Jesus the CEO?

In my last blog I suggested that the classical understanding of Christ as prophet, priest, and ruler might guide our reflections on new ways of understanding pastoral ministry in a post-Christian/pre-Christian society. The “facilitation” model I was taught in the 1970′s simply doesn’t work any more.

There is an alternative. By the early 1980′s I was meeting pastors who told young clergy that we needed to see ourselves as CEOs. After all, we worked with boards (deacon, elders, trustees, etc.), managed staff, gave the church its overall vision, and in general took executive responsibility. Such a model could even be conceptualized in terms of the ministry of Jesus. Indeed, the book “Jesus CEO” would come out in 1995 to provide “visionary leadership from ancient wisdom.”

Add a good sales and marketing background (for the assumption is that the product is solid, its marketing and sales that are lacking) and you are set for successful pastoral leadership. Supposedly

Quite apart from whether Jesus was a model CEO (and surely the very idea is anachronistic) there are some serious problems with this model of church leadership in our contemporary world. Primarily it elicits serious conceptual confusion between the purpose of a corporation/company and a church. Secondarily it confuses just how how lines of responsibility run in a church as opposed to a company.

A company/corporation (even a non-profit) exists to provide services for its customers/clients, and income(or satisfaction) for its employees/volunteers and owners/shareholders. This is true of even a non-profit which is funded by donors. A church on the other hand exists to offer praise and glory to God and to engage the world with the gospel. When a church reshapes itself as a company this becomes distorted. Congregations get treated as employees/donors/volunteers, when in fact they are none of these things. Those whom the church serves with its ministry get treated as customers/clients, when in reality being engaged with the gospel means asking them to do more than “consume” Christian ministry.

The distortion arising from the corporate/company model will inevitably distort the understanding of leadership. Models of corporate company leadership inevitably understand the role of the CEO in terms of relationships with employees/donors/volunteers, owner/shareholders, and customers/clients. Whether leadership is approached in terms of ethics, style, effectiveness, productivity, or goal orientation at the root will be the fundamental relationships determined by the purpose of any company or corporation. And these will be realized through relationships with employees/donors/volunteers, customers/clients, and owner/shareholders.

If one is leading a church for whom these relationships are either non-existent or represent a gross distortion of the kinds of relationships that form the group then CEO models of leadership will either be dysfunctional or will eventually turn the church into a non-profit or for-profit company/corporation. And indeed this is what is happening across the United States and the world.

Two things follow that need to be teased out in more depth. First, (and this cannot be stressed enough) we must distinguish between management and leadership. There are skills in organizational management that are useful across many types of organization, and no one with managerial responsibilities can or should avoid learning these. But management and leadership are not the same thing.

Secondly, models of leadership in the church must arise from a clearly defined ecclesiology, or understanding of the nature of the church. And frankly this is the central problem in contemporary Christian leadership. We are grasping for models of leadership because we are adrift in the currents of contemporary organizational models instead of standing on the firm ground of Biblical reflection and Christian tradition.

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  • John Roxborogh

    A piece about this issue in New Zealand:

    There are parallels in the question whether hospitals are best run by doctors who know about medicine or by administrators who know about organisations. Lawyers, accountants and general practitioners working in group practices are others who have discovered the need to appoint practice managers responsible to a governance body (which includes the vocational professionals), if they are to operate to a business model and gain the efficiencies that promises. Are those issues which stewardship demands we address in the church? Is it simply a matter of respecting the human need to know what is expected of us and why and to be responsible for what we undertake that demands a greater skill level in this area? Is what is developing in Local Ministry Teams in New Zealand finding a place for addressing this need alongside provision for the sacraments, worship leading, preaching and teaching, something which needs to happen with our other patterns of ministry leadership as well?

    The great continuities of Reformed ministry order long lay in an educated leadership and a dedicated eldership. All Christians have a ministry, but historically “the minister” was the leading pastor of the congregation, assisted by elders in its worship and discipline, meeting together with colleagues and elders in presbytery, and trained by doctors in the church, more or less on the pattern laid down by John Calvin. In each congregation deacons inspired by stories in Acts, took care of providing for the poor – an almost exact reversal of the situation today where it is the state that is expected to care financially for the poor and it is the congregation that pays for property and ministry.

    The structures surrounding these roles were forged out of 16th century debates and the survival needs of Reformed churches in hostile political environments where the civil organisation of cities which had the political freedom to opt for Reform provided a model of how to organise the church. In some places church discipline was seen as a secular responsibility, but usually it lay with the meeting of elders. Over the centuries Session focused on morality, pastoral care, and sometimes mission. In the 19th century the earlier recognised roles of cantor and session clerk were supplemented by armies of Sunday School teachers, pastoral visitors, and a rejuvenated diaconate. The eventual acceptance of organ music meant that organists took their place among the ministry roles affirmed by mention in the Book of Order. Deaconesses emerged early in the 20th century, but once ordination to the ministry of word and sacrament was open to women, its distinctive role was lost once more.

