Church leadership & strategy: some final thoughts

In my two previous pieces I offered an initial critique of the R n’R (and Green, to a lesser extent) initiative, suggesting that it leaves several unanswered questions:

Could it be that the  C of E has accepted the ‘trivial new’ in the choices it has made in relation to the management sciences?

Could it be that those responsible for initiatives such as the Green Report and Reform and Renewal have unwittingly purchased ‘the current,’ ‘the latest’ and ‘the hottest’ because they are unaware of the ‘wonderful old writers’ who may in fact offer a better management science-church fit?

Does the Church of England possess the skills  to critique and then select from the menu of choices on offer?  

I suggested that the answer to the first two questions was almost certainly ‘yes,’ and that the answer to the third was ‘not sure.’ But, in all honesty I tend towards answering in the negative! I would perhaps want to slightly re-phrase the question asking instead:

Do the implicit assumptions carried by the majority of the Church of England’s senior leadership allow for an open and critical assessment of the choices available from the management sciences and, therefore, an appropriate church-management science fit?

In my second article I then sought to provide a review of the different management-leadership-strategic options available to the Church of England, from the management sciences, and argued that ‘senior leadership’ has effectively chosen the wrong set of options. I argued, and continue to argue, that given the set of implicit assumptions underpinning the lens through which subjects such as leadership and strategy are viewed by the ‘dominant’ group there was a certain inevitability about this.

The C of E (or at least its leaders) has ‘chosen’ to adopt the set of approaches offered by the planning and positioning schools of management because these are based on the assumption that strategic-leadership should be reflective of the values of an organization’s senior managers, or leaders.

I further suggested that the volley of reports being placed before synod was in part due to a thought process (or set of assumptions) which equates the ability to do strategy with leadership success. Leadership and strategy therefore become one in the same; leaders do strategy and, leadership is strategy.

The problem with this approach is that it has a tendency to lead to group think and a closing down of other options. It also, because of its stress on the values of senior leaders, animated through the power and authority vested in them through their office, tends towards disregarding the views, abilities, opinions and considered theologies of others further down the organisation, and indeed outside the organisation‘s recognised boundaries. A self fulfilling prophecy then follows whereby the only way to become a ‘senior leader’ is to carry those self same set of assumptions. The church’s decision making therefore becomes the epitome of closed systems thinking.’

Part of the job of ‘senior leaders’ (Bishops) surely should be to ensure that the institution, or the body, doesn’t just hear what its dominant group of insiders are saying but instead to listen to what others are saying. Put another way they should be scanning the environment asking ‘where is the prophetic voice,’ rather than assuming that they are the ‘prophetic voice.’ After all in the Old Testament the prophetic voice rarely came from within the priestly class.

Before it is too late the Church of England needs to reach deep into its treasure trove and re-read one of those wonderful old writers,St Benedict who stressed that the ‘the Lord often makes the best course clear to one of the younger members.’ Benedict urged his communities to accept the authority vested in the abbot, for sure, but was equally concerned that the abbot should not be domineering. The community is not to be a shallow reflection of its abbot. Nor should the Church of England simply be a reflection of its bishops.

Benedict put processes, yes management processes, in place to ensure the long-term health and vitality of the community as an expression of God’s love and saving grace. These processes included the widest possible degree of consultation and the willingness to listen to those new to the community and therefore lacking in the authority frequently conferred through rank and status.

This doesn’t mean acquiescing to every idea put forward by those with a particular slant on the various issues facing the community (church) because Benedict also stresses listening to the wisdom of the elders. But, is there a potential irony here in that it is the ‘senior leaders’ who are determined to run with the new at the expense of the ‘significant old for as Mintzberg at al suggest:

There is a terrible bias in today’s management literature towards the current, the latest, the hottest; This does a disservice, not only towards those wonderful old writers, but especially to the readers who are all too frequently offered the trivial new instead of the  significant old.’

