Should bishops come from a ‘talent pool’?

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.

HSBC GREENSo 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:

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 11.39.45

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.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

20 thoughts on “Should bishops come from a ‘talent pool’?”

  1. Why 120? Is this approximately the number of deans and bishops.

    What about archdeacons?

    I wonder if there is an analogy with local government. Our elected representatives often have no management experience and have to rely on the officials in place. Is there a case for national training of the experts in diocesan offices?
    Perhaps all clergy should be offered one week courses every other year of their own coosing. Some may do accountancy or employment and others ethics or worship for example.

    • David, not sure where the ‘120’ comes from…

      The reason archdeacons and others are not included is that this relates to people funded by the Church Commissioners, which is limited to bishops and cathedral deans.

      Clergy are offering many more than one week courses all the time through their CME (continuing ministerial education) programme, and I think most make use of it. They include just the sort of things you mention.

      • An increase in the management and leadership element would help the goals of the report. I think they should be offered to all clergy. Bishops may encourage a certain direction but the clergy should be trusted to decide which skills to develop.

        Archdeacons have managerial responsibilities with regard to church properties and valuables. This seems to often be the last position prior to Dean or Bishop. Thus this is a good group to concentrate management training on.

  2. Isn’t the Scriptural pattern that bishops should pray, teach, and preach (your first list) while deacons pray, edit Excel, and use their MBAs (your second list)? I don’t care too much what the labels are (bishops/archdeacons, bishops/chancellors, ministry director/bishop), but surely there should be a split on those lines. Get that right and we can get everyone wearing appropriate headgear and neckwear over the following few centuries.

  3. Like you, Ian, I also find myself very uneasy at these proposals. Though I entirely agree that the use of insights from other disciplines is not only appropriate but essential (I don’t think that God limits him/herself to theology) this looks very much like a sell-out to management culture and I detect a whiff of desperation in the air.

    I would be very concerned about the spiritual and mental well-being of the chosen 150 with continual pressure to perform being exerted upon them. Surely one thing we have learned from education is that selection at an early age is elitist in its effect, handicaps the late developers and denies the institution the use of the widest possible pool of talent. And with tight budgets at all levels of the church one has to ask about the justification of the proposed investment in this! I do hope and pray that, having had the debate, wiser counsels will prevail….

    • Thanks John. Yes, this has a whiff of desperation about it—but in one sense, shouldn’t we feel a bit desperate? We have known for some years what makes for church growth, and yet many dioceses are still not adopting best practice.

      One odd thing: there is criticism of a lack of succession planning in the Church. But in fact, with such a flat structure, there is (if anything) too much ‘talent’ to fill the places available, so this approach does not appear to be tackling the right issue.

      I would rather look at the selection process. And of course, one of the key people in the Green process (Caroline Boddington) has been in charge of this for some time…

  4. Thankyou, Ian, for this excellent and analytical consideration of the report and for your sympathetic use of Martyn Piercy’s analysis. I think this is an appalling document with no roots in any kind of theology and produced by a cleric/businessman with a dubious record. When I retired in 2005, I was the executive dean of a large and successful university faculty of 5000 students and a budget of about £11.5 million so I know something about management. A university is like the church: at its core is the nuture and support of people whether they be students or parishioners. What was clear nine years ago was that the university had to be run in a business-like way but was not a business. It was clear to me then that all the kind of MBA nonsense that was on offer then was inappropriate and discredited so it is disturbing that it has come back to haunt us. As you rightly say, who is to select the magical 120? It is just another form of old boys/girls network which is excluding rather including. What person with any spiritual gifts would want to be part of such a process as this? Do I want a bishop or a dean who has emerged from such a training process? No. In my experience, the election of bishops in Scotland and Canada works very well. We should try it here.

  5. This report ignores the root cause of the problem: the undemocratic way in which English Anglicanism appoints its bishops.

    Instead of wasting millions on better appointments, why not simply abolish appointments, and introduce episcopal elections? Neighboring churches in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland all offer models to choose from.

  6. Thank you, Ian, for an excellent analysis of the issues.

    I don’t understand why ‘Something must be done!’ is seen as the complete answer to all critiques on this, but since the C of E has already posted an advert for a new ‘Talent Development Manager’ and – via an agency – for the ‘Head of Senior Leadership Development’ who will manage the Talent Development Manager, I think we’re all wasting our breath/brainspace.

