Friday, 10 December 2010

Head down and mouth shut

Anyone involved in leadership in public ministry knows there are times when a decision has to be made that may seem on the surface to be wrong, unfair or unpopular. I can think of times in the parish and in my current training role, for example, when I have had to ask someone to step back or step down from ministry. It may be that the person’s personal or family circumstances have changed, or that they have done something which compromises their ability to minister or that they are suffering ill health, there are plenty of reasons. For the individual’s benefit and for the well being of the wider church a decision is taken.

The problem is that for very good pastoral reasons it may not be appropriate for others to know why the person has been withdrawn. To the congregation, parishioners or their colleagues in training, the action may appear arbitrary and unjust. I’ve known the frustration of seeing action taken against someone and feeling it has been unreasonable, though I may not have been appraised of the full facts. But I’ve also had to take action and keep my mouth shut, even when people are accusing me of being unreasonable at best or a ‘little Hitler’ to quote a more extreme response. I’ve wanted to say to the critic, ‘well if you knew this then you wouldn’t be saying that’ but I can’t and I won’t because it might be very damaging to the individual concerned. This is one of the responsibilities and challenges of leadership in ministry.

I learnt an important lesson early in ministry. When I was a curate and someone asked me something difficult or a challenging situation arose, I had the fall back position of saying ‘ask the vicar’. When I became a vicar I discovered that sometimes I had to say no or to make a hard choice, even if it made me unpopular. I could give plenty of examples but I won’t because it would not be appropriate. Those of you in positions of leadership can fill in the blanks.

So the next time I see a senior colleague, say a bishop in the metropolis, taking flak over a decision or a course of action and my temptation is to fire up the computer and express my righteous indignation in blog or tweet, I hope I can take a moment to remember the times I’ve been on the receiving end. It’s hard to keep one’s head down and mouth shut rather than indulge in bouts of self justification but that’s part of the job.


Tim Goodbody said...

thanks Phil this came at just the right time for me
i think CME1-4 shoulkd end with a session for curates on how to say no.
David Parker (Desert Vineyard/New wine) said last summer "I am your pastor whjen I say no and you accept it. Before that, we are just aquaintances".
I like that


Charlie said...

Yes Phil, but would you then issue a press release saying how appalled you were by that person and why you had asked them to step down?
Or is that just a cunning way of shifting the pressure off the suspended person, as another blogger suggested this week?

Philip Ritchie said...

Thanks Tim, I might have a word with the CMD team about this. It's certainly covered on our Clergy Leadership Programme.

Hi Charlie, fair point. It's perfectly conceivable that this was an agreed course of action in the light of the furore that hadn't abated when the original apology was issued. It may well have been the least damaging course of action in the circumstances. The point is we don't know all the facts or reasons and nor should we.

My concern is the speed with which so many have attributed motives and passed judgement on the action. Many are themselves in positions of leadership and will face difficult decisions where others are not privy to all the facts.

I guess my question is why we are so quick to judge the actions of others and do it publicly, when we know how damaging and hurtful it is to be on the receiving end of it in the parish?

I'm not saying I agree with the action or the way it was handled, just pointing out I'm not really in a position to judge. Looking back I think I fired off a couple of comments when I should have spent more time reflecting. I did a blog post but that was more about an issue raised by the original comments regarding the oath of allegiance.

I hope my post was clear that I was reflecting on my own actions. It will be for others to reflect on theirs.

Hope you both have a blessed Advent and joyful Christmas.

Charlie said...

Yes, your post was clear and a good point well made. The online world isn't great at calm reflection. I do think that the actions of church leaders should be open to scrutiny, though. As you say, that may sometimes mean we have to grit our teeth and take some very difficult stuff on the chin as we defend our decisions.
On the other hand, it might just prevent us from developing a habit of making indefensible decisions.