Talking of management and theology

‘Leadership, not theology’ in today’s C of E.

It’s a good, attention grabbing, headline (Church Times 30th November) for a report of a sermon given by the Dean of Southwark, the Very Rev’d Andrew Nunn, at a memorial service for a former Dean of Southwark: David Edwards.

In the sermon Andrew Nunn is said to have argued that the Church of England has jettisoned theology in the belief that the exercise of  management (and leadership) is the route to ‘success.’ The Church Times reports Dean Nunn as reflecting that:  ‘It’s leadership and governance and management and financial reporting and targets that are the skill set of the Church today; it’s evaluation and peer review, that set the standards for what we do. There is little space or time for theology, and especially not academic theology – not the kind of stuff that David gave his life to – and certainly not on the bench of bishops, and increasingly amongst the deans.’ Dean Nunn’s criticism is stinging and I am not sure how his ‘senior’ colleagues have received it. To be told that ‘you are not a theologian’ presumably cuts quite deep?

So the question that must be asked is whether Dean Nunn is correct. My suspicion is that he is, but only up to a point.

I do believe that the Church of England needs to value theology and that rigorous theological inquiry and debate is the only real way through which the Church of England can confront our most divisive issues. I also believe that good theology, prophetic and diaconal theology, are intrinsic to mission and evangelism. Good theology must inform our preaching, nurturing and pastoral practice. I don’t think that there is any credibility in arguing that management (and leadership) can replace theology, or that management (and leadership) skills and techniques can, devoid of good theology, sing salvation’s song. So I have a lot of sympathy with the ‘Southwark critique.’

But, I also have concerns! My primary concern is this: I do not necessarily accept that management and theology belong in separate categories. I think I would want to argue that how the Church manages and governs her affairs and exercises stewardship over her assets, is an exegesis of her theology. How the Church treats people through its HR processes is also surely an exegesis of her theology?

This certainly seems to be the view that St. Benedict took some 1,500 years ago. In his rule Benedict prescribes how the monastery should be managed and governed. Benedict offers a distinctive approach to the election and appointment of seniors, corporate decision-making (‘good practice’), discipline and grievance, the use of the tools and assets belonging to the monastery and so forth. For Benedict governance and management can be, no should be, practiced theologically. In the Church management is, and should be, an exercise in practical theology.  In Benedict’s scheme the treatment of people, goods and assets are all signatories to how we treat God. Governance and management are, in other words, sub sets of theology. In my view the Church of England has suffered, like many institutions, from poor management and governance.

When I taught in a business school (in a highly secular university) we introduced the Rule of Benedict into the MBA curriculum. It was well received. We also looked at some of Gregory’s Pastoral Dialogues. I hope that sources such as these are taught on the Senior Management Course? Colleagues in the university were surprised, amazed and in some cases delighted to find out that theology – ‘the Queen of Sciences’ – had treasures of her own; offerings to make to the wider management curriculum. My hope is that the Church of England doesn’t throw away these treasures at the altar of the new, shiny and largely untested. Professor Minztberg, one of the most highly regarded ‘management scientists’ and Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at the McGill University, who incidentally refuses to teach on his universities MBA program, puts it like this:

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

It also feels to me that the Church of England is reserving her management training for those identified for ‘senior’ leadership positions. I worry about this. Surely all office holders would benefit from some basic skills in areas such as finance and governance? What the Church of England needs to make sure is that it provides as Mintzberg puts it ‘the right training, to the right people, directed towards the right ends.’ We need to make sure that this takes place at all levels of the body. If the Church of England waits until people have been identified for ‘senior’ positions it will have waited too long.

Where I do have an awful lot of sympathy with Dean Nunn is in the relentless desire to develop ‘leaders’:

‘Nowadays, deans are sent off to Cambridge – not to be deepened in theological skills, but in leadership, in which we are encouraged to look across the river from here: not for inspiration from the many steeples and towers, that extend our vision heavenwards, but from the glass and steel towers and corporate headquarters that are crowding them out.’

This desire to develop leaders has, in many ‘sectors,’ including the church, come at a great cost. It has come at a great cost to the more boring, prosaic and necessary practice of management (business administration). This, again, is one of Mintzberg’s points.

In the study of Business Administration there is a tendency to look towards ‘the glass and steel towers,’ without recognizing their tendency to mimic Babel. In the Church it is often assumed that real leadership, leadership worth mimicking (and even idolizing) happens over there; in the glass and steel towers (or in various sporting arenas). I worked in those glass and steel towers for seventeen years (the last seven at board level) and they are not oasis of calm where every strategic thought results in an accretion to an ongoing pattern of success. They are often high-octane places of panic where decisions are made on the hoof. They are also places that experience little in the way of kairos and where the requirement for  sabbath is a form of heresy. Like elite sports clubs they are places where talent exists to be bought and sold. In the run up to the financial crises the phrase ‘economic rent’ began to replace salary.

The study of, and fascination with, leadership borders on the cultish. Nowadays everyone wants to be a leader, or even a ‘leader of leaders.’ Nobody wants to be a manager. Management, the prudent stewardship of assets combined with concern for those who work in the organization, has been largely slain on the altar dedicated to leadership and strategy and we are all the worst for it.

All institutions, perhaps especially the Church, need to ask themselves a question: ‘has the aggregate stock of leadership and the results that might be expected to follow risen in line with the fascination with, and growth in, the study of leadership?’  I suspect the answer is not. In fact, paradoxically, I would suggest that fixating on leadership – and all that this implies in terms of the need to feed an insatiable appetite for growth  –  might actually undermine leadership!

I enjoyed Dean Nunn’s sermon, but I think he is only half right. Management and theology aren’t binary choices and what the Church of England needs (as St. Benedict understood) is an approach to governance and management which is in itself an exegesis of theology.

Oh, and by the way, we need to sit far more lightly to the notion of leadership.













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