I would suggest that the ‘significant old’ needs to be appropriated into the corridors of power, less our largely dominant group of senior leaders (who as Ian Paul wrote in the Church Times on 19th February are largely from an evangelical background), become all imposing.

Could this be what grace demands of ‘senior leaders? Could it be that the largely evangelical House of Bishops needs to be alive to their own inherent assumptions, recognising that their background encourages them to prize ‘leadership’ and the overall direction of the Church of England as an expression of their values? Church leaders of all traditions, after all, need to be aware of the log in their own eye.

Ian Paul, in his highly useful analysis of the historical process leading to the situation where ‘evangelicals now dominate senior clergy posts,also suggests that evangelicals are not good at compromise within their own boundaries; so what chance of compromise beyond the their own systems of thought and practice?

Is it therefore fair to wonder whether a deep period of episcopal self-reflection on the nature of their leadership in relation to the historic nature of the Church of England is, in fact, the House of Bishop’s most urgent leadership task? This notion, of course, rests on an assumption of its own, namely that the Bishops remain committed to the notion of a broad church. Do they? That’s the question, for as Ian Paul also points out many, admittedly conservative evangelicals, wonder why the Church needs to remain so broad.

It needs to remain broad for many and myriad reasons (I write as a supporter of the broad church!) the most obvious of which is that the Church of England is a national church. It should therefore seek to mitigate against any forces that drive it towards a narrow, sectarian, outlook.

However, I also suggested that there is another set of options available from the management sciences which may well provide a more appropriate fit, and those belong to the emergent school of strategic leadership, which stresses culture, environment, learning and yes, reactivity.

If I was to loosely wrap a tiny bit of theology around this I would suggest that this school is progressive in that it seeks to formulate strategy as a response to that which is revealed. The emergent school of leadership, I suggest, is far happier with ‘open systems thinking.’

Although I think that emergent school provides a far better church-management science fit, it does have to be acknowledged that emergent approaches are not perfect. In fact they can be highly frustrating and deeply political. Frustrating because they are incredibly time consuming and resource sapping, political because those involved in the wider discourse, and analysis, such approaches demand can bring their own agendas into the discussions, in a way that ensures that end goals are forgotten in the desire to protect established positions. But I would argue that this is a risk worth taking and that the job of senior leaders working in this way is to discern the wheat from the chaff.

Let me finish by quoting two modern thinkers, Jim Cotter and John Milbank:

Jim Cotter suggested that power is so seductive that there is always the danger that emergency action becomes the norm. So we need to ask whether the current spate of initiatives, emergency actions, are energized by power as opposed to necessity and to be aware of the tendency of those in positions of power and authority to self-present as heroic leaders coming to the rescue against all the odds.

Cotter also asked of an anonymous friend ‘am I scapegoating when I agree with you that the Church of England is little interested in its own mental health……..and that we are living through an ecclesiastical age where only success and victory are recognized currency, Good Friday but a small cloud to be forgotten?’

We, the Church of England, do seem to be as obsessed with measurable outcomes as any other ‘secular’ institution. Perhaps, we need to re-learn the value in simply getting on with being the Church? The acceptance of rejection, which should not be equated with failure, should be part of our DNA. After all nine out of ten lepers didn’t come back and say thank you, and the majority of the busy and self-satisfied rejected Jesus’ offer to come dine with him.

Cotter also offered the following reflection on the nature of ‘church leadership:’

‘The presbyter’s order of ministry goes further (than the deacon’s ministry – my addition). Its central image of the priest is that of sacrifice, of the whole burnt offering, of holocaust. It implies the putting to death of ego, surface, grasping, greedy, possessive, status seeking self. That is what is involved in  becoming truly priestly. Only with those experiences branded into one’s whole being can a person be trusted with oversight and its necessary powers. The purpose of such authority is the enabling of other people’s and the community’s flourishing. It is to be exercised with and among and not over and against. Action is preceded by listening, is coercive only in extremis and even then asks a deeper Yes beneath the necessary No. That is the ministry of the Bishop.

