Wednesday, 17 December 2014

On 'talent pools' and floods...

'"The Word" (of God) is "a flood which breaks the dam." ... One senses this in our community to some extent. Uneasiness, anguish, dis-ease, because something is building up to break the dam and this "word" is inscrutably different from the comforting platitudes of Superiors. But this sense pervades all society - is resisted by those who erect their word in to a dam and are determined to "hold" it at any price.' (Thomas Merton, Learning to Love, p.165)
These words of Thomas Merton were unearthed for me by friend and theologian Gary Hall. You can read Gary's reflections on Merton here (if you're registered with

But Gary's paper, and Merton's words, appeared on my computer screen just as I was settling down to write a blog on 'the Green report' or, to use its full title, 'Talent Management for Future Leaders and Leadership Development for Bishops and Deans: A New Approach' (you can read the full report here). And I began to wonder: how far apart are the so-called 'talent pool' of the Church of England, and Merton's 'flood which breaks the dam'?

In the days that followed the leaking of the Green report, the little corner of social media that I find myself following went a bit wild. Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church Oxford, wrote an incisive critique in the Church Times, highlighting the 'breathtaking' absence of any ordained women from the working group, nor any 'recognised theologian' or 'academic specialising in continuing professional or vocational education'. This was a report, said Percy, which offered 'a dish of basic contemporary approaches to executive management, with a little theological garnish', with 'a total absence of ecclesiology' or indeed any awareness of 'critiques of management, executive authority, and leadership'. Secondly, Percy highlighted the managerial self-perpetuation proposed by the report: ' a small "talent pool" of potential future leaders ... will be selected and shaped by a handful of executive managers' who control their selection criteria, and facilitate their recruitment and training. 'Potential' and 'performance' will be measured against 'growth factors', and 'if there is a decline in measureable performance or potential, an individual will be asked to leave.' 'We appear to live in an age,' says Percy, bitingly, 'in which all bishops must now fit the "executive mission-minded-middle-manager" paradigm.' And it is the rise of that paradigm itself, he argues, that requires 'some radical and imaginative responses.'

Financial expert Richard Murphy, a prophetic voice from beyond the boundaries of the church, raised serious questions about a report on a 'culture change for the leadership of the Church' written by a group chaired by someone who just happens to be the former chairman of HSBC, under whose leadership the company engaged in tax evasion in Switzerland for which it has been fined billions of pounds and now faces prosecution in a number of countries.

Among the flood of criticism - much from people, like Martyn Percy, who have either already received, or might well soon receive, an invitation to join the 'talent pool' - Archbishop Justin himself responded, reminding people that one of the purposes of the Green report was to get away from the 'old boys club' preferment system, to something more inclusive, more diverse, more supportive, with more careful discernment.

At which point I should, as the Americans say, 'check my privilege'. I happen to be a white, straight, middle-class, married man with a Cambridge degree. I am, at least within that description, the kind of person whom the old 'system' favoured. Who am I to resist a change which is all about making the system more inclusive and diverse?

But inclusion in what? That seems to be the key question, knocking its head against a brick wall of a whole host of unexamined, or unchallengable, assumptions about 'leadership', 'growth' and 'performance' - and even, as Martyn Percy highlights, the much more fundamental concepts of 'mission' and 'church' themselves.

I want to focus on two key areas that trouble me - or rather, two key concepts that seem to be absent from the Green report, the absence of which worries me deeply. One is contestation. The other is incarnation.

We live in a time that many are beginning to call 'post-democratic'. 'Democracy' has turned into a form of culture, a spectator sport, entertainment to be consumed, where the organs of the system profoundly shape our opinions and desires, all the while convincing us that we have freedom - and responsibility - to choose.

There are theologians out there - I'm reading one in depth for my PhD work - who suggest that one of the great gifts of the Church to the wider world at this time might just be the gift of contestation: of the art of creating spaces for the self-critical exposure of reality, and for the passionate argument over what is true and good. Spaces for 'good disagreement', we might say.

And oddly, that has been a phrase coined within the CofE recently in relation to such internally difficult issues as women bishops and same-sex relationships. Maybe it's an art we're even beginning to learn a little of, as a Church together. Maybe it could be one of our gifts to the wider world.

But in the Green report, and the process around it, there's little sign of that particular 'charism'. The report was leaked, early. But the advert for 'Talent Development Manager' is already out there, with a closing date of mid-January. There might well have been, within the working group, 'sparky and rewarding' and theologically 'stimulating' conversations, particularly over 'the place, in any proposed "system", of the maverick-prophet', as one member of the group, Pete Wilcox, suggests. But there is no sense of a wider conversation within the Church about this stuff. The working group has met. The job advert is out. It's happening. Deal with it. Quite a different approach to that on questions of gender or sexuality - as if this is something that's just 'obvious'.

Which brings me to my second major area of concern: that the thing we need to be working hardest on contesting, on creating spaces for 'good disagreement' about, is the mission of the Church itself.

I had repeated to me today, at 3rd or 4th hand, the suggestion, possibly originating from a senior cleric, that 'incarnational ministry is incompatible with senior leadership'. It's an interesting thought. I have to admit, it's something I've found myself pondering on for a little while. Maybe it is. But if it's a choice between the two, I know which side of the line I'd come down, every time. Perhaps I'm being naive and simplistic setting up 'Jesus' and 'institution' as polar opposites. But we need to take a long hard look at the latter and ask how much it reflects the former.

