of dirty tricks & friendly fire: Machiavellian tactics
in the Church militant
by Graeme J. Davidson, October
Church may espouse ethical standards and teach others
ethics, but when it comes to its own organisation,
clearly Machiavelli is alive and flourishing.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
2: Organisations use whatever means are necessary
to protect their integrity.
corollary rule is: Contain and minimise any threat to those
in power or to the organisation.
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.
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 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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Church may espouse ethical standards and teach others ethics,
but when it comes to its own organisation, clearly Machiavelli
is alive and flourishing.