The Church of England appears to have a double-minded approach to secular, business expertise. On the one hand, it often wilfully ignores it, to its detriment. At other times, it appears to embrace it uncritically, disconnecting it from theological insight.
There is certainly no doubt that, in a number of places, the Church needs to be more open to insight and expertise from business and management. Having had training and a background in business and financial management, I think I have lost count of the number of times when (let’s not beat around the bush) church business has been done in a daft way. When I asked at a Synod fringe meeting ‘Who is doing the manpower planning for clergy as a whole in the Church?’ the answer I got from the then-chair of the Advisory Board of Ministry was ‘It is so good that people like you are asking questions like that’! In other words, no-one is. Truly astonishing. (I understand things have moved on since then…). In my ten years in theological education, four of the six evangelical colleges have had serious ebbs and flows—and all of these were caused by internal, not external, factors of poor leadership and management. And on the occasions when the situations were turned around, again it was by means of good leadership and management.
So when I saw the new report on selecting and training bishops and deans for the Church, from a group chaired by Lord Green, former chair of HSBC, my first response was positive. It is entitled Talent Management for Future Leaders and Leadership Development for Bishops and Deans, and the very framing of its brief has been enough to raise eyebrows. But surely we need to take notice when the current system (despite more than ten years of reviewing and improving it) still allows diocesan bishops to appoint former members of their formation group from college as suffragans without better scrutiny? The 2001 Perry Report ‘Working with the Spirit’ removed the worst aspects of this process, but there is a long way to go still.
Tim Carter, who also had a background in business before ordination, commented on Facebook:
It is Organisational Behaviour, Leadership and Management language. At its best it is well-researched social science based on observations of what actually happens in a variety of organisations (including businesses, governments, health services, and other non-profits). Now, I have seen at first hand the weaknesses and inhumanity of some management theory (eg Taylorism) and the myth of leadership. However, on the other hand, there is best practice there that the church can learn from. For instance, it seems to me that the lack of succession planning is a significant weakness in many aspects of church life. These proposals do seem to begin to address this in one area of our organisation. It also seems to me that some of my fellow clergy are resistant to the idea of ongoing training. I just don’t get this. We don’t allow curates to take incumbent level jobs until they have demonstrated a certain level of skill in different areas, and we train them in those areas. It is still a massive learning curve when we get there, but imagine how much steeper it would be without that training before hand. Why do we inflict the additional pressures of episcopal ministry without a similar process of intentional training and formation?
There is recognition for the need for this in the Church Times’ leader as well, with an important qualification:
There is clear value in a checklist for ministerial training. It is wise stewardship to ensure that the right skills are nurtured, and that people are encouraged to apply for the right posts. The present ad hoc system, which relies too heavily on being noticed or finding favour, is inadequate. It is wise, too, to borrow best practice from secular institutions; but it needs to be applicable to an institution that, uniquely, follows a founder whose evidence-based record of leadership involved abandonment and death.
All good stuff, it seems. But there have been other strong reactions against. David Runcorn, with customary insight, responds:
Well I am deeply uneasy – and I write as some one who has been positively involved in leadership development programmes for clergy for some years.
I reflect that the central era of Israel’s history, recorded in 1&2 Samuel, began with a society anxious about its leadership – which was widely felt to be failing. The response was to try and buy in a new model from outside. ‘Give us a king like they have got’. Half a glance at what this leadership was like in practice over the borders would have made clear this was not a rational request. It was also a non-theological request. So we should hardly be surprised that it struggled unevenly to have a theological outcome. The final redaction of that long narrative about monarchy and nationhood happened in exile.
And the most damning critique comes from Martyn Percy, published in the Church Times alongside an article about the report. His major concerns are the lack of theological reference in the report, and the team of people who were involved.
In terms of process, there is a problem about the composition of the group who produced the report. Not one ordained woman was on the review group – and at a time when the Church is about to welcome women bishops. This is breathtaking. Nor was there a recognised theologian, or an academic specialising in continuing professional or vocational education. And, despite the fact that the report raises secular “MBA-style” programmes to a level of apotheosis, no recognised scholar with expertise in management or leadership from the academic world formed part of the core working party.
Perhaps not least of the concerns might relate to the person who chaired the process. Richard Murphy of Tax Research UK observes:
I do seriously doubt the wisdom of the Church of England on this issue. Stephen Green is a CoE minister, former UK trade minister but more importantly, was the chair of HSBC at the time that it undertook acts relating to tax evasion in Switzerland (where he was chair of its private bank, so cannot avoid responsibility) for which it has been fined billions of pounds and now faces prosecution in a number of countries. As a result he hardly seems like the man to advise the Church on anything but the need for deep penitence, a withdrawal from public life and the necessity of acts of redemption.
Without getting too personal, there is some irony in the fact that, had these proposals been in place, some of the working group would not be in their current posts! Martyn Percy comments further on the report’s content:
In the actual text of the Green report, there are a couple of serious issues to wrestle with. First, it has no point of origination in theological or spiritual wisdom. Instead, on offer is a dish of basic contemporary approaches to executive management, with a little theological garnish. A total absence of ecclesiology flows from this. The report has little depth or immersion in educational literature.
A more notable absence is any self-awareness in the report: unaware of critiques of management, executive authority, and leadership which abound in academic literature, it is steeped in its own uncritical use of executive management-speak.
Martyn is clearly approaching this from a particular perspective. As an academically qualified former head of a theological college, which clearly thrived under his leadership, he is (historically speaking) an obvious candidate for episcopacy—and equally obviously overlooked. But his comments bite nonetheless.