It's much easier to do at a local level, of course. Us parish priests can put down roots in our neighbourhoods, hang out with our neighbours, make friends, spend time eating and drinking and laughing and crying with our friends and neighbours, listen to stories, tell stories, provoke stories, get our hands dirty planting seeds, sweeping floors, helping people move house... get angry with systems that fail human beings, turn over the odd table, wrestle poetry and theology out of blood, sweat and tears, encourage the gifts of those around us to come out, share in hugs when it all goes wrong, watch and wait in the darkness, and kindle little flames of hope...

I'm sure that stuff's harder to do when you're a senior manager in the institution, watching the figures and the graphs and balancing the books and streamlining the deployment of clergy and the like. That's when 'strategies for growth' and 'targets' and 'performance' and the like seem to become more central.

But I worry that this shift, from 'incarnational' to 'institutional', does actually completely miss the point.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not ungrateful for my house, and my stipend, and my pension. The institution frees me up to do what I feel profoundly called to, and what I love. It creates stable space which enables me to be the person, the priest, that I believe God wants me to be - or at least to have a good crack at it.

But the tendencies to institutionalise and 'technologise' (as Ivan Illich might call it - creating the 'technologies' to 'solve' the 'problem', whatever the 'problem' might be defined as) - however well dressed-up in the language of 'the gospel' and 'evangelism' and 'confidence' - betray, I fear, a deep-seated anxiety. If we don't do this, we might not be around for much longer. We've got to keep the show on the road.

And I fear that this is a long way from what Jesus, and the New Testament, call 'faith'. That reckless confidence in the being and activity of God, that is utterly opposed to anxiety. That overflow of abundance, friendship, 'conviviality' (Illich's own counterpoint to the technologies of institutions), joy, love... that can't be contained by strategies and plans and institutional structures and 'talent pools' and the like.

I'm secretly - or perhaps, now, not-so-secretly - hoping that the arrival of women bishops will bring down the system from within. Feminist theology (and yes, I know, not all women are feminists, and not all feminists are women, but even so) has some sharp things to say about structures and hierarchies and, dare I say, the whole idea of bishops...

There is, I would suggest, still a hugely significant role for leadership, though. But it's leadership from the grassroots, 'up' (rather than from the top, down); leadership from the middle, and from the edge; leadership in the connections, in the cracks, in the questions, in the laments and protests and laughter and parties.

I'm tempted, as the Green report sees the light of day, to suggest an alternative movement for leadership in the Church of England. Not 'grooming' people for 'senior' positions, but finding ways of connecting the irritants and trouble-makers, encouraging the listeners and pray-ers, hearing to speech the poets and story-tellers, resourcing the connectors and community-builders, stretching the thinkers and theologians, unleashing the prophets and protesters...

When the 'talent pool' is separated from 'the flood which breaks the dam', then the water in the pool is in grave danger of turning stagnant. Why don't we let go of our anxiety, and our Promethean attempts to technologise and strategise with it - and just ride the waters of the flood. Who knows, we, 'the Church, might not be around for much longer - not in our current form, at least. But the flood continues breaking the dams, and the light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness isn't going to put it out...

For much more articulate reflections on the Green report, have a look at:
- Rachel Mann's "'These are not the leaders you're looking for' - talent pools, management & the C of E"
- Andrew Lightbown's "Open Letter to Advocates of the Green Report"


  1. Refreshing. Thanks for taking time to write this. It may not have been your intention, but this morning I have found this a wonderfully encouraging read. Thank you.

  2. Thanks Al.....I've been pondering for years how emerging networks of incarnational missional leadership from below ...need to be both symbiotic with the institutions of church and government ... and yet often in collission.. Your piece has clarified some stuff... I think we are onto the same thing... and in passiing I just found this in Wikipedia

    Collision theory is a theory proposed independently by [1] Max Trautz in 1916 and William Lewis in 1918, that qualitatively explains how chemical reactions occur and why reaction rates differ for different reactions.[2] The collision theory states that when suitable particles of the reactant hit each other, only a certain percentage of the collisions cause any noticeable or significant chemical change; these successful changes are called successful collisions. The successful collisions have enough energy, also known as activation energy, at the moment of impact to break the preexisting bonds and form all new bonds. This results in the products of the reaction. Increasing the concentration of the reactant particles or raising the temperature, thus bringing about more collisions and therefore many more successful collisions, increases the rate of reaction.

    When a catalyst is involved in the collision between the reactant molecules, less energy is required for the chemical change to take place, and hence more collisions have sufficient energy for reaction to occur. The reaction rate therefore increases.


  3. A powerful testament, which articulate much better than I possibly could the feelings of disbelief, disenchantment and pure anger at the proposals contained in the Green report, a report more worthy of the Tory Party than a church for the weak, vulnerable, lost, imprisoned or persecuted. A church of service to others, not a church where others serve us?

    This sounds so much like the protection of positions, the continuation of the #old boy net. under the guise of exclusiveness and elitism. It's so wrong, that I can't believe that both Arch Bishops have signed up to something, which seeks to create a cadre of people, who are self selecting, self preserving and self perpetuating.

    Thankfully, I'm in a loving, caring parish, and a diocese, which is at least on the surface, all of the things that I love about the Church of Christ, but sadly tied to something which seems to be striving the be the 'Conservative Party at Prayer', to justify that description.

    Thank God for the opt out clause - I don't have to participate in or support this stuff, and that I can noisily disagree with it at every turn.
    Rebel with a cause perhaps.

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  5. Thanks a lot, I like your publishing, it is a powerful statement! For much more articulate reflections on the Green report, have a look atacademic writing services as well.

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