On the assumption that Cotter was correct, are these the characteristics of leadership the Church of England is seeking to cultivate in its priests and bishops?

And from John Milbank in last Friday’s Church Times (19th Feb):

‘The key to church expansion is not managerialism and better packaging of a product. The Church will succeed again only if it challenges the dominance of such processes in the whole of our culture. The Church too often follows yesterday’s fashion.’

So let me pose three final questions:

Does the way the church is currently being led imply a capitulation to contemporary management fashion?

Can the dominant group in the Church of England’s senior leadership positions exercise strategic-leadership in the interests of all, irrespective of their own theological background?

Or, has the notion of a ‘broad church’ already become redundant, dismissed, unwittingly, by a dominant group in the senior leadership group?


Church strategy and leadership; a critique

The Church of England, or at least a constituency within the C of E, are busy ‘doing strategy.’ The breakneck speed at which various reports have been published over the last couple of years evidences the current preoccupation with strategy. But what is this thing called strategy and why are our ‘senior leaders’ so keen to ‘do strategy?’

Let’s start by answering the second question. If you dropped into a business school and spent a few hours talking with the thrusting young things about to complete their post-graduate studies about the next stage of their journey a very high proportion would tell you that they wanted to go into corporate strategy. In fact many of these ‘leaders of the future’ would tell you that the rationale behind their return to university, or bespoke business school, was so that they could get into corporate strategy.

So there you have it; being able to ‘do strategy’ verifies one’s claim to be a leader. Strategy and leadership are inextricably linked and they are both ‘goods’ to aspire to according to secular management thinking. Less charitably we might refer to them as idols.

If you asked the same cadre of talent ‘ how do you define strategy’ the answer you would most likely receive is: ‘strategy is the plans that organizations develop for their future,’ this definition is basic and accurate. What it doesn’t tell you is how such plans are made, the assumptions behind the plans, the level of engagement in the planning process and, the extent to which the past is permitted to shape the present and the future.

‘Leaders’ have a vested interest, as already argued, in positioning themselves as consummate strategists, for to be a strategist implies an ability to accurately predict the future. Leadership and strategic thinking play nicely into the hands of those keen to present themselves as offering a prophetic voice.

Now can you see why certain groups are prone to prize strategy and leadership, or even strategic-leadership, as the ultimate good?

Perhaps we can also identify one reason, among many, why the Church of England, or at least elements within it,  is so concerned with strategy and leadership? 

Inkpen and Choudhury, two of the deepest organisational thinkers, famously wrote that ‘strategy absence need not be associated with organizational failure……..deliberate building in of strategy absence (as a strategic decision – my addition) may promote flexibility in an organization……organizations with tight controls, high reliance on formalized procedures, and a passion for consistency may lose the ability to experiment and innovate.’ 

Unsurprisingly their critique is rarely welcomed in the corridors of power and by those who value the cult of the leader. ‘Strong leaders’ are also apt to dismiss Inkpen and Choudhury’s observation that:

‘An absence of a rigid pattern of strategic decision-making may ensure that ”noise” is retained in organizational systems, without which strategy may become a specialized recipe that decreases flexibility and blocks learning and adaption.’

 All of this leads me to suggest that in rushing to critique the strengths and weaknesses of the various reports being produced by the C of E’s strategists we may be starting in the wrong place.

I would want to argue that any analysis of strategy needs to be accompanied by simultaneous analysis of the models of leadership prized by those responsible for strategy for, as I have argued, notions of leadership and strategy are inextricably linked.

Mintzberg, Ahlstrand and Lampel, in their wide-ranging literature review, ‘The Strategy Safari,’ present ten distinct ‘schools of strategy:’

  1. The Design School, with its emphasis on  – strategy as a process of conception
  2. Planning School – strategy as a formal process
  3. The Positioning School – strategy formation as an analytical process
  4. The Entrepreneurial School (another potential idol – leaders like to be seen as entrepreneurs!) – strategy as a visionary process
  5. The Cognitive School – strategy formation as a mental process
  6. The Learning School – strategy formation as mental process
  7. The Power School – strategy formation as a process of negotiation
  8.  The Cultural School – strategy formation as a collective process
  9. The environmental school – strategy formation as a reactive process
  10. The Configuration School – strategy formation as a process of transformation

They argue that the ten schools can be sub-categorized as constituents of either a larger planning / positioning school, or an emergent / descriptive school.

