The Gift of Administration: New Testament Foundations for the Vocation of Administrative Service, by Donald Senior (Liturgical Press, 2016, 157 pp., $20). 

Donald Senior’s small book is ideal for anyone searching to build a personal theology of administrative leadership. The book creates a quilt of meaning for Christian administrators, employing as its foundation the biblical stories about the church’s earliest administrative challenges, successes, and failures.

Into these narratives Senior integrates concepts from more secular leadership theories, such as Robert K. Greenleaf’s notion of “servant leadership” and Ronald A. Heifetz’s conceptualization of “adaptive change,” while stitching through the text personal reflections on his 23 years of experience as president of the largest Catholic seminary in North America — the Catholic Theological Union (CTU). The combination of biblical text, leadership concepts, and elements of memoir provides an engaging reflection on the ancient nature of Christian administration.

Although Senior notes that there has been a growing body of literature linking “spirituality” with administration and management, and some evangelical resources on the connection between faith and business practices, he knows of no serious work attempting to “connect the specific tasks of (religious) administration to the fundamental resources of the Scriptures or Christian theology and Christian faith.” This book is an attempt to address this deficit by providing a solid biblical foundation to the critical and unavoidable role of the religious administration “minister.”

In several sections throughout the book, Senior notes that administration has received only marginal acceptance as a legitimate ministry in Christianity, and administrators are often portrayed as dealing with the necessary organizational evils that support the real work that Christ entrusted to the disciples.

As Senior notes several times, he hopes The Gift of Administration will highlight that the administrator is a neglected gift Christ gave to the church, overlooked by the disproportionate theological attention shown to other gifts like apostle, prophet, teacher, healer, speaker and interpreter of tongues, and helper (1 Corinthians 12:28).

Senior looks at the New Testament through the lens of an administrator’s experience. In the process, he brings to light fresh insights into the ministerial virtues, duties, strategies, and skills exhibited by leaders in the post-Resurrection community of the followers of Jesus. Through his interpretation, familiar biblical passages take on new meaning for those of us who are tasked with institutional leadership. Our challenges, conflicts, frustrations, murky situations with no easy exit or solution, and silently born crosses are reflected in the actions of the first generation of Christian ministers of administration.

He sees his book as a complement to Ann Garrido’s Redeeming Administration (Ave Maria Press, 2013), which lists the “12 spiritual habits for Catholic leaders.” Without making direct references to Garrido’s book, Senior provides a host of biblical references using examples of these habits — breadth of vision, generativity, trust, agape or “disinterested love,” integrity, humility, courage, reflection, humor, forgiveness, embracing death, and hope.

In the meantime, the references also deconstruct the naïve notion that early Christians had an idyllic period without the complexities, tensions, and inherent conflicts of an institutional structure. Even among the Twelve, argues Senior, there are “hints of rudimentary institutional life” — Judas as treasurer in John 13:29 and Peter as a leader and spokesperson in Matthew 16:17-19, but also organizational techniques like controlling hungry crowds in Mark 39–40.

In addition to these clearly administrative issues, Jesus was a full participant in his Jewish community, including its “institutional life.” This is displayed in his choice to do much of his preaching in synagogues, which were the sources of community life in Jewish neighborhoods, his payment of the temple tax (for himself and Peter) with the coin from a fish’s mouth in Matthew 17, and his praise for the widow who gave her mite for the temple’s upkeep in Mark 12.

You may need to read between the lines to discern administrative tasks of an institutional nature in these Christian origins, but as Senior demonstrates so well, the early church is clearly loaded with examples of institutional life, its problems, and the need for administrative savvy and temperament. From the ranking of roles — elders, overseers or bishops, and deacons — to the operation of key conferences, such as the Council of Jerusalem, to major fundraising efforts for the poorer churches, the first Christians were awash in administrative details. From the very beginning, the church’s evolving structure required attention to the mundane issues of buildings and infrastructure. And Senior notes that the canon of Scripture, widely accepted by the end of the first century, could not have been embraced without “a remarkable network of organization and communication,” along with the production and maintenance of scrolls and their careful circulation (p. 19).

In a time of rapid and disruptive change for theological education, one of the more comforting aspects of The Gift of Administration is Senior’s descriptions of the organizational traumas that have been too often decontextualized from the administrative framework that gives them relevance for contemporary times. These include leadership conflicts, like the confrontation between Paul and Peter about eating with Gentiles in Antioch (Galatians 2:11-14) and the rupture in the relationship between Paul and Barnabas over their assessments of the dependability of John Mark (Acts 15:36-41). And they include the “bitter controversies” captured in the letters of John (p. 21). Then, as now, Senior says, “the Christian community was a genuinely human community!” (p. 39).

It is, in fact, the humanness of Christian organizations that also motivated Senior to write this book. After 16 years on the CTU faculty, he became president and came to experience CTU in a very different way than he had when he worked as a full-time professor. “I came to know a lot more about how people interacted and what their foibles and strengths were. I saw people at their best and at their worst. I discovered more of the humanity of some of our faculty and staff than I had ever known — and sometimes, more than I ever wanted to know!” (p. 95). Like others in the church, an administrator’s overall goal is building up the body of Christ (p. 40), but Senior believes those in administration have a special insight into the meaning of Paul’s metaphor of the “body”: It is the crucified body, he says, not the resurrected one.

Ministers of administration, more than others in the church, experience the texture of the toxic rivalries and jealousies that can corrupt Christian community. Senior shares openly of his need to adjust to this fuller expression of the human condition, especially the need to develop a kind of holy indifference to the personal rejection, insults, and questioning of motivations by coworkers that can come with administrative leadership.

Senior reveals a number of unforgettable references in The Gift of Administration , such as the response of the former president of Union Theological Seminary, Donald Shriver, to the question of the essential component to doing a good job as an administrator. Shriver’s answer: “the spiritual discipline needed to face unwelcome realities” (p. 61). Senior finds this important for many reasons, but especially since the Bible demonstrates that “the Spirit outruns the Church and confounds its expectations” and in the process shows that God is “at work in discontinuity (and) God’s presence (is) found in unexpected people and in unexpected circumstances” (p. 62).

Indeed, he says, the Bible reveals a view of the world that is “an interface of chaos and order.” As an administrator, Senior says we are called to bring “order and predictability and due process to the life of a community through adaptation of the institution’s mission and by thoughtful planning.” However, the true leader also needs a spiritual discipline or detachment that allows for “God’s prophetic spirit to shake our ordered securities” (p. 65).

Another motivation for writing this book, Senior admits, is his concern that the essential task of administration in Christian organizations is too often framed almost entirely by the abundant “secular” literatures on fundraising, management, conflict resolution, and strategic planning. He doesn’t quibble with the importance of this literature; but he is concerned that the administrative role does not have a firm enough theological foundation to keep its grounding amidst the flurry of ideas, strategies, and suggested practices originating in a different worldview. He hopes his book will surface key narratives, themes, and concepts to begin a construction of a theology of administration that rivals the more established theologies of other roles in the church.

The features of his biblical theology are using Jesus as the inspiration for leadership, and plumbing deeper into the theological concepts of vocation and mission. He also focuses on the administrator’s role in shaping an organizational culture that exhibits certain Christian characteristics — particularly “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” and a willingness to “bear with one another” and forgive one another “as the Lord has forgiven you” (Col. 3:12, 13). He draws freely from texts in Ephesians 5, 1 Peter, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, texts with far more administrative examples than most would ever guess.

Senior ends the book with a reference to David Keck’s book, Forgetting Whose We Are: Alzheimer’s Disease and the Love of God. Keck, a missionary and biblical scholar, wrote the book as part of an exercise in making sense of his own mother’s struggle with dementia. So much of administrative leadership, to Senior, is struggling day in and day out to remember — the underlying vocational call that a leader has to honor the Gospel, the mission of the institution, and the nobility of coworkers as children of God. More importantly, the administrator, perhaps more than those who have other roles in the church, needs to remain fixed on the “ultimate purpose of our lives as followers of Jesus” and the institutions we lead — giving “life and meaning to God’s people.”


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