Management is a holy calling
I’ve previously mentioned that the trouble with the church is that it’s run by people. On reflection, I think that might benefit from a little unpacking. I don’t expect perfection from people in any area, and the church is no exception. In fact, given that the church tends to attract a lot of people with various problems in their lives (and if it doesn’t, it probably should), and most of its activity at a local level is run by unpaid (and often untrained) volunteers, it wouldn’t surprise me if the church tended to be considerably more fallible than organisations of comparable size.
Christianity gets a fair amount of stick from some quarters for not living up to its own high ideals, with charges of hypocrisy quite common, but I think that’s an unfair criticism. It’s a fairly basic tenet of the religion that “all have fallen short”, and no one can be good enough, hence justification by faith and all that jazz. Falling short of an unachievable ideal is hardly a shocking failure, nor is it hypocrisy, given that the unachievability is openly acknowledged.
Where I think the critics have more of an argument is in contrasting the behaviour of Christians with the way the church deals with some who transgress. To defend yourself with the arguments I made above while also freely condemning those who commit other offences – usually ones you’ve never been tempted to commit yourself – looks pretty dodgy to this untrained eye. It’s no better when, as with some high-profile preachers, your discovered “sin” is one you had loudly condemned in the past.
But again, it’s hardly news that people can be inconsistent, hypocritical, in denial, or self-deceiving. They seem like more serious offences than simple errors and omissions, and I think they are, but all are essentially manifestations of our flawed humanity. That’s not to say that they should be accepted or excused – far from it – but I suspect that very few of us could honestly claim to be immune to these tendencies. The important thing is how they deal with their failings.
But that’s still not quite the end of the matter. As it isn’t a radical discovery that humanity is generally pretty flawed, we all need to make sure that we don’t simply assume people won’t stray, either through a moment of weakness or cynically and deliberately, and that goes double for the church, which gives people responsibility and spiritual authority over a large number of often quite vulnerable people. Management and accountability structures rarely sound exciting, and they’re not the sort of thing we imagine great spiritual heroes are made of, but it’s absolutely vital to the integrity of the church and the wellbeing of its members.
The most terrible thing about the Catholic child abuse scandal wasn’t the abuse itself – shocking and appalling though that was – but the way cases were hushed up, offending priests were moved to new parishes where they were able to continue to offend, and no one did anything to change supervision and accountability practices. Through a combination of incompetence and politics, abusers ended up free to continue their abuse. More honesty and better management would have been good news for everyone involved.
All too often, the importance of these sort of systems and controls is downgraded or dismissed altogether. It can be described as a distraction, or adopting “worldly values”, as if there’s something unChristian about speaking truth, correcting faults within the church or preventing the abuse of vulnerable people. In fact, it should be the church’s top priority, working on the principle that in all things, the church should “First Do No Harm“.
I don’t expect the entire church to completely change the way it works, but it weakens its message while it allows this sort of thing to happen without stopping to consider what lessons could be learnt and what could be done differently in future. It’s in everyone’s interests for the church to learn and improve as quickly as possible.