This level of categorization isn’t as neat and tidy as it first appears; it is hard to accurately locate the power, entrepreneurial and configuration schools, for instance, into one of these two meta categories.

But what I would suggest is that the design, planning, cognitive and power schools can all be relatively easily located in the planning / positioning school, and that they are all based on an assumption that strategy is best formulated by a small group of elite leaders, who fundamentally believe that the strategy should reflect the ‘values of top managers.’

This is all well and good except that such approaches are prone to lead to ‘group think, a lack of ‘peripheral vision’ and a close minded approach to ‘other possibilities.’ There is also the danger that such strategic-leaders are prone to overestimate their ability to accurately forecast the future and to disregard the past.

Those who value top down highly planned and rigidly formulated strategies are likely, to borrow a phrase from behavioral finance, suffer from ‘management hubris,’ overestimating their own capacity to formulate strategy (because they are ‘leaders’ and visionary ones at that) , whilst underestimating the ability of others to  contribute at either the macro, intermediate or micro levels, to strategy formation. Subsidiarity, divergence of practice and regional / local initiatives are regarded with suspicion by advocates of this meta school.

By contrast the emergent school, which incorporates the learning, cultural, environmental, and conceivably entrepreneurial and configuration schools is more likely to devolve both the formulation of strategy and its implementation to the local level (subject to adhering to organizational norms).

These schools tend to regard leadership, and leadership thought, as being widely dispersed. Emergent strategists, much to the annoyance of ‘head office types,’ have a suspicion, healthy or otherwise, of highly planned and rigidly formulated strategies. Devolution, relative independence, trial and error (or logical incrementalism to use a technical term) are characteristic of emergent strategists.

So where is the C of E at in terms of its approach to leadership and strategy?

Well, for a start, I think its in an uncomfortable place and that is why there has been so much disquiet around reports such as Green and R ‘n R. It is in an uncomfortable place because senior clergy posts are now dominated by evangelicals. The effect of this is a lack of breadth, and a closing down of genuine dialogue, or in Inkpen and Choudhury’s terms, the blotting out of anything that may be construed as noise. Noise is bad, clarity is everything. Divergence in both belief and practice testifies to incoherence, for as Ian Paul has noted ‘evangelicals are not always good at compromise.’

Compromise and subsidiarity are dangerous because the approach favored by members of the planning and positioning schools of strategic-leadership  is underpinned by a belief that strategic-leadership must reflect the values, and thought processes, of senior leaders. A lack of willingness and ability to listen to the noise, hear the mood music, get below the bass line, experiment, combined with pressure to join the club can, as we have seen, lead to group think, and therefore sterility. That is our current danger.

It may well be that ‘strategy absence’ may not be appropriate but I would want to suggest that the current preference for centralized planning and positioning in the strategic process at the expense of learning, collective reasoning and environmental re-activity may well, far from saving the Church of England, lead to untold long-term damage. Indeed, whilst it would be churlish to correlate the decline, and projected continual decline, in the numbers attending church on a regular basis with the dominance of the evangelical tradition in senior positions, it remains a fact that decline has accelerated, and is anticipated to keep accelerating, during the period of evangelical dominance.

I would like to finish by suggesting an irony: the senior leadership, or cadre of strategic-leaders, frequently like to argue that the church should not bow to the demands of secular culture. However, could it be that the, in my view uncritical acceptance, of certain leadership norms, which are based on assumptions about leadership, be in itself a capitulation to the demands of the dominant school of thought in secular business culture? After all one of the most ‘successful’ evangelical movements of the last few decades has been the business school, and its recipes for organizational success.

