This summer John Stackhouse leaves
Regent College for Crandall University,
where he will serve as the Samuel J. Mikolaski
professor of religious studies and dean of faculty
development. Find more of these columns at
Why do people who are fully capable profes- s i o n a l s b e c o m e weirdly dysfunctional when they participate in a Christian ministry?
I’m thinking of the problematic
work behaviour of otherwise successful parents, teachers, executives,
salespeople, health care workers
and so on when they work at a Bible
school, summer camp, campus
ministry or community group.
What leads us to mar our contributions to Christian ministry by ignoring policies that have been painstakingly constructed, insisting on our
own way despite all objections, condescending to others who are in no
way inferior, refusing responsibility
for the harmful implications of our
actions, and undermining the hard
work of our fellow Christians?
The apostles denounced these
behaviours, and they remind us
constantly to love each other, be
mindful of each other, prefer each
other, honour each other, edify each
other and do good to each other.
The apostles knew already in the
Church’s earliest decades how badly
believers could treat each other and
how crucial it is that we don’t.
Some people treat each other
badly, of course, because some
people are bad. Indeed we are all
sinners, and each of us is capable of
willfully injuring another.
Before I assume, however, that
the latest slight or frustration I have
suffered was intentional, I should
consider an important social fact
about Christian organizations. They
are commonly complex to the point
of dysfunction when it comes to the
simple question of mission.
People participate in Christian
organizations for lots of different
reasons to achieve lots of different
goals and according to lots of different values. That complexity doesn’t
exist in many other sectors of life.
The business of business is business
– maximizing return to the shareholder; performing a valuable service or producing valuable goods at
a decent profit; treating everyone
involved (vendors, customers, employees and other stakeholders)
with dignity; and the rest of it.
Hospitals and schools are reasonably simple in their central outcomes as well – making sick people
well and ignorant people informed.
What, however, is a church for?
What is a Christian university, periodical or political group for?
Some have admirably clear goals,
and it is thus relatively easy to get
everyone pulling in the same direction. Too often, however, missional
coherence becomes muddied by the
imposition of other metaphors.
“Family,” for instance, is too often
invoked in organizations that decidedly are not families. Sure, during
celebrations, no one should mind if
the CEO declaims about “our family
of fine coworkers.” But most of the
time, no, we’re not a family.
You shouldn’t treat family mem-
bers as you would employees, nor
vice versa. Church life should not
be governed by the values of a family
reunion – judging success by how
many people attended and whether
everyone had a pleasant time. And
doesn’t the family metaphor vapor-
ize when a Christian organization
has to fire an employee?
Perhaps the most common mistake is to assume other Christian
organizations can function just like
Presidents and deans and COOs
and HR personnel and department
heads and interns and consultants
all have a proper place within many
organizations, but there are only the
roughest of equivalents for any of
these roles in congregational life.
It hurts organizations when executives act like pastors, or employees
respond to leadership as if it is
coming merely from a fellow believer rather than a job supervisor.
The skills so many of us have honed
in the work world can get results
more quickly and effectively there
because the rules of the game and
the point of the game are quite clear.
But in church both the rules and
the outcome may be unclear, or be
seen as in conflict with what is normally done, or even simply be at odds
between one Christian and another.
Wise leadership, then, and good
relations with each other will require us to notice when there seems
to be needless friction in the system,
when antagonism is surfacing
among people who could normally
be expected to co-operate, and when
decisions take forever to be made.
Maybe it’s just plain sin, and
some people need to be disciplined
But maybe, instead, it is the result
of confusion arising from good
people energetically and sincerely
pursuing cross-purposes according
to values that are appropriate in
another sphere but not in this one.
A church is not a family is not a
college is not an evangelistic mission
is not a store is not a clinic. /FT
“THERE ARE THREE
STAGES IN THE WORK
OF GOD: IMPOSSIBLE;
(1832-1905), BRI TISH
MISSIONARY TO CHINA
CHRIST & CULTURE IN CANADA
JOHN G. STACKHOUSE JR.
Is a Christian organization really just like a church or family?