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.















9 thoughts on “Church strategy and leadership; a critique

  1. I found this post most informative. With your understanding of business schools you have explained a lot.
    I would want to add one thing. People in business schools who want to be top managers, strategists, leaders, etc, are obviously thinking about themselves. They are not thinking to themselves ‘I want to devote my life to marketing Dell computers’ in anything like the way some people want to devote their lives to nursing. Dell computers will be the means to a personal end, and they will work for Dell’s competitors if that’s where the best job is. Management schools presuppose this. The whole point of these organisations is to make a profit, and the go-getters are going to make it happen.
    But in the Church there is no such identification of profit with success. Management schools don’t have the focus on what the organisation is for. What is the Church for? The church culture you describe doesn’t ask. It assumes that what the leaders want is what it is for. The reality on the ground is that people understand the Church and Christianity in many different ways, often conflicting. That’s what we need to address.

  2. I, too, have pondered the fact that as the evangelical influence in the C of E has grown the decline has not stopped. Not sure what the relationship between the two is but one aspect may be that there are many denominations which now basically offer the same thing: evangelical/charismatic worship, informality, church growth courses, experiential not intellectual culture,, an emphasis on leadership not ordination, etc. In other words, the C of E is competing in a v crowded marketplace with churches of many denominational types. And it would seem that it will never be more than a small proportion of people who are attracted to that style of church life. The fact that many city centre evangelical churches are large shouldn’t blind us to the fact that in percentage terms they are very unsuccessful – they seek to operate across the whole city but only maybe attract 1% of the population of e.g. Manchester, Leeds or Lancaster.
    Another observation is that in many organisations the quality of leadership seems to be in inverse proportion tot he number of people with MBAs. And that is the route the church is going down!

  3. Andrew this is hugely useful and exactly what we are experiencing in ABJ and the ABs’Council. It’s so helpful to have this succinctly reported. Sorry you didn’t get on. It’s was dire this week at one level. To many people fawning over John Spence and our Justin. 😦 but there are some great people and things are not always quite what they seem but still too many ABJ supporters to stop the slide towards a Presbyterian CofE! But lots of great people and we’re in it for the long haul. It will pass. It’s just a question of how much damage will have been done.

    • It’s interesting that so many of the people who have been put in charge of strategy are not from a CofE background – eg David Porter and John Spence. In sociological terms, what is being pushed is a sectarian (gathered) model of church, not a societal one – which simply runs against the grain of the CofE. The relative success of other Lutheran state churches which have retained a societal focus is striking – eg Denmark, Norway, Sweden – they have relatively stable support amongst their majority populations. I think there’s a gender element in the leadership and strategy model too: the ‘strong, charismatic male clerical leader’ is made the norm. Another bad mistake – laity don’t take well to becoming passive ‘church fodder’, possibly of use if trained and certified by clergy for some helpmeet occupation.

    • It’s funny you should say that. It appears that everything we do should have the conversion of others in mind…. just helping or giving out of love isn’t quite enough.

      • It’s a classic of busy modern society. Instead of just doing it, set up an institution to raise money to pay, or cajole, other people to do it. You will get status from your position in the institution. You then excuse yourself from actually doing it. It’s like the wealthy celebrities who go on a sponsored somethingathon to ‘raise’ money for a TV-sponsored charity. The money comes from poorer people, the celebrities get the credit. Or MPs who bang on about hard-working families while giving themselves more holiday time than other people get.

  4. Excellent reflection, thank you. To support one of your points, I did a large survey of CofE clergy in 2014 which found that about a third of the clergy identify at the evangelical end of the churchmanship spectrum, that they are more likely to be male (women evangelicals are more ‘middle of the road’) and that of these evangelicals an amazing 2/3 don’t think ‘good disagreement’ is even an ideal, because the truth (as they see it) must be upheld even if that means imposing it on the rest and/or splitting. And it is this relativly small group who have dominated CofE decision-making for several decades now, crowding out the majority voice of both clergy and (even more so) laity

    Click to access Clergy-survey-Press-Release.pdf

    • Thank you for that info, Linda. You’d never know that from last week’s “roll-over-and-tickle-my-tummy” Synod. Although there was some revolting types like me, especially over Scotland and the RME… but 100 and 150 or so respectively out of 480. And Bishops…. well we’ll pass on that one.

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