Tony Hayward, BP’s CEO, has placed the corporate executive squarely in public view these days. It’s not an attractive image.
We tend to associate these people with unbridled greed, hedonistic lifestyles, raw exercise of power, smug self-confidence, isolation and individualism. Yet career counselors tell young aspiring executives how to manage their rise to the top, how to stay there and how to feather one’s nest when the end of the line is near.
It’s the summum bonum of virtually every field – and that includes various forms of Christian ministry. Congregations of substantial size and organizational complexity have bought into the model of leadership that has its origins in military jargon and professional business schools: the senior pastor and CEO.
I’m often baffled when I see a small congregation with a single minister who barely meets the minimum salary standards using CEO terminology or referring to himself as “senior pastor.”
In the United States, the culture has spawned numerous authoritarian pastors of mega-churches. One sees it widely in small organizations, often mostly voluntary in nature, as well as within Christian higher education.
The American corporate model has been exported to Australia, Canada and Europe, producing some odd “presidencies within presidencies,” where CEOs bump into each other in the same structure.
As the theory goes, the chief executive officer is designed to consolidate all ultimate decisions in one role. The person fulfilling the role automatically becomes the face of the organization or institution. The CEO makes a few very important decisions and sets the course for the entire enterprise. Typically, the CEO is accountable solely to a board of directors and this produces an image of isolation and aloofness.
The CEO is paid exceptionally well (especially in relation to the staff), in part to offset the criticism to be absorbed and the stress from making critical decisions. In business, the compensation and undisclosed benefits are related to the degree of profitability and are scheduled across a relatively short payout period, given the professional mortality of CEOs. He or she commands respect, loyalty and fear.
How does one square this managerial style with ministry?
Some real incongruities emerge. To start with, ministry is equated with service in biblical terms. That suggests that those who lead a congregation or Christian ministry do so as they are imbued with a quality of service.
Jesus becomes a problem for CEOs. He said things like “the servant is not greater than his master,” and “He who would be greatest, must be servant of all” (Matthew 23:11). He recognized the higher accountability he had to the purposes of God’s kingdom: “Your kingdom come, your will be done” (Matthew 6:10).
Moreover, Jesus was a team-builder, heavy into relationship nurturing with his disciples. He expected his followers to stand with him in crises, and he constantly interacted with and affirmed his team. His own integrity paramount, Jesus led from within by empowering other people.
Likewise in the early churches, Paul drew out the gifts of others and encouraged them to ever higher standards of performance (Titus 3:8).
Today, one hears the hollow phrases of corporate and political leadership like, “I take full responsibility” or “I’m in charge of the situation,” when we know full well that protective strategies are in place to avoid any real liability and “taking charge” is media language.
In Christian tradition, leadership is a gift that meets the gravity of opportunity. It is a calling that some have and many don’t. It’s risky: Executive leadership might lead to what appears to be humiliation and great unpopularity. The proof of a CEO is always in the performance. Theologically I think of the terrifying prospect of human sinfulness that Jesus willingly took upon himself, executing his assignment even to death on the cross.
Paul wrote to Timothy, “If anyone aspires to the office of bishop (read CEO), he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1).
Congregations, organizations and critical situations today require leadership. That’s a given. It is not, however, the business school model or the Kaiser profile of executive leadership we desperately need in the Christian community, but the New Testament models of servant leadership endowed with humility.
My heroic figure among CEOs is Gregorius Gordianus. He was the consummate administrator and spent his career in the ministry of the church. When crisis came at the top of church leadership, he was nowhere to be found; that is, he was not seeking the ultimate office. But, the search committee found him and, against his protestations, proclaimed him Gregory I, bishop of Rome. His epitaph reads, Servus servorum Dei: “Servant of those who serve God.”
We remember him as Gregory the Great.
Move over, Tony.
William H. Brackney is the Millard R. Cherry Distinguished Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at Acadia University and Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia.