’t have church and in the context of building relationships for the longer term, not recruiting numbers through the door (although that would be nice), but through the gates of heaven.

    I learned to lead and to command as a very Junior NCO in the Army, those basic skills were than developed by practical application, experience in a variety of roles and places, eventually leading to commissioning and commanding at field rank. I don’t attribute such success to management training, but to the natural ability that God gave me, which was taken and used by the Army for the greater good. That’s how we need to form, prepare and train people for leadership in the church. Prepare them for the worst, hoping for the best.

  2. A well considered response from someone who know the business world. I am concerned about the effect on morale of those clergy not selected for the ‘leadership programme’ and the failure of those at the centre of our church life to think about supporting all its clergy. All licensed ministers in fact have been carefully selected and trained are we admitting that our recruitment procedures are in fact rather weak? Is it not the case rather that we should celebrate the impressive range of gifts and talents right across the board and open up opportunities for development for lay and ordained alike in the Body of Christ?

  3. I am tempted to say that the C of E could be accused of thinking that things are greener on the other side of the fence. Of the many things that working in business has taught is the discernment that different types of businesses require different types of business folk. The large multinational needs CEO’s and managers and sales teams and marketing teams with specialists in each role. The micro-business needs an entrepreneur who can fulfil a multitude of roles, as well as thinking laterally and creatively with no rights of tenure. People who can create a business and relationships ex-nihilo. The shrine churches tend to be examples of the former. The tiny, multi-benefice groups of churches tend to be examples of the latter. Which is NOT to say that one is better than the other. My experience of theological training in the 90’s was that it is great at creating independent, creative thinkers. Later training seemed to be aimed at creating clones who had merely read the right books, ticked the right lists. It is as if the vet has killed the horse and is now blaming the horse for being dead. The vet now wants to bring in an outside consultant to resurrect the horse. I would suggest that the church needs fewer ‘leaders’ (so many shepherds, so few sheep) and more inspirational creatives to share the Gospel (you do have a gospel?) with the people in new and exciting ways. Entrepreneurs are rarely easy to work with, but they are vital to the full-functioning of economy. (Look up the Greek meaning of ‘economy’ to get a greater insight into what I mean.)

  4. I am in favour of improving the quality of training and development at all levels of the church and appreciate that this is a very big aspiration. However, the working group’s proposals seem to me a recipe for producing church ‘dignitaries’ in a mono-cultural corporatist mould. Diocesan secretaries and Chapter clerks are there to provide the necessary management and administrative skills; Bishops and Deans should be free to provide us with inspiration leadership, to be chief pastors and teachers, regional and national prophets, and yes, quirky and idiosyncratic on occasion. Others have commented elsewhere on the lack of women on the working group, and is it surprising that – if I am correct – a working group composed of four overworked bishops, two church civil servants, and two retired bankers, should have produced a report that is blinkered by a desire to achieve something?

  5. Dear Andrew – thank you for a thoughtful and helpful critique. An exile from the C of E – at present serving in one of the ‘colonies’ I am grateful for the continuing thread of careful questioning of ‘the obvious’ in church life.

    ‘Leadership’ is itself a slippery noun. It isn’t a word we find in the scriptures – we have to project our modern ideas about it onto biblical categories. Perhaps the most awkward contemporary conflation is ‘the servant leader’ . . .

    Jesus ‘leads’ in the sense that he goes the way we are all invited to go, but there is little or nothing in his way of going that invites our following.

    In our culture we look for [insert your modifying adjective of choice / neurosis] leaders. Jesus isn’t the leader we are looking for except in the most hidden sense – there is nothing in him that we should desire him. The unthinking use of the word in the Church is one of many disturbing features of our shared contemporary life.

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