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?

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One thought on “Church leadership & strategy: some final thoughts

  1. Whenever I read about Reform and Renewal and the myriad other initiatives being taken by the Church, I despair. I find it difficult after a life time spend in an institution (The Army) to see why the latest fashion in leadership should trend. The Army itself does leadership in an autocratic way, but with real democracy instilled through it’s values and it’s ability to recruit, train and empower the right people for their roles at all levels.

    It combines it with upto date techniques in leadership theory, with the practical aspects of leading men and women in often difficult and dangerous situations, and building relationships between the teams, from section to Battalion level and higher formation, by training hard together, living together in community and having a culture that is representative of equality and diversity in our current culture.

    It developed me to Masters Level in leadership and management, not through academic theory, but through the practical application of the in-service training and career development necessary to do a particular job in a particular place, in a particular role. This allowed me to succeed through work, loyalty to the cause, but also as an activist for change where it was needed and allowed.

    The combination of the old and practical, with the new theories, combined with compassionate, but firm management with ideals that we could all subscribe too, makes the British Army, once of the (if not) the best in the world.

    Perhaps the Church needs a few Service Officers as consultants, not the Generals, but those whove led troops in fairly junior roles, in difficult situations – they’d have something to say about the whole exclusive culture demonstrated by the HoB and those advising them.

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