Are we in the Church of England in danger of being sold ‘the latest, the hottest, and the ‘trivial new’ by our strategic-leaders, at the expense of the ‘significant old?’

I suspect that if Professor Mintzberg was to analyse (why don’t we as him to do so?) the approach currently favored by the Church of England’s senior leadership, this may well be the conclusion he would offer us.















Reform, renewal, so many questions.

This week members of General Synod have been hotly debating the ‘Reform and Renewal’ proposals. It is fair to say that outside the halls and debating chambers of synod R n R also has its fair share of advocates and critics.

Advocacy and criticism alike seem, to this one step removed observer, to derive from an individual’s own mental models of what it means to be: a) church, b) a ‘church leader,’ and c) a ‘strategist.’ (At this stage I know that some will already be balking at the use of the words ‘leader’ and ‘strategist’ – stay with me!)

Placed into the language of theology we can see that discussions and debates are concerned with a) ecclesiology b) priesthood (ministerial and the priesthood of all believers) and c) mission and evangelism.

Advocates and critics alike have been keen to stress that any decisions arrived at must follow from a period of robust theological analysis (should I use the word analysis? is it overly managerial?) Surely this should be ‘beyond contestation?’ A church that forgets to do its theology would be a very strange beast, wouldn’t it?

As a former course  director in a business school (I was responsible for Msc degrees in Finance and Accounting and in International Financial Services)  I would like to suggest that the Church of England also needs to ensure, if it is to draw on the management sciences, that it selects from the broad range of approaches on offer. I would also suggest that the C of E can only do so having first agreed on the ecclesiological question: ‘what does it mean to be the Church of England today?’ Until any corporation, firm, institution, body and so forth fully understands its own DNA, as well as its ‘stakeholder map,’ it is almost bound to select the the wrong tools and theories from the management sciences.

One of the consequences of this (and this is my biggest fear in relation to the Green Report) is that the C of E may end up training the wrong people, in the wrong ways, towards the wrong ends. The irony is that many of the people trained in the wrong way towards the wrong ends may both enjoy and value the training they are receiving.

The ecclesiological question – what does it mean to be church – which is in itself a macro, intermediate and a micro question, applicable at the institutional / denominational, diocesan / deanery  and benefice / parish levels – needs to be fully answered prior to the selection of any management theories. As Martyn Percy correctly warns:

‘It is far too easy to claim you are ‘cutting through red tape’; only to discover far too late that what you actually sliced through were crucial nerves and tissues in a delicate body-politic.’

It may be that the C of E has done the serious work of analysis, but if so its findings haven’t been articulated and until they are there can be little confidence in the institutions ability to select from the suite of approaches offered by the management sciences.

Mintzberg, Ahlstrand and Lampel in the introduction to the ‘Strategy Safari’ offer this warning, a warning that I believe that the C of E needs to hear and receive:

‘There is a terrible bias in today’s management literature towards the current, the latest, the hottest. This does a disservice, not only towards those wonderful old writers, but especially to the readers who are all too frequently offered the trivial new instead of the  significant old.’

So here are some questions that I would like to see answered:

Could it be that the  C of E has accepted the ‘trivial new’ in the choices it has made in relation to the management sciences?

Could it be that those responsible for initiatives such as the Green Report and Reform and Renewal have unwittingly purchased ‘the current,’ ‘the latest’ and ‘the hottest’ because they are unaware of the ‘wonderful old writers’ who may in fact offer a better management science-church fit?

Does the Church of England possess the skills and  to critique and then select from the menu of choices on offer?  

Clearly I think that ‘yes’ is the correct answer to the first two questions and, ‘not sure’ in relation to the third of the questions above.

So what can the C of E do? Well, that’s up to General Synod.

In my next article I will provide a brief overview of the options available from the menu of management approaches and explain why I think that the C of E is in danger of making (or has it already made?) some poor choices.



Does the C of E have members? I think not.

Each and every week in congregations up and down the land worshipers proclaim their belief in the ‘one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.’

