An authentic participative polity appeals to postmodern spirituality.
Churches in mission will not only find that collaboration is key to effective governance and management, it is also appealing to people in the wider community with whom we are called to connect.
In my study of Clergy Review, I identified a key feature of the conversation as Formation, the growth that shapes awareness of, and responsiveness to, God, ourselves, and others. Collaboration - dynamic, participative governance - was another salient feature.
Ward’s research with Kiwi congregations names “participation” and “using members’ gifts” as key measures of congregational vitality today (1). In business, Human Resource managers call this the “alchemy of trust” (2). But the church can deploy a more ancient paradigm; the “perichoretic” dance of God as Trinity – dynamic, participative relationships characterised by intimacy, equality, gifts and love. Ministry teams that reflect that holy dance model curiosity, deep listening, and delight.
Both the Baptist and Presbyterian denominations have a head start in gift-based teamwork, because historically their governance has relied on a flat hierarchy of collaboration between clergy and “lay” leaders. Biblically these leaders stand in the tradition of elders, wise older men, but these days, elderships often include female leaders, and younger people, in a broader spectrum of wisdom and vision. Presbyterians spread the load in a series of regional and national courts, while Baptists largely reserve the decisions for locals. But in both contexts, congregations looking to worship, care, and reach out can make key decisions in a collaboration of local leaders and members.
The word Collaboration reflects the stories I was told about feedback gathered from elders, and others, not just in the review but in church life generally. Pastors had recognised their own and others’ gifts in building a participative organisation; however, the congregational feedback loops often revealed themes of power, conflict and ownership. The ministry is eminently political and involves negotiating, prioritising, dealing with resistance, and jostling over seats of power and I heard about these political dynamics in congregational governance from both Baptists and Presbyterians.
When Reformers and Nonconformists broke with the Catholic tradition, they applied the notion of “the priesthood of all believers” in collaborative forms of administration. The English Separatists who became NZ Baptists took the further step of rejecting any human spiritual authority outside the local congregation. That polity has led to a number of identifiable problems – gatekeepers, church splits, lowest common denominator decisions and a fuzzy sense of purpose (3). All of these presented in the stories told by Baptist participants. I heard about families lobbying to influence a review, about elders behaving badly, and about leaders who blamed the pastor for all the church’s misfortunes. Presbyterians highly value the priesthood of believers as well, but their politics are more subtly nuanced, with a more protective connectional polity. But when Presbyterian elders are elected for seniority rather than gifting, they may be reluctant to retire from governance; being ordained ‘for life’ can produce tensions in the collaborative dynamic. Elders in both traditions need understanding and ownership of the congregation’s mission and vision, because today they must function as workplace proprietors and change managers, as well as spiritual leaders. Ministers often mentioned identifying people’s gifts and recruiting them to ministry roles that utilised their strengths, but a mismatch of gifts with responsibilities can make a logjam of consensus. One pastor said “many elders don’t have a clue. So who’s supervising them? Who’s reviewing them?”
Those are good questions. Important aspects of this construct were gifted ministry teams, accountability and support, trust and transparency, and a healthy feedback culture. Examples from the transcripts include:
• Teamwork - We speak open-mindedly... we have disagreements, but good manners
• Truth - We don’t just ask the people who are going to say nice things....the truth’s always worth bringing to the light
• Justice - They had an agenda ........ family groups lobbied to get access to the feedback forms, so it was somewhat skewed
• Trust - “what we’ve managed to achieve here has been full of generosity and energy;”
• Transparency - at my last annual review they didn’t actually take any minutes, so I’m just going to have to remember.
The outcomes of a Presbyterian Ministry Development Review are private but most shared their report with the leadership. Documentation in a Baptist review seemed a low priority; many couldn’t recall what, if anything, was reported. In both groups, ministers had made changes in their ministry as a result of the review feedback. One minister started using more effective means of monitoring use of time; another started pastoral visiting, which had not been included in his job description.
Reviews of course operate as just one component of the congregational feedback cycle and pastors spoke about being challenged outside of the review context, sometimes in quite a personal and pointed way; two had engaged in hours-long conversations to preserve a relationship. Others reported immaturity, discourtesy and a degree of bullying. New research in the corporate sector has found women-only or mixed groups function better than teams of men, results which may relate to women’s higher levels of social skill (4). That begs the question of whether the Baptist churches where pastor reviews were deficient were male-only elderships, I didn’t explore that but perhaps someone could!
In participative governance, autonomy and accountability must be combined so pastoral leaders are authorised and supported in casting vision, and initiating new strategies, without being undermined by politics. I believe both Baptists and Presbyterians have a taonga in the Biblical idea of ‘every member ministry’ undergirded by the rule of elders, but it is a treasure that requires careful management. Collaborative leadership needs to achieve both accountability and support; ministers often noted review is the only time they receive clear affirmation of their work. Sometimes simply expressing gratitude is enough to keep a pastor in the job.
To Think About: How does collaboration work in your work context? Is there an effective feedback loop? How can you build on that?
1. Ward, K. (2013). Losing our religion: changing patterns of believing and belonging in secular Western societies. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.
2. Kaufman, K. (2012). Do trust and transparency make or break us? HR Professionals Magazine, 2.
3. Kaiser, J. (2006). Winning on purpose; how to organise congregations to succeed in their mission. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
4. Colvin, G. (2014). Women make groups smarter. Retrieved from http://geoffcolvin.com/170/
This article is part of a series introducing in more detail the findings of my 2015 Master of Business (AUT Auckland) where the thesis topic was performance management of clergy in NZ Presbyterian and Baptist churches. I looked at the changing business sector practices of Performance Management in knowledge work, examined the polity and processes of the nationally-mandated Presbyterian Ministry Development Reviews, and mined Baptist documents for evaluative practices applied in locally-governed congregations. Then I interviewed 15 senior ministers with a mixture of age, gender, ministry years and the two denominations, who had all experienced at least two reviews.
An introduction to the thesis findings "Realistic and Hopeful" can be found at