Saturday, November 13, 2010

What Rhymes With Leadership?

In the report detailing the Council of Bishops' adoption of the Call to Action Steering Committee's Final Report, there is a section that should disturb any United Methodist who loves the Church and questions the underlying assumptions used by those who prepared this report.
Fred Miller, president of The Chatham Group consulting firm and a member of First United Methodist Church in Chatham, Mass., cautioned bishops that values-based organizations such as denominations often struggle with handling data that conflicts with their own values—and therefore don’t deal well with reality.

“Organizations that work really well deal with brutal facts,” he said. “Leaders don’t wait for permission to lead. At some point, it has to be done by the bishops; it can’t be done by outsiders.”

Mr. Miller, who has donated his services to coach the bishops as they process the Call to Action report, outlined characteristics of groups that make good decisions: They have clear goals, have no more than six to 10 people and are careful to hold one another accountable. By contrast, he said, the United Methodist Church depends on a law-making body of 1,000 delegates “making speeches” every four years at General Conference.

“The real problem is a [church] culture that fears change,” Mr. Miller said. And sometimes, he added, practices have to change before a culture itself will change.(link added)
Parsing this mash of consultant-speak leads to some unsettling thoughts, and some questions that need answering. On an abstract level, I would maintain that there are no such things as "brutal facts". Facts are the most ephemeral things imaginable. The figures gathered by the surveys conducted can only be used to answer the questions put to them. If the questions are wrong, the answers you get back are going to be wrong. As I see little evidence of any serious discussion of the larger social and cultural context within which the church currently exists, any statistical analysis is going to be flawed.

Second, the whole business about "leaders don't wait to lead." One would think that an exhortation such as that would be seen as a rebuke to the Council. Yet, one can ask, I think, "lead where?" Or maybe, "Lead away from what?" Perhaps part of the problem here is the vision of the Bishops as "leaders". They are, in an administrative sense, to be sure. The real leaders of our denomination, however, are the local congregations. Not the pastors under appointment, but the whole congregation - the pastors and staff, lay leadership and membership. Those are the leaders. Addressing issues of the challenges that face our denomination start there, not with the Council of Bishops. Real leaders don't keep looking over their shoulders to see if anyone is following them.

Finally, the most unsettling quote concerns the denigration of General Conference. It's nice that the Council hired a consultant who voices such disregard for our traditions and our most important large-scale institutions. More important, our tradition of openness, a kind of democratic polity that is open to all (remember, anyone can submit a petition to General Conference for consideration by one of the committees), is our greatest asset. If nothing else, it allows us, as United Methodists, to remember every four years, that all the talk about connectionalism isn't a bunch of hoo-ha. It's a very real thing, embodied in our law-making institution of General Conference.

Mistaking that quadrennial gathering for our version of leadership is a fundamental error. No one, I think, looks to General Conference for leadership. It is where we as United Methodists gather to chart a general course for our church, to be sure, but in the broadest terms because ours is a church that crosses languages and nations and ethnicities and cultural traditions.

The disdain for difference embedded in the quote concerning General Conference really bothers me, even more than the nonsense about "brutal facts" and "leadership". If this is the quality of consultation The Chatham Group offers, I'm just glad it was offered for free. You get what you pay for, I suppose.

Virtual Tin Cup

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