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Victims of dirty tricks & friendly fire: Machiavellian tactics in the Church militant
by Graeme J. Davidson,
October 2002

The Church may espouse ethical standards and teach others ethics, but when it comes to its own organisation, clearly Machiavelli is alive and flourishing.

A few years ago a priest preached a series of sermons on understanding the Bible in the light of modern scholarship. Five in the congregation where disturbed by what he preached. They attracted a few others who had a personal dislike of the priest, giving the impression of a groundswell reaction to the sermons and complained to the bishop.

Utilitarianism wins
The bishop mediated between the parties, while those cynical about the way the church hierarchy works had already predicted the outcome. There was no doctrinal error in the priest's teaching but because some in the parish had a particular theological view and were offended by the priest's teachings, he was asked to resign and find another position.

The priest was caught in a pincer manoeuvre. If he stayed, he would incur the ire of his bishop and split the parish further. If he resigned, he lost his job and carried the stigma of being a troublemaker. As he had been faithful to his calling and taught what he had learned at the church's own seminary, he felt that he was the victim of dirty tricks and friendly fire.

The bishop tried to sweeten the pill by rationalising that the priest would be better suited in a position more amenable to his theological interests. Yet the reality was the bishop had used a utilitarian approach to protect the general welfare of the organisation. In simple terms the numbers were stacked against the priest.

There are tens of thousands of stories that can be told like this. On one estimate, one in three clergy loses a job during their professional life because of the actions of a small vociferous group. Every parish can tell stories of individuals who have left or been squeezed out because they didn't fit the prevailing social culture. And there are plenty of senior church leaders who have surrounded themselves with sycophants and like-minded people in the belief that the gospel is best served by a 'cohesive team' rather than by disruptive prophets and 'troublesome' dissenters.

Coping with prophets and other troublesome folk
Of course there is nothing new about this. The Bible is full of such stories. There are Old Testament prophets whose message was unpalatable to their rulers. Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples were regarded as blasphemers by the religious establishment of their time, while many 'heretics' in the past have suffered torture or even death for not fitting in with the prevailing Church structure and theological attitudes.

Despite its theological bases of inclusive love, faithfulness to the Gospel, and multiple second chances to the repentant who falls short, the Church has a habit of shooting its own wounded, sometimes after wounding them itself. It reaches out in love to others — that is its mission and it does it with varying degrees of success — but when it comes to how it operates internally as an organisation, it is like any other organisation. It operates on two general rules and one corollary rule.

Rule 1: Those in power try to hold on to their power and extend it on the assumption that this is for the good of the organisation.

Rule 2: Organisations use whatever means are necessary to protect their integrity.

The corollary rule is: Contain and minimise any threat to those in power or to the organisation.

Those who may be a threat to the church organisation are usually handled in one of five ways: Ignoring, denial, changing roles, adding an overseer, or removal.

Ignoring is the standard technique for handling those prophetic types who 'cry in the wilderness'. Treating their views as a serious threat elevates their status and draws attention to the cause. They are best ignored by listening politely to what they have to say and thanking them for their insight or deflecting them on to others -- "Why don't you raise that with x, she may have some helpful suggestions'. X then suggests Y and so on. The vociferous few can even be encouraged to voice their views in 'safe' forums such as a church meeting, where they are diluted by the views of others. Putting the ideas that are a threat on the bottom of agendas, so that there is never enough time to properly debate them, or sending the ideas through a lengthy committee process are also typical ignoring tactics. The church can then truthfully say that it is democratic and encourages prophetic voices.

Denial is frequently used when dissenters can no longer be ignored. The dissenters are gaining momentum and could create dents that threaten the organisational fabric. It is at this stage that a senior church leader and other experts may meet with the dissenters. They diplomatically state how important the dissenters' views are to the church, and may concede an inconsequential or token point to appease them. They will then proceed to refute and deflect the dissenters. There is always one example somewhere that can be used to contradict the dissenters' claims.

If all else fails the church leaders can fall back on the standard excuse of why it is not appropriate to implement what the dissenters' want 'at this stage'. A pastoral letter or similar statement may also be used to reinforce the official position, in the hope that this imprimatur from the leadership will undermine support for the dissenters. Such statements typically follow the standard PR practice of emphasising the positive before the ominous 'but' that heralds the end of discussion.

Changing the role
Changing the role of 'troublemakers' is a favourite. One highly effective technique is to promote those who threaten the status quo to a committee or other position where their views can be expressed and 'given due consideration' within a wider context. Thus they are given a taste of power from within the organisation, which often results in their doing a 180° turn on their original views. Like St. Paul after his conversion they become ardent in their support of the organisation as they now have a vested interest in keeping the status quo.

But usually the change of roles takes the form of finding a sideways position where the troublemaker can be rendered harmless and the truth may be disguised as a 'special challenge' or as something more suitable for the person's experience, skills and personality. Examples of this are the priest who publicly protested the expense of cathedral renovations. He had no impact on the renovations but was given a job working with the poor. The parishioner who complained of the parish prayers being too narrow in their focus was put in charge of organising the prayer roster. This technique can help in silencing others as the implicit message is don't say anything unless you are prepared to suffer the consequences.

Despite the 'sinners are especially welcome' advertising, some sinners are more welcome than others. Church employees who have 'sinned' — substance abuse, sexual misdemeanour, abuse of position or are incompetent in some important aspects of their work — are regarded as a serious threat to the organisation.

This poses a dilemma for the church. There is usually strong pressure to demote offenders or to sacrifice them for the good of the organisation. But adopting these measures can backfire against the church and exacerbate the problem. A married parish pastor who had an affair with an unmarried woman he subsequently married after he had divorced his wife, was defrocked by his bishop. This caused an outcry from the parishioners who regarded the church as practising a double standard towards its clergy compared with its laity and many left.

Unless the church employee resigns (which may be encouraged as a sign of 'true repentance'), the church tries to avoid the accusation of shooting its own wounded by providing an overseer in the form of a senior clergy person, therapist, or other expert who can treat, train or supervises them. This may also be coupled with removing the person from temptation or area of incompetence. These procedures may satisfy the organisation that a middle course has been adopted to help the individual and at the same time protect the organisation. Yet it may be very humiliating to the individuals, who can feel that they have been unduly singled out as pariahs when they are typical sinners and have limitations like others.

In contrast, the often repeated 'sins' of senior church management are rarely highlighted or seen as requiring correction through counselling. These can include: making certain the best organisation positions go to those who support the current management, refusing to use people's skills and talents appropriately, missing opportunities for pastoral care or to promote the Gospel and enjoying and taking advantage of status and power.

The technique of last resort is to remove individuals. This occurs when their staying will cause the potential for greater damage. If the individual is an employee of the church, the usual method is to send them for a 'sabbatical' trip, not renew a contract when it comes up for renewal, to evaluate the person's work and find them wanting in some area or other, or to re-evaluate the job description.

Another technique, sometimes called 'constructive dismissal' is to remove work from an individual or give them difficult or boring work so that they leave of their own accord. Parishioners on the other hand are often made unwelcome by being frozen out, although there are cases where strong individuals are considered too disruptive and asked to consider joining another congregation.

The Church often seems to have inherited feudal attitudes to its management from the middle ages. This is overlaid with the worst of corporate practices without many of the safeguards companies have to have in place because of employment law, union membership and the need to respond swiftly to staff needs and customer demand.

The Church may espouse ethical standards and teach others ethics, but when it comes to its own organisation, clearly Machiavelli is alive and flourishing.




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