Christian organisations in the UK are experiencing challenges with redefining their identity in a 21C secular environment, particularly in light of legislation prohibiting the exclusive employment of people who share these organisations’ Christian beliefs. What do these changes mean for Christian organisations? What does it mean to be a ‘Christian organisation’ anyway? How can such organisations embrace greater diversity and, at the same time, retain their unique Christian distinctiveness?
Take organisation X: in now employing non-Christian staff alongside Christian staff, is it essentially a Christian organisation that happens to employ some non-Christian staff or really, at heart, a new type of hybrid organisation – a mix of Christian and non-Christian? The implications of this distinction are very significant. For instance, has X implicitly changed its core identity, even if its mission is still intact? What does it mean for teams staffed predominantly by non-Christians? What are the implications for X's brand?
There are parallels with the current social-political debate about what it means to be ‘British’. How is X to relate to those who don’t share its core Christian beliefs? Should its approach be characterised by, for instance, reluctant tolerance (e.g. accept that it has to employ non-Christian staff owing to legislative requirements but focus on ‘containing the problem’), positive assimilation (e.g. welcome non-Christians as part of the organisation but expect them to adapt to its current cultural norms) or active accommodation (e.g. change its own cultural norms to embrace greater diversity)?
These questions press right to the heart of Christian identity at individual, team and organisational levels. What is critical to nurture and safeguard and what is negotiable? How are such organisations to conduct themselves in relation to others? What are the key ethical principles involved? To what degree should secular or alternative faith perspectives now be represented alongside Christian perspectives in their policies and practices? What should be the spiritual practices of those teams in which non-Christian staff are employed alongside Christians? In which specific respects should such organisations be distinctive?
This situation isn't new. In fact, there has been a debate for some time in Christian organisational circles about the nature and practice of Christian distinctiveness. I believe the debate could be framed differently and more helpfully, however, around Christian authenticity. When Christians are authentic, there will be dimensions in which we are distinctive (e.g. faith in Christ as saviour). There will also be dimensions in which we are not distinctive but which are, nevertheless, consistent with our faith (e.g. commitment to social justice). We need to consider what it means for non-Christians to be authentic in shared organisational environments too.
At leadership levels, organisations need to decide which dimensions of their Christian beliefs, identity, mission and values are fundamental and thereby non-negotiable. This releases them to identify which other dimensions (e.g. cultural expressions) are flexible and open to modification or negotiation. They need to safeguard and nurture those things that are non-negotiable and adapt those things that are negotiable in light of current circumstances. They also need to live out their beliefs, identity, mission and values in order to be congruent. This is true at individual, team and organisational levels and poses cultural challenges where those beliefs etc. are inconsistent.
The problem with ‘distinctiveness’ is that it necessarily focuses on difference, separateness, division. An alternative biblical model is the incarnation in which we see Christ share our common humanity whilst retaining his unique divinity. This model illustrates in a very radical sense how sharing common ground and experience with others can build bridges, whilst holding onto specific distinctives too. It also provides a relational platform from which those dimensions that make us distinctive can be more easily and readily understood. This may be a useful model for organisations like X to explore further in terms of its practice implications.
This issue is important but not unique to any one Christian or faith-based organisation. Other faith-based organsiations in the UK and elsewhere are grappling with similar issues and seeking to act with wisdom and integrity too. We could learn from one-anothers’ practices and experiences. We could create spaces for dialogue, experimentation and learning. This could be a key issue for the Christian leadership agenda. We have the opportunity now to consider future implications of current actions in order to help ensure we develop in the way and direction we intend and hope for.
Nick Wright is a coach and consultant, specialising in reflective practice.