There’s a really interesting post here from Dave Fitch, entitled “Stuck between Mohler and McLaren.” By coincidence I was reading through his chapter on “Leadership” in The Great Giveaway yesterday, which covers some similiar ground. At first I thought he was referencing Johann Adam Möhler, and I was really intrigued…but it’s Al Mohler (less interesting to me personally, but much more representative of the contemporary church!).
The thesis in this chapter of The Great Giveaway is that the contemporary pastorate has capitulated to models of leadership found in the business world, which are fundamentally oriented toward “effectiveness” in getting results, rather than on faithfulness to Jesus Christ. This leads to conflict resolution strategies that are high handed and autocratic. The pastor needs to decide on a solution in order for the ministry to maintain its effectiveness (which usually means numerical growth). If people don’t get on board, they are standing in the way of the “success” of the ministry.
I’m really connecting with what Fitch has to say, as it sums up and connects some ideas that have been rolling around in my head for some time. Most books on Christian leadership are simply parroting the latest trendy ideas from the world of management. What’s worse is that they throw in the odd scripture verse and “spiritualize” the ideas they’re selling, which means that the pastors who buy this stuff are taking that back to their churches believing that they’ve got divine authority on their side as they try to implement these so-called “biblical” strategies. Not that insights from the business world have absolutely no value. They might be helpful as tools to aid in Church leadership, if used selectively within a larger biblical and theological framework. But they should not have the defining role that they have in the contemporary evangelical world. So whether it’s “mission statements,” “visioning,” “strategic planning,” or more recently, “branding,” churches are embracing contemporary management techniques wholeheartedly as if they were gospel truth. People who don’t get on board then are “problems” to be managed (at best), or (at worst) hinderances to the Spirit. If it seems like I’m exaggerating here, I’m not. I know a person who was told that their practical questions about church finance were “of the devil.”
For all the diversity of contemporary Canadian society, it seems like we’re getting worse at handling conflict in our churches. Everywhere you look there is a local congregation that is being torn apart by some scandal or another. Perhaps it is (as Fitch suggests in his book) connected to the individualistic outlook of modernity, which encourages each one of us to think that we are completely autonomous centres of decision-making power, and that each one of us must arbitrate for ourselves between competing truth claims. The locus of authority, for modernity, is the reasoning self, and the presumption is that “reason” will lead us to the truth through the exercise of our intellectual faculties. Of course this is a bit of a charicature, but it pretty much sums up the way it works on a practical level. And perhaps that has something to do with the interminable splintering of denominations and congregations in modern protestantism. If we all believe that we ourselves are the final arbiters of truth in matters of dispute, then why would we back down when faced with an opposing view?
The question is whether postmodern understandings of self, truth, and knowledge move us any closer to a more healthy resolution of these problems. It would seem that postmodern sensibilities are helpful in de-bunking the conflict-ridden assumptions of modernist epistemology, but not as helpful in offering constructive solutions. No one person can claim a certain enough hold on truth to impose it upon an entire community. So people of my generation are less likely to get hot under the collar about a dispute within our local church, thinking that we’re the ones who’ve got the “true” answer. But then again, we might just stop caring at all, and become apathetic in the face of conflict, as it would seem as if no final resolution is possible. What is needed is a normative standard to replace the reasoning autonomous self. The standard may not be “universal” in the way that some moderns claimed “reason” was universal, but it can nevertheless be authoritative within the community for whom it is adopted.
What I like about Fitch’s approach is that he always finds his way back to biblical depictions of church life as the normative standard. So in the post referenced above, the answer to conflict in the Church is based on Matthew 18. What is shocking about this model is that so few churches actually try to live this out. We turn instead to the world of management theory and dress it up in spiritual language as if that were the “biblical” way of being Church. Why is this? Has the model that Fitch upholds been tried and found wanting? Not in my experience. More likely it is the fact that is just plain messy and “inefficient,” and therefore doesn’t fit with the corporate approach to leadership that we’ve embraced.