    As the ecumenical movement reached a late modernist climax in debates about church union, the question of the validity of our orders in the eyes of other traditions influenced thinking about ways in which traditional Presbyterian ministry and eldership could or should be understood. This restricted development within its own terms and polarised attitudes to union distorted appreciation of the complexity and fluidity of early Presbyterianism. Some of this debate was constructive. Presbyterians discovered they were not the only ones who sought to affirm the gifts of the laity and Parish Councils remain one of the long lasting fruits of Plan for Union even if the Plan itself did not eventuate. “The Faith we Affirm Together” has also won acceptance in unexpected quarters. Cooperative Ventures continue to enrich our understanding of ministry and are particularly helpful in the development of Local Ministry Teams.

    In the last two decades much thinking about ministry has shifted to a pragmatic concern for effectiveness and the pathways to congregational leadership expanded. Like most traditions, generally we recognise the need to provide for better utilisation of the ministry gifts of all the baptised and share the expectation that every Christian can and should do something in terms of ministry in the church not just provide financial support and social or evangelistic action in the community. The challenge of how the gifts of the willing, the able and the reluctant can be nurtured and coordinated has become a major issue. Where do we go for help becoming a more fully voluntary organisation that has become vastly more complex even when the numbers in a congregation may be quite small? The answers provided by management culture are supported by an extensive popular and theoretical literature, a universal language, and a sizeable number of Christian writers and groups who package the contents in Biblical language.

    There is much to learn from all this. But some of it is also disquieting, especially when the critical issues are ones we are not expected to talk about. We should expect difficulties if for no other reason than that management culture is a system of organisation which is geared for success in the face of competition and where the essential metrics of that success are financial. Even though it is an almost universal culture, can a system designed to that end also serve the needs of the Christian church operating with different values and with a different “bottom line”?

    Despite my unease about uncritical use of management theory in the church, I think it can, the benefits are considerable, and failure to move in this direction is not only ignoring something helpful that is to hand, it prevents us from engaging with a common language that globalisation has made near nigh universal and with which members of our congregations in the work force will be well familiar. If we do not speak this language, not only can we not use it, we can’t criticise it either and that is also needed. Christians with a sense of the importance of local cultures in the economy of God may also be among those who challenge the ways in which the universals of management culture over-ride local cultural values. Christian faith and indigenous cultures may have common cause here.

    It is some help that contemporary management philosophy has been adopted for not-for-profit organisations, and that a number of management writers such as Peter Drucker, Charles Handy, Robert Greenleaf and Jim Collins are Christians. Even though some of the most important values of the church, never mind the mysteries of faith themselves, cannot be measured, and it should never be taken for granted that the essence of what the church is about is calling the shots, there is much which can be baptised into Christian service provided Christian values are named, and there is a clear and critical sense of what is actually going on. Part of the problem is not that we take management theory and practice too seriously, but that we do not take it seriously enough.

    We may find for instance that although the CEO model can be helpful for “practice management” in a church where all the people are expected to be ministers, the values of having a moderator whose leadership is informed by a theological concern to hear God’s voice through the all the people of God and to help the church as a whole reach a mind on where God is leading it, also has new relevance. The CEO type of minister may work well when the organisation is complex and the belief system is not in question, but if there are theological issues to be worked through it may flounder. Even orthodox beliefs are not simple and static in their expression, but demand that the church value the gifts of those called to study the Word of God and expound it. It may be the later which is more important to our faithful survival. It would be sad if what we gained in efficiency we lost in integrity, and care is needed that this is not the trade off we find ourselves making.

    It may also be forgotten that the CEO model carries with it a governance structure which tests and checks that style of leadership to help ensure that it works for the long term benefit of the group. CEOs are not people who always get their own way, but are those who work with others to take responsibility for a direction forged by listening carefully and thinking and arguing hard. It is possible to be attracted to CEO models of leadership for the wrong reasons, their sense of power, competence, decisiveness and efficiency, and fail to understand the management skills needed to make it work in the first place, or the checks to power which experience has proved necessary. Some of us miss this, yet there is an almost Presbyterian awareness that spiritual power like any other is a temptation as well as a responsibility, and that structural checks and balances are essential to long-term survival.

    As our ministry frameworks develop, the gifts that organizational theory can bring to the church need to be further appropriated. However we can only do that with theological safety, if we appreciate what that culture is as a whole, and make our choices based on informed understanding of what it means to be a church of our heritage that is part of the Body of Christ.


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