A twenty-five-foot steep hill in the backyard and a gang of six fairly competitive sisters and brothers were all the ingredients necessary to inspire a long series of King of the Mountain contests when I was growing up just outside of Boston. Quite a few lessons about power were discovered; however, the core message of our play was that one wins by standing gloriously alone on the top of the hill. It was the core message until one day my younger sister suggested to me that two could be stronger than one. And so it was. We shared power at the top.

Our game revealed some trends in the ages-old cultural assumptions about power. Historically, religious organizations have been among the most hierarchical in structure and authoritarian in governance. For many centuries, power was focused in positions arranged in the form of a pyramid of clergy offices. The authority of bishops was central to the governance structures of the Episcopal and Roman Catholic denominations. Congregational denominations emphasized the authority of boards of deacons or elders as well as that of the head minister. Power was assumed to belong rightfully to those in higher positions, whose judgment and decisions were to be accepted and followed by those in lower positions.

Major changes in cultural assumptions about power emerged during the last half of the twentieth century. Community groups, corporations, and political parties experienced increasing distrust of centralized decision making and growing demands for devolution of choices to those at lower levels in the system. Citizens demanded more local control of political decisions, and workers pressed for a greater voice in job design. Members of religious organizations began challenging the conclusions of bishops and clergy, and those in minority groups pressed for more extensive and equal participation in decisions affecting all aspects of life. Members of mainline denominations expressed their distrust by withholding both monetary and programmatic support of so-called home boards and central offices.

Our society’s images of power and who can share it have changed significantly in the decades since my sister and I played King of the Mountain in the allegedly sleepy 1950s. Hierarchical power has not quite disappeared from organizational life, but it has certainly been diminished. Women are still too often not seen as equal partners, although great strides have been made. Yet when it comes to governance and trusteeship, there still seems to be a lag in moving beyond hierarchies and glass ceilings. Most organizational charts still show the board at the top.

The stories emerging from congregations of hierarchical behavior on the part of pastoral leadership regardless of polity are unfortunately plentiful. Official lines of authority outlined in polity documents may not be hierarchical at all. But actual exercise of authority can be restrictively hierarchical, leading to efficient but unimaginative and noncollaborative congregational governance.

Why has this current shift occurred in the social construction of the concept of power holding and authority? Why have hierarchical structures fallen on hard times, and why have religious organizations in particular been resistant to embracing and experimenting with models of shared and distributed power? Finally, what makes nonhierarchical structures of power sharing desirable and thereby genuinely warrant change that does not merely ape cultural behavior?

Malcolm Warford addresses this last question in the first chapter of Building Effective Boards for Religious Organizations, arguing that hierarchical board structures do not faithfully reflect the collaborative character of the scriptural religious community. Power is shared because the gifts of God are shared and given to be exercised in ministry on behalf of the community and the community’s common mission in the world. Clergy have their gifts and their roles to play related to those gifts; but so do others who exercise leadership in the community of faith on behalf of the community. Leadership, to be faithful to the community’s scriptures, is dynamic, cooperative, and shared, contextually shaped to local need but also attentive to the larger world’s needs.

Why have religious organizations been resistant to join the trend away from hierarchical leadership structures? Although there is a dangerous potential for simplistic analysis of this complex issue, I can suggest two obvious but important factors. First, religious organizations are, after all, institutions—inherently inert and resistant to change. Religious institutions, as bearers of sacred traditions, are all the more resistant and slow—let us say cautious—to change. The institution has a sacred trust and duty, and insofar as the present institutional structures foster that duty, one may celebrate the power of the institution to preserve it.

Conversely, of course, commitment to tradition can too easily become traditionalism, and institutional intransigence can serve traditionalism with the same tenacity with which it serves tradition. In this case, what is intended to be life preserving becomes life threatening. The point here is not that religious organizations should be excused from confronting the need to change, to restructure and renew themselves. They must do so to be vital as institutions with regard to their own mission, purpose and place in the community. But religious institutions, I suggest, do have a right and a duty to be cautious about jumping onto cultural bandwagons carrying organizational reforms, until these innovations can be weighed in the balance of the institution’s religious responsibility.

The second reason I suggest to account for the reluctance to embrace the contemporary shift from hierarchical patterns relates to the lasting power of socialization. The contemporary religious community and religious institution has drunk at the bureaucratic well of the modern Western culture as deeply as business and industry. Seminaries, in unguarded moments, speak of “turning out” students; congregations implicitly, if not explicitly, consider their pastor a “chief executive officer” and frequently measure effectiveness in terms of production and increases in membership. Our capitalist culture and economics cut deeply into the way we structure our personal lives and our institutional life.

A rather clever television ad for Xerox shows a “head angel” talking with his group of heavenly beings about the present information age. “What happened to the industrial age?” one asks. “That was last century,” he is told. “Ah, those were the days,” the heavenly Xerox band says in unison. “You built it; you sold it.” But now things are different; ideas move faster; they are linked by computers from one person to another and built into something that can be reconfigured or deleted in an electronic moment. The times call for a different ordering of power—a networking of power that reflects the networking of information processing. So hierarchical structures have fallen largely because they no longer work in the service-oriented, locally established, and networked world we are in the process of building in the postindustrial and postmodern age.

