Jon Kuhrt writes: The church frequently has to respond to the scandal and upset created by safeguarding failures and other cases of serious malpractice. As we all know, these scandals powerfully undermine the integrity of the church’s witness.
One key factor in ecclesiastical failures that is frequently downplayed is the poor state of basic ‘human resources’ practices. The “bad fruit” (Matthew 7.17) that is exposed has not emerged from nowhere. It grows in dysfunctional settings, where clear expectations are not established, proper structures are not in place, and where robust action is not taken against those who ignore requirements. Often there is a basic problem of poor management.
But management is not a concept that sits well within the church. The phrase “managerialism” is often used as code for all that the church does wrong. Theologians will say that the clergy are called to be priests, pastors, and preachers, not CEOs of mini-corporations.
Yet, over the past 20 years, in working for and with many churches and Christian organisations, I have consistently seen the bitter cost of this kind of attitude. Whether it is curates, youth workers, choirmasters, administrators, caretakers, or others, time and again I have seen the problems and sadness it causes.
Bad management can, of course, occur anywhere. But I think that there are some common symptoms that are manifested in Christian culture which are worth examining:
- A reluctance to challenge poorly performance.Too often, it is considered pastorally insensitive or even “unchristian” to challenge unsatisfactory quality of work. Unresolved issues can back up behind a poorly performing person like heavy traffic, and cause immense frustration and anger among the congregation.
- Staff who have accumulated dangerous levels of pent-up frustration, which is unexpressed through fear of being disloyal. Many Christians have a low guilt-threshold about complaining, and see the situation as a cross to bear rather than something that can be improved.
- Confusion between pastoral care and professional accountability. When the roles of minister and manager are combined, where are the lines drawn?
- A reluctance to use the professional experience of experienced managers in the congregation. A strange, unbiblical tendency to draw a sacred/secular divide can afflict both clergy and lay people, who can be guilty of assuming that ‘things are different’ in a church, and will thus fail to engage with good employment practice.
- The reluctance of clergy to accept their management position. Many church leaders themselves feel unsupported, and have not had adequate training. When you are not managed yourself, it can be hard to give what you don’t get.
It is obvious how destructive these forms of dysfunction are. Nothing is more damaging to a church community, or stressful to a leader, than a botched staffing situation. Beneath these symptoms, there are some underlying factors which need addressing.
An absence of structures
Too often, churches do not have the basics in place, such as job descriptions, contracts, and clear reporting processes. Too often, staff are not given regular individual supervision by their manager. I met someone recently in a church who, in 17 years, had never had any form of appraisal. This did not make them feel trusted but unvalued.
These kinds of structures should never be dismissed as mere bureaucracy: they are vital to people’s knowing what their job is, having clear expectations, and being able to be accountable to others.
Being fearful of challenging others, some managers hope that problems will go away without any action being required. Christian culture can be good at dressing the wounds of dysfunction, and pretending that things are all right, when they are not. “‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6.14).
There is frequently a reluctance to confront issues and challenge people who are not doing what is required. Many tread on eggshells around their staff, fearing that the relationships are too brittle to bear any form of criticism. In doing so, they condemn their working relationships to remain immature and shallow, untested by honest discussion. Good staff expect to be, and appreciate being, challenged; it motivates them because it shows that what they do matters.
Lack of integrated theology
Perhaps most deeply, there is often a failure to integrate good theology in people-management. Christians should be aware more than anyone of human frailty. However strong people’s faith is, there should never be a blind optimism about their ability to do a job.
A good paradigm to reflect on is the transformative blend of grace and truth that Jesus embodied in his ministry. He encouraged and empowered his disciples with grace and kindness. But he often challenges his disciples sharply when necessary. He uses the phrase ‘I tell you the truth’ 28 times in John’s gospel.
In management terms, this blend of grace and truth could look like this:
|Emphasis on grace||Emphasis on truth|
|Giving another chance||Maintaining boundaries|
|Saying ‘yes’||Saying ‘no’|
It is not good management to draw on just one side of this chart.
Many people, and perhaps especially Christians, find the left-hand side a lot easier. In doing so, we can embody what Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously described as “cheap grace”. This may look benign and sensitive but it only skirts over the real issues, and moves ahead to a false resolution that has not really addressed the problems. It seeks a shallow conversion of the situation without any repentance. It is a road to hell paved with good intentions.
Each one of us is fragile. We have weakness, we can be negligent and sometimes we do wrong due to our own deliberate fault. This recognition of sin is a key aspect theological basis for good management structures. It is liberal optimism of the most naïve kind to assume that a culture of transparency, support, and accountability will emerge by itself.
We need to recover the idea that good management of people is a spiritual task. It holds a mirror up to help assess how people are doing and what areas of their work need attention. It helps reduce the negative effects of pride, insecurity, ego and other ‘self-regarding tendencies’, and truly encourages people in their work.
The good news
The good news is that becoming a better manager is possible, and most of it is common sense. It is not a case of swallowing management science uncritically, or bringing in inappropriate bureaucracy, but it is about providing appropriate support, and being accountable to everyone who is employed.
Here are some suggestions for ways forward:
1. Invest time in your team. If you cannot give an hour of uninterrupted time to meet one-to-one with those whom you line-manage every month, then you should expect problems. Make brief notes of the meeting, focussing on agreed actions and send them as soon as possible after the meeting.
2. Be honest about the current situation. Open things up with a simple review process. Ask staff for their views on how they are managed: what do we do well? What could be done better? What would you recommend? Remember that reality is liberating. Unless there is honesty about the situation, nothing will really change.
3. Make a plan to tackle the issues that are raised. Draft a plan, and circulate it to everyone for comment. From the start, this will build trust, honesty, and ownership in the process of better management. If things have not been good then this plan is what confession and repentance looks like!
4. Get the right structures in place. Make sure you have up-to-date job descriptions, and use a simple structure for supervision and appraisals to ensure consistency and fairness. Don’t let the best be the enemy of the good – better to use imperfect forms than none at all.
5. Use the support available. John Truscott’s website has many helpful resources for churches and many dioceses have sensible procedures that can be used or adapted. Also, many congregations have experienced managers who could offer useful advice.
6. Review and celebrate progress. Good systems help to tackle issues and improve relationships. Build in a review period in advance, and ask someone independent to come in to check on how everything is going. Make a list of the good things that have happened, and celebrate them. Use the areas where further improvement is needed as the basis for the next plan of action.
We need to remember that the church has within itself the resources to transform the most difficult situations. Our theology, theory and practice need to come together. We are people of hope and the cycle of poor management can be broken!
The first step is to be honest about the current situation of our staff. Rather than the cheap grace that side-lines the real questions and offers superficial answers, we need to embody the costly grace that is at the heart of the Christian faith.
It is our understanding of true grace that should help us handle reality and truth. This truth will set us and our churches free and show us the path to transform even the most difficult problems.
Jon Kuhrt was Director of Community Mission for Livability (formerly the Shaftesbury Society) from 2002 to 2010, and Chief Executive of the West London Mission from 2010 to 2018, leading their work with people affected by homelessness and addiction. He is now Rough Sleeping Adviser to the government, specialising in how faith and community groups respond to homelessness. He lives in Streatham with his wife and three children, and is a member of Streatham Baptist Church and is involved each summer with Lee Abbey Youth Camp. He is an avid cricket lover. He blogs at ‘Grace + Truth’ where a shorter version of this article was first published.
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?