On today’s General Synod agenda, we were scheduled to discuss a report on ‘Nurturing and discerning senior leaders’. In the event, we ended up adding a debate on the EU Referendum and the consequences for our thinking about division in society, and the debate on leadership has been postponed (I am not entirely sure until when).
But the need for good leadership could hardly have been more clearly demonstrated by news today about the Diocese of Rochester. It covers the area I grew up on the London/north Kent border, and the diocese therefore sponsored me through ordination recommendation and training. But today it has effectively announced that it is on the verge of running out of cash.
In a letter to all clergy, church wardens and parochial church councils, the diocesan bishop and chair of the Diocesan Board of Finance (DBF) explain:
As many of you are aware, it has become clear that for some years our Diocese has been spending more than it has received in income, but has been able to manage this problem by drawing from reserves built up over many years. The accounts for last year have now been finalised, and the deficit between spending and income was higher than previously, at £604,000. This means that our present position is worse than expected because, while this has also been funded from reserves, those general reserves are now almost exhausted. It is essential we move back to the situation where spending is no more than our income, but this is expected to take us more than one year even with the actions we describe below.
As a result, all discretionary spending is going to be halted, including maintenance of clergy housing beyond the essentials; salaries are going to be frozen; training halted; empty vicarages let out. This is a desperate situation to have reached, which no doubt needs our prayers. But it is also going to provoke some questions.
Looking back, it has to be asked why the Diocesan Synod accepted a deficit budget year upon year until the substantial diocesan reserves had been used up. There might be a question as to whether there was in fact complete transparency in this process, judging from the use of the phrase ‘it has become clear’. Empty vicarages are now to be let—but why hasn’t that been happening before? And what has been happening with a diocesan stewardship/giving campaign? The letter says that an increase of a mere 50p per week per electoral roll member would wipe out the deficit—so why is this being notified only now?
Peter Ould, who is in the adjacent diocese of Canterbury, comments:
If we take the letter at face value it seems to indicate that the diocese has consistently run a large deficit for a number of years with no serious attempt made until now to remedy that situation. To wait until the coffers are actually empty before you put in even the limited kind of cash flow management measures that the diocese say they have now implemented, strikes me as irresponsible. It’s certainly the kind of behaviour that might, in the commercial world, lead someone who was responsible to consider very carefully their position.
The real challenge here is that the measures that have been put in place look to me as though they will only make things worse. The situation must be demoralising for clergy, and many will feel that the mismanagement that has taken place undermines their trust, which raises questions about making more contributions to central funds—which is, after all, a voluntary rather than a legal obligation. Freezing stipends and reducing numbers in ministry will, according to all the church growth research, lead to decline and not growth in church attendance, and a further decline in giving. I was part of an educational institution which did something similar in responding to a deficit by cutting teaching staff, removing the very thing that would attract students; it did not end happily. For the Diocese of Rochester, it is not very clear what a viable way forward might be.
The situation here illustrates starkly a truth which applies equally to diocese, local churches, and any faith-based institution: you cannot reduce the organisation to a business, but you cannot afford to ignore its business-like dimensions. These include financial management, legal compliance, and good leadership. It has been all the more significant to read the report on the C of E’s senior leadership selection and training, and reflect on the experiences of those who have been through the process.
The development of the process did not start well. The report chaired by Lord Green, produced at the end of 2014, generated a storm of protest at what felt like reductionist management language with little or no theological insight. But around the same time, the Faith and Order Commission reflection on leadership, written by Mike Higton and Loveday Alexander, offered a sharp contrast by presenting some very interesting reflections on how the vocation of leaders relates to the vocation of the whole people of God. These two elements appear to have been much better integrated now, and whilst there are key parts of the training that draw on secular leadership expertise, this is integrated with theological reflection on leadership and personal development. These are the elements involved:
- Organisational leadership: Learning how to lead in complex environments and in collaboration with different personalities.
- Theological exploration: Engaging with leading theologians on issues facing the Church and society. Deepening your own theological reflection.
- Personal formation and spiritual development: Developing yourself to lead as a mature disciple of Christ; faithfully, prayerfully, and with emotional intelligence.
- Community transformation: Learning how to lead in the proclamation of the gospel in and for local communities. Challenging unjust structures in society.
- Re-imagining ministry: Looking afresh at what it means to be ordained to the office of priest in the Church of God.
- Growing the Church: Engaging with the challenges of growing the Church at a national and local level. Seeing churches grow in both spiritual maturity and numerically.
This all looks like exciting stuff. It is good to see the developments and the lessons learnt highlighted in the accompanying report. I was particularly encouraged to see the process of selection being handled well, with a commitment to support those who, for whatever reason, were not selected. There is awareness of the dangers of under-representation from particular groups in the Church, and steps have been taken to address this. And the issue of ‘management theory reductionism’ has been addressed explicitly:
- Fears allayed about the uncritical use of so-called secular leadership models – at least 30% of those attending the programmes reported a level of scepticism prior to participating. However, they have reported that, having experienced the programmes, these fears have proved unfounded. They have expressed relief at the exploratory nature of the programmes and the lack of an imposed agenda.
There are still some things I would hope to see changed. Where is the reflection on a Christian and theological understanding of leadership, if leadership theory and theological exploration happen in separate units? Is there enough of a continuous thread focussing on personal growth in spirituality? And how much of the reflection is on leading volunteers, since this is what the Church is, in contrast to business organisations? I hope there will be continued development which engage with these issues, if they are not already there.
We need to pray for the people and leaders of the Diocese of Rochester, that together they might find a positive way forward out of the current situation. But we also need to pray that God will call, raise up and equip the next generation of leaders so that these kinds of problems do not recur in this form.
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