Changing Assumptions
Many religious organizations have yet to come to terms with how this new world order impinges on their structures. The resistance we see is more a matter of holding on tightly to what is until what may become is born. Dealing constructively with this transition is the pressing, urgent task to which religious leadership is called, and the transformation of cultural assumptions about power and leadership has begun to influence board structure, composition, and practice in many religious organizations. Here are two examples.

Worshipful-Work—Started by Charles M. Olsen, a Presbyterian minister, in 1991, with a four-year grant from the Lilly Endowment, Worshipful-Work is an ecumenical outreach to the governing bodies of judicatories, local congregations, churches, and parishes. Its basic premise is that the governing bodies of religious communities should not simply follow a model based on secular organizations, with their routine, businesslike approach to board agendas. Rather, their practice should be faith-based, their activities should be designed around a worship model rather than a business-meeting model, and ample opportunity should be given to incorporate stories and symbols that are specifically religious and tied to the congregations’ specific history. Reactions from the more than 10,000 people on church boards and parish councils that have used Worshipful-Work’s ideas have been very positive, with most groups reporting greater satisfaction with a faith-based approach. Leadership is more meaningful and decision making more effective.

Lessons for Governance: Faith-based storytelling can be risky for some, but once begun it has the power to change the nature and practice of the board. Discernment and decision making take time. For the religious organization seeking leadership that is well-grounded in a particular faith tradition, discernment and decision making are essential.

C.S.A. Health System—C.S.A. Health System, sponsored by the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine, entered into a fifty-fifty partnership with Columbia Healthcare Alliance, a for-profit health corporation. In addition to maintaining its equity position in its four hospitals, C.S.A. now operates four foundations and several ministry-oriented corporations. C.S.A. found its traditional board meeting schedules and agendas no longer effective for managing and governing its complex set of partnership operations and relationships. New formats for board meetings have been invented. Prayer is no longer a perfunctory opening ritual but a reflective and participatory event built into the purpose of the meeting. Routine committee reports have been replaced by focused discussions on key issues and topics. Strategic decisions are fully analyzed and debated. Small groups are used during the board meeting to enable all trustees of the twenty-member board to participate fully in all deliberations. Board satisfaction with meetings has increased and attendance has reached the 100 percent mark for nearly all meetings.

Lessons for Governance: Question routine agendas and meeting formats. Take a fresh, creative look at schedules and timetables. Make the structure and practice of the board fit the needs of the organization and the governance tasks that need to be accomplished.

Dynamics and Lessons
Underlying these brief case examples are a variety of powerful and complex forces and social trends: demographic changes; technology, communications, and the role of the media; globalization; and changes in the workplace, home, and community.

The need for effective lateral rather than top-down communication grows amid complex organizations, and a premium is placed on teamwork, problem solving, negotiation, and conflict resolution. Upward mobility in job and community is no longer ensured by conforming to the cultural and social norms of top executive elites. Athletic and entertainment stars model alternative, even if unlikely to be repeated, channels of success. The functionally defined hierarchical organization with focused and limited spans of control has definitely been replaced.

Following are some of the key lessons to be learned from this brief review of trends in organizational development and renewal.

  • Respect and renewal. The first lesson is a warning not to initiate trends in business or nonprofit organizations in a superficial way, adopting the latest fads while overlooking the more troublesome aspects. Respect for fundamental rights, responsibilities, and relationships should be the key value in any renewal. Learn from other sectors and industries, but do not merely imitate. 
  • New models. Reengineering, as Charles Handy points out, is a word that suggests the organization is a factory in need of redesign. Indeed, the assembly-line model was a dominant image of the organization fifty years ago. He suggests the theater as an alternate model for tomorrow’s organization. Theater is a world of individual talents linked together in a common purpose, directed by someone who rarely, if ever, takes the stage. Theater is not a perfect analogy but an eye-opening one for the hierarchically restricted. 
  • Use faith-based core values. Faith traditions often excel in articulating and espousing core values that can inspire and motivate renewal and transformation. 
  • The key lesson. Religious leaders should adapt and use the language of their own traditions as they renew their organizations. Take advantage of newly decentralized, networked information.

There is no single right way today to organize a board or develop council, congregational, and organizational leadership. Changes in society are providing solid reasons to transform our notions and images of leadership. It is the job of religious leaders to reflect on their communities’ religious values and images in order to identify new models of leadership and governance practice that are well grounded in faith traditions. Two characteristics are likely to be essential to any model created to practice good governance faithfully in religious institutions. First, any model will have to be grounded in love, or more precisely, in an ethic of love that insists that good governance must reflect the generosity of love that redeems and rebuilds and recreates and measures its effectiveness by how well others—namely, those being served—are doing. Second, any model must include a commitment to work for justice, to structure itself, first of all, as a just structure, in terms of how the faith to which the religious community attests understands justice; and it must structure itself to attend to restructuring structures of injustice as they may exist within sight of the religious organization. These two characteristics do not say it all, and they remain at an abstract level, waiting for readers to fill them with local and specific content and meaning. They are not sufficient, to be sure; but they are necessary. Of that we can be sure.

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