Saturday 11 August 2007

Colin Powell at the Summit

It doesn't come naturally to this Church of England Bishop to promote a clash of ideas in his working environment, but that's what the man said you need. Once you've had your open clash of ideas, however, he was quite clear about the need to execute corporate decisions to the utmost of everybody's ability and loyalty.

The Church could use more open honest debate and mutual loyalty. II Timothy 2:4 does suggest modeling discipleship on military service.

How effective would Church on every level be if we were more able more often to do what Colin Powell suggested was the essence of a team that isn't mucking about — "to check your ego in at the door." Key statement: "Plans don't accomplish work. Only people get things done."

He told us about his work for and with young people, and, immensely movingly of the reality and the pity of war; carrying a dead soldier with his company for a day in 1962 in Vietnam, and the death of a soldier in his lap during his next tour of duty. If more of our leaders had experienced such things outwith the movies, might there be a bit less gung ho and a bit more peace on earth?


Paul Bagshaw said...

But what if, as I feel, the CofE is institutionally dishonest? Or, slightly less pugnaciously, is structurally incapable of being a listening and learning organization?

There seems to me to be a built-in preference for public deference and avoidance of conflict. (And the ideal of harmony works against honest disagreement.)

I think parochial and episcopal appointments work against any continuity. Neither the gap between appointments nor the lack of constraint and quality control on actions once in post can help.

Diocesan bishops are still constitutional princes: for all the committees and statutory processes power resides with the diocesan - therefore subsidiary power lies with access to the bishop. So (a) don't engage in public differences but work out what the bishop wants; (b) don't share all your information or you'll have no grounds to retain your access.

Of course, bishops were trained (formed) for the most part by their time as parish priests. As (see point 1) few parish priests are subject to honest critiques in a supportive setting they either never get the corners knocked off or only get knocked about. Neither is good for them or for the church at large.

The desire of clergy to do their own thing isn't unique or undesireable - I've long thought the church had much to learn from politicians' daily task of achieving sufficient assent to move forwards on the presumption of no agreement - the failure lies, I believe, in the absence of organizational norms of honesty, listening, and regard for evidence over opinion.

Perhaps we need to balance leadership training with training the led?

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks, Paul. Over almost 30 years in C of E ministry, I've often experienced the phenomena that you feel so deeply about.

Two immediate kneejerk thoughts strike me from the learning our group from Oxford is doing here this week.

1. Colin Powell talked a bit about being a black soldier in the US army as it grew on from the kind of crude institutional racism that was everything when he joined. I felt part of his greatness was to have worked his way through that context in an unrancorus way, confronting racism by what he did as well as his views, to a point he achieved a position that would have been, he said, unimaginable for a black man to achieve in the Army he joined in 1962. I found that inspiring as I try to walk upright through the various systemic glories and miseries of the C of E!

2. Powell made a comment that plans don't get things done, people do. I'd say much less of what holds us back is about the structures out there, than about the unfocussed nature of the holy discontent in me, and that's why I'm less effective than I'd like to be in confronting lies and hypocrisy in me, let alone the Church. The problems and solutions could well be in process failures rather than structural geometry.

Lastly, I have profited immensely this week from learning in a mixed group of 7 colleagues from the diocese, 2 in educaton and parish development, 1 episcopal colleague, and 4 parish priests at various stages of their service. Learning together has been fantastic, especially in the meals we share int he evening to debrief what has become clearer to each of us in the day.

I totally share your note of frustration when communications and feedback get fouled up by hierarchical thinking.

It's not much of an answer, but I think we just ahve to bash on, confronting crap of all kinds for what it is, from day to day. Only by patient and gracious truthfulness with ourselves and each other can we grow to the better place I believe God wants for us.

Paul Bagshaw said...

Thank you for your reply.

I think what you say encapsulates my problem: how do we enable the person-in-community, in which both parts of the equation are important?

What you say about Colin Powell focuses on his personal experience. But what about the organizational structures which permitted such racism - and how did they change? (I believe it's true to say that the army was also one of the most meritocratic organizations in the States.)

Similarly your comments about yourself focus on the individual.

Of course people make things happen: for good and for ill, to enable and to constrain. But how does the way the church is patterned serve to build up and enable the individual, to draw out and use their gifts, to honour each member? And how does each member contribute their strengths to the whole?

Or: how can the organization (which is people acting in concert) stack the odds in favour of life, not death? Not just, how do we individuals overcome the 'crap of all kinds' (internal and external) that surrounds us.

What I see is so far from constructive: too often people are hurt and discarded, undervalued and unsupported. And too often the mediocre seems acceptable. It happens too often just to be down to individuals.

I think organizations can enable good people (and mediocre people too) to attain their best. I think organization can listen, learn, care, nurture - and both this and destructive behaviour is in the actions individuals take.

Is that not strategic thinking?

Bishop Alan Wilson said...


I've been thinking about your post a fair amount these last few days, and I think you have hit on the $64,000 question — "how do we enable the person-in-community in which both sides of the equation are important?"

It's a question that all human networks raise, and a practical standard against which to measure what we do in Church. Some groups do better with one side of the equation than the other, but thanks for teasing out the significance of this point.

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