The World Has Changed and So Have the Rules of Leadership
There is a crisis at General Theological Seminary in New York City. Faculty members are unhappy with leadership. A seminary bigwig made comments that were offensive at worst or not sufficiently clear at best. The comments are being interpreted in a way he didn’t intend, he says. Mix all the ingredients together and Boom! It blew up in his face.
The issues themselves are a story in their own right.
Here are the links if the details interest you.
- The dispute: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/10/02/most-faculty-general-theological-seminary-gone-what-happened
- More about the dispute: http://www.episcopalcafe.com/lead/seminaries/here_is_an_update_on.html
- The GTS Dean and President’s Response: http://www.episcopalcafe.com/lead/seminaries/general_seminarys_besieged_dea.html
I’m more interested in the process we are witnessing and how it differs from the way disputes are usually handled behind closed church doors.
The dean/president took quick action. He wrote more of an explanation than an apology. It was long, detailed and covered a lot of underlying issues. It was reprinted outside of the seminary community.
What? This is never done!
Thirty years ago, every church leader would have known exactly how to handle this crisis. Say nothing in public. Do the damage-control dance internally. Rely on some other problem capturing peoples’ attention within a few days and hope with some realistic expectation that old-fashioned, unquestioning respect will kick in and save the day.
But things have changed.
Angry people today don’t usually read long and detailed explanations. They write short tweets on the points that offend them the most. Those tweets become a resounding chorus.
I predict things will get worse for GTS before they get better.
Church leaders are still living in a time when heads of organizations controlled all forums. We’re hanging on to that world for dear life!
Most online religion forums, if they allow comments at all, have a caveat—“Your comment may be monitored.” They’ll be looking to see if you have Dr., the Most Rev., Rev., or Pastor in front of your name and that what you write doesn’t offend or challenge people holding such credentials. Not much chance of off-the-wall or outside-the-box thinking grabbing attention. It’s not so much that monitors won’t print these kinds of comments but that the warning tends to deter creative thinkers. They will read the warning and say, “Why bother?!”
The Church just can’t let go of their cloisters and the discipline and control of church organizations. A lot of the comments attached to the writings on this issue refer to that private, protected, disciplined seminary community of yesteryear.
It will be hard for the storm at GTS to blow over. For every explanation issued publicly there is a potential for thousands of rebuttals—and all have access to the same information superhighway. They’ll find a way to post their ideas, with or without official approval. And if their writings are short enough, use the appropriate key words, and provide sharable images, they will be read around the world.
And this is a good thing. It will keep seminary deans, faculty, students and laity — all of us — on our toes.
Here’s how wise leaders of the future will handle controversy.
They will blog.
“But I don’t have time!”
It is time well spent and time that would have diverted the current controversy.
This crisis is not likely to have happened if the seminary dean/president had the discipline to write to his faculty and students EVERY DAY and not just during a crisis. Blogging would have helped him think through his positions and test slowly how they played to his constituency. Reactions would have been measured and handled before they had a chance to spin out of control. He would have fostered an engaged community that discussed ideas with temperance and respect.
Church leaders, make time.