  7. Thanks for this. The problem, as I see it and as you mentioned, is that this report really does encourage careerism — even when it tries not to do so. This has been going on now for years with the rise in the number of advertised posts. This is not an easy one to tackle: on the one hand, we are uncomfortable with people who urge that others recognise ‘their’ calling (we prefer the image of someone being called in spite of their wishing otherwise), and on the other hand we are distrustful of old boys networks, which can be partially countered by open application processes. (Many of the same issues arose over the introduction of interviews for episcopal appointment, but I’m not sure the issues were discussed properly.)

    As an aside, but perhaps this is the heart of it, the use of metrics in identifying so called ‘talent’ or in making appointments is standard practice in HR these days. It rules out the intuitive, and does so by design. It helps to address biases, but it is a very blunt instrument. In the Green Report, growth is one such metric, but it would be profoundly unwise to think that growth is an unalloyed gospel value. The US is full of churches that are full, but in many cases they preach a gospel that is unrecognisable, one that turns the cross on its head. This push for growth, understandable when one wants the Good news preached, cannot be at the expense of proclaiming the real Gospel, which is irreducibly radical.

    One of our problems is that people who are truly grabbed by God, who want to make the most radical commitment they can possibly make, are seemingly faced with a church that seems to have given up on itself, a church that doesn’t quite get the self-emptying of the incarnation, a church that doesn’t quite get the letting-go of power that the cross represents, a church that doesn’t really expect grace to be the element that makes weakness into a very different kind of strength. Because we don’t believe much of that (or don’t believe it quite enough), we opt for worldly models of professionalism and target-driven models of secular leadership — models behind much of our unprincipled means-end consequentialist pragmatism, models, I’m afraid, that we have bought into and that have begun to be severely challenged, having been behind so much of what has been so wrong over the past decade — in banks, in politics, in counter-terrorism, and even in churches.

    These are broad-brushed comments, I admit, but some of the criticism of this report are urging us to be truly self-critical, to be suspicious that our sin (the sin of our age) may well be blinding us in important ways, that there may be a flaw in all of this (as opposed to a beam in someone else’s eye) that needs to be identified. One thing is for sure: when criticism is met with mindless charges that the critics are resistant to change, alarm bells ought to be ringing very, very loudly.

  8. Perhaps the first task of this group before they select someone for the ‘talent pool’ as future Ministers of the Gospel is to establish whether the individual concerned actually believes what they are supposed to profess..

  9. I could re-iterate the statistics that prove that ethnic minorities represent the largest numerical growth opportunity for the CofE.

    In spite of this, there is an unrepresentative lack of ethnic diversity across the church and despite recent initiatives like ‘Turn up the volume’, the desire among clergy to not disturb the old white hegemony of the institution remains intractable.

    At the same time, the new independent churches are experiencing unprecedented growth without diluting the gospel. The average age of their congregations is significantly (20-odd years) lower. They don’t have to lure people in with tactics and gimmicks which they’ve re-branded from worldly to ‘incarnational’.

    Perhaps, after a few more years of concussive brick-wall effect of the secularism that predominates among the ethnic majority in this era, the CofE will abandon its habit of choosing leaders who are racially unreflective of and insensitive to the laity to whom they minister.

    The CofE needs an intentional reversal of the lack of ethnic diversity among the clergy. This has scriptural precedent. In the establishment of deacons, Hellenised Jews were told: ‘choose from among yourselves…’

    After the rejection of Paul and Silas’ message by the Jews, evangelistic encounters with Gentiles changed from
    Incidental to intentional: ‘Lo, we turn to the Gentiles…’

    All the mini-MBA’s in the world won’t alter the fact that if the CofE has little stomach for change, an elitist ‘talent pool’ won’t make any difference.

    Without uncomfortable change, the prognosis is one of perpetual and irreversible decline.

  10. And the role of skilled laity including Readers, in this process? After all we have the most face to face experience of clergy in their formative years.

  11. I was astonished, and demonstrably angry when interviewed by the CofE’s “HR expert” in London about the possibility of an episcopal post – I was told flatly that I hadn’t planned my CofE career adequately. I should have moved more frequently and chosen posts that would have made me elegible for preferment! Ian: your article hits many nails on the head. Well done.


Leave a comment