The particular sticking point for many lies less in the report’s recommendations for training of deans and bishops, as in its proposal of a pool of 150 ‘leaders with high potential’ who will be trained up prior to appointment. The selection and maintenance of this group will be through ‘measurable criteria’, and those who don’t continue to measure up will be dropped. There seem to be multiple problems with this—the idea that fruitfulness in ministry can be measured so easily, the lack of recognition of the importance of spiritual wisdom and insight as key characteristics, and the fact that appointments can never be guaranteed. There is another obvious problem, which no-one has yet highlighted: how will this 150 be chosen? It appears that they will be selected in a ‘top down’ process, but it is not clear that this will be any more transparent than the current processes, and without an open application process, it is sure to fall foul of employment law if challenged. If you want the benefits of management theory, you have to fulfil the obligations of management responsibility!
Amidst all this debate, there are some important realities we need to acknowledge which form the context for this whole discussion.
The first relates to the nature of the Church of England and the role bishops fulfil. As Justin Welby has pointed out very clearly, bishops are not line managers of clergy, and archbishops are not line managers of bishops. The culture of authority in the Church is completely different from the culture of authority within any business organisation. Managers in business can ‘move their pieces on the chessboard.’ They can reorganise centrally, move people around, change goals, set targets and revise job descriptions. Bishops can do none of these things. This means that, on the one hand, the scope for management in business is far greater; for bishops, the main challenges come in different areas and are of a different kind. At the moment, the College of Bishops cannot even ‘command’ its own members; what business organisation would tolerate one of its leaders openly criticising his own organisation on a high-profile contested matter of the moment?
Secondly, this means that, in reality, leadership in the Church is far more dispersed and decentralised than in business. A respected leader of a regional parachurch network can actually have a lot more influence than a suffragan bishop in a rural diocese. A book by a theologian can reignite spiritual vision. A leader of a local church can provide insight that transforms mission strategy. And as a consequence, it means that bishops can influence by many more means than through their organisational position. I think this is what is behind Martyn Percy’s plea for a more diverse understanding of episcopal leadership:
Despite the report’s stated aspiration to increase diversity in senior leadership (much needed), there seems to be no space for the bishop as scholar, evangelist, contemplative, theologian, prophet, or pastor. Or scope for senior church leaders who might be visionaries, risk-takers, and pioneers.
Thirdly, part of the response to this report bubbles up from an unspoken frustration, on the part of able leaders, that they do not receive either the recognition they feel they deserve, or the opportunities that they would like to use their gifts. I wonder whether it might help if all clergy on ordination signed a declaration which said ‘There is no such thing as career or promotion in ministry’ and put it up in their study. I did and look at it most days as it hangs on my metaphorical wall. In fact, ordained leadership in the local church does present an amazing range of freedoms and opportunities—but clergy need encouragement and acknowledgement as much as anyone.
Fourthly, we need to get a bit of perspective. Truth be told, the financial and management challenges of the Church are not that big in comparison with the challenges that are routine in business. Michael Sadgrove, Dean of Durham, writes of the diverse roles and responsibilities of a dean:
I preside over a part of the nation’s heritage, a medium-sized enterprise with a multi-million pound turnover, a retail outlet and catering facility, a leisure destination, a public park, a music-and-arts centre, a place of education and a sizeable piece of estate.
He quite rightly depicts this as a shared responsibility of a team, who need specialist resources, and sets this in the context of spiritual leadership. All this needs to be done well and professionally—but also needs a sense of perspective! Theological college budgets are usually of the order of 1 or 2 million. Our diocesan budget this year is £8.8 million. When I was 22 I was responsible for a production line which was worth £15m (1985 prices!), and one of the six wrapping machines produced £25,000-worth of product every shift. When I was 23 I was Personnel Manager for a National Office of 170 people—larger than the number of clergy in half the dioceses in England. I helped to train one ordinand who, prior to training, was given a cheque for £170m and told to build a team and build a factory in Brazil. Now that requires an MBA!
Fifthly, though they need to be handled well and responsibility, I am not convinced that, most of the time, it is the financial and management challenges which are the real issue. I recently attended our Diocesan Finance Forum, a meeting of incumbents and treasurers across the diocese to look at financial plans and issues of ‘share’ allocation. There was some fantastic analysis which had been done to highlight all the key issues—expertise here really helped. But as the meeting went on, it became clear what the real issue and challenge was: some clergy did not want to talk about giving to their congregations, and some congregations did not see giving as an integral part of discipleship. The primary challenge was not financial, but spiritual. In that sense, the Green report perfectly hits a bullseye on the wrong target.
Finally, we need to recognise that, in our leaders, we can’t have everything. I want my bishop to be someone who has theological vision, who is an inspiring preacher, who is deeply rooted in and shaped by Scripture, who engages with key cultural issues, and who is committed to making the love of God known. The Green report also wants them to be efficient managers and administrators. Here’s the problem: except in a very small number of cases you cannot have both. You have to choose. And I will always choose the first list over the second! More than that, we shouldn’t have to. Bishops should be working in the context of teams who add their skills and provide the needed expertise. Look at this list from the Green report:
These are all worthy things—but they are too many and too diverse to be done by one person. As I have pointed out previously, we are in danger of looking for Superman (and now Wonder Woman?) to save our institutions.
There are good things in the report, and things we need to listen to. The besetting sin of clergy is not being over-concerned with measuring things, and more accountability could be a very good thing. But my worry is that the report is not sufficiently self-critical and self-aware, and so might contribute to the problem we have as much as solving it. In Martyn Percy’s words again:
It is ironic that the Green report begins by quoting the Archbishop of Canterbury’s first address to the General Synod in July 2013: “[We are] custodians of the gospel that transforms individuals and societies . . . called by God to respond radically and imaginatively to new contexts.” The inexorable rise in power of ecclesiastical executive-managers is just one of those challenging new contexts that the Church faces. It does indeed need some radical and imaginative responses.
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