We don’t of course claim that we are the exclusive Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, just a tiny part of something much larger than ourselves.

As individuals we become part of the one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church through the sacrament of baptism; through grace. No other dues, levies, fees or subscriptions are required (and that is why it so important that the Church never charges for baptism).

It is through grace, and grace alone, that we become ‘very members in the body incarnate’, that is to say the Church. In our established church everyone who resides in the country has the right to the rite of baptism. ‘Membership’ is therefore open to all, without qualification. We must never forget this.

‘Membership’ of the Church is contingent only on grace. Of course ‘members’ may over the course of their lifetime be variously more or less active in their membership. But inactivity should not imply non membership. Should it?

One final thought on ‘church membership’: our membership of the church is also communal in its nature and this nowhere more clearly expressed than in the Eucharist, where we take our communion.

Membership in its secular use is very different, and the Church must resist all temptations to align secular and theological usage. Membership of organisations in the secular sense is always transactional, usually individualistic and characteristically, economic.

Let me illustrate with a few brief examples:

When I played rugby and later golf (badly and then only for a few years) I had to pay an annual membership, or subscription, fee. In return for my sub I was entitled to certain, prescribed, rights. The right to play, or at least to offer myself for selection, the right to use the club house and bar facilities, the right to entertain guests and the right to attend and vote at the Annual General Meeting.

My, now very small, shareholding in Northampton Saints PLC gives me the opportunity of receiving an annual dividend (no chance in reality!) and the right to vote on the club’s officers and the remuneration of the executives at the annual general meeting.

My membership of the AA guarantees me road side attendance and other services in return for an annual fee.

My membership of the National Trust allows me to visit properties owned and managed by the trust in return for the payment of my annual fee.

My membership of the Co Operative provides me with points to be taken off future expenditure based on my historic and current expenditure. This is the same model used by most ‘loyalty’ based schemes.

What should by now be obvious is that my membership of secular organisations is contingent on me paying the cost of membership. By contrast church ‘membership’ isn’t paid by those who use, or even benefit, from the Church. Our collective ‘membership’ was paid by Him, and Him alone.

I am beginning to think that the notion of membership should be treated cautiously by those who profess belief in the ‘one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church;’ a theological proposition, which is then immediately followed up with the declaration of belief in ‘one baptism for the remission of sins.’ 

Could it be that the authors of the  Nicene Creed defined for future generations of Christians both the meaning of ‘membership’ and the means through which membership rites (baptism) are conferred?   It’s food for thought.

Baptism in the Church of England does confer one ‘temporal right;’ the right to be placed on an electoral roll, to become an elector. But again I think we need to be careful to avoid conflating electors with members, for as we have seen the notion of membership implies access to privileges in return for a fee.

‘Electors,’ unlike members, are not required to pay their own fees. In the Christian sense electors fees were paid by Jesus and are conferred  through the sacrament of baptism. (In the secular sense current electors fees were paid by those who in previous eras campaigned, often at great personal cost, for the widening of the franchise.)

Being a Church of England elector is an important fiduciary role, for it is the electors who approve the Reports and Accounts at the Annual Parochial Church Council Meeting (a catchy title don’t you think?) and, who elect the officers of the local parish church.

Electors have a local and fiduciary duty, nothing more, nothing less, and their ability to perform this duty is contingent solely on the grace received in baptism.

Electors have no special status, rites or privileges over and above the ordinary baptised member of the church, even allowing for the supererogatory level of interest and commitment they assume, and the church should not be led, manged or even directed, solely or predominantly, in the interests of its electors. 

In the language of corporate governance to do so would be to fall prey to a ‘moral hazard,’ due to the mistaken belief that the nature of the corporation should be defined, and therefore directed,in the exclusive interests of  its ‘insiders.’

The Church of England is part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, membership of which is made manifest only through baptism. Any claims to enhanced membership status based on regular attendance, financial contributions, or participation in the fiduciary and governance functions of the church should be treated with the utmost caution, less we start to think of ourselves as a private members club, which we are surely not.