Sleepwalking into obsolescence with due diligence

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Last week influential blogger Eddie Arthur kicked off an interesting discussion by suggesting that the Trustees of sending agencies, being by selection and temperament prudent and risk-averse people, are not necessarily the best people to be reimagining the future of mission agencies in an era when massive change is required.  I’d like to take this further and suggest that this issue can apply to leadership at every level: church, agency, field or team as well.

Each leader shares to some extent in the Trustees’ core obligations (as I see it) of ensuring:

  • good governance (Is the organisation operating legally and meeting its key objectives?)
  • effective strategy (Do we know where we are going and how we get there?)
  • good management (Can we achieve the above efficiently and economically?)
  • the well-being of our staff and fellow team-members
  • that the organisation and its members are being an effective witness to Jesus.

Those five issues will keep any leader busy enough without the concerns of all the daily challenges of running a team.  When do they find time to do all that?  And that, coincidentally, was one of the big complaints of managers in the merchant bank which I worked for 20 years ago – they never had time to stop and think!

In an increasingly litigious age, Trustees have been forced by the risk to their own personal assets and liberty to spend ever more time ensuring compliance.  This isn’t in itself wrong, because it is important that issues such as safeguarding and health & safety have top-level buy-in.  But it does leave Trustees spending more of their meetings double-checking on their managers, leaving less time to strategise.  This ‘due diligence’ can lead to the unplanned obsolescence of the agency, unless a crisis occurs to force some urgent rethinking.  Hence the reference to sleepwalking.

One such crisis occurred in 2008.  It sent a shockwave through agencies as they had to grapple with significantly reduced income.  It forced some to consider closing down, or merging with other like-minded agencies.  They have started to pool resources and are making much greater efforts to collaborate with churches as a result of the financial crisis.  Yet this is only the start of a transition away from the 19th century model of missions from the West to the rest into a world with 360 degree mission where agencies become centres of expertise resourcing the sending church rather than sending agencies who do all the work themselves.

But how do we get from here to there if the leadership is bogged down in compliance?  Here are some of our practical suggestions:

  • Team leadership. Ensure that at every level leadership is made up of several people with different personalities and skills who can specialise in addressing different areas of responsibility;
  • Skills analysis. Knowing what resources are available to the leadership team, and where the gaps are, helps to focus the process of recruiting new leaders;
  • Create time. How often do we stop to reflect, pray and dream together?  Leadership teams need space to be able to go on retreat together, do awaydays, and get away from routine management issues;
  • Trust staff. Much of the report-gathering and checking implies that managers can’t get on with their jobs.  If they really can’t, retrain them or move them on, but resist the temptation to waste time micromanaging them.  Leaders have better things to do with their time.

It has been rightly observed[1], that in most Christian organisations, Trustees often spend more time managing than they should.  This means they fail to strategise effectively, so management does strategy on an ad hoc basis and pushes it up the line for approval.  No wonder most of us are sleepwalking.  Let’s wake up and dream where mission is going in the 21st century.

[1] Les Stahlke in Governance Matters (2003)

Are you compliant?

Once, when I was working on the mission field, I had to go and tell the head of one of our departments that the government had mandated 30% pay rises for all their workers.  “I’m not doing that,” he fumed.  “They’re already the best-paid workers in the area.”

“You’ve got no choice,” I pointed out.  “The Government says so.”

“We don’t have to obey them.  We’re working for God.”

I wonder if you’ve ever come across people like that, who think that their higher calling saves them from being accountable to lower authorities.  It can be tempting for all of us to take short cuts, and these days we can spend a lot of time making sure we comply with directives: health & safety, safeguarding, anti-discrimination rules, risk management, employment legislation, work and residence permit procedures, tax and payroll regulations, accounting rules, food hygiene – it can be hard even to keep up to speed on what is required in running an office, let alone make sure everything we do is compliant.

Particularly for smaller agencies, it can be a big headache.  It’s not that these things are in themselves bad.  In fact they’re not unreasonable.  But most of us are not professionals in the relevant fields and struggle to understand the nuances and subtleties of what we can and can’t do.  Particularly if we have to do it in a foreign language, in a culture that sidelines women, has significant levels of government incompetence, and in which a small ‘voluntary administrative fee’ is needed to keep the bureaucracy moving forward.

So it can be tempting just to ignore them, like my friend above wanted to.

That may work for a while, but what happens when something goes wrong?  Suppose you failed to do a risk assessment for a short-term trip on which someone gets hurt.  Or you don’t have a safeguarding policy in place when somebody accuses one of your staff of sexual harassment.  Or you didn’t bother setting up a pension scheme for your five employees because it would cost you too much and they’re happy with the current system.  Your organisation – and your trustees personally – are open to prosecution.

Perhaps even more significantly, the name of Jesus is harmed.  What kind of a witness is it when people think ‘Those Christians are always ignoring the law’?  It’s not only our reputation that is at stake, it is His too.  Paul told the Philippians to be blameless and above reproach in a crooked and perverse generation (Philippians 2:15).  In doing so we share in the character of Jesus and reveal it to the world.

Finally, in complying with regulations we’re following the teaching of Jesus who said:

Render under Caesar that which is Caesar’s , and to God the things that are God’s.

(Matthew 22:21)

How often do we try hard to do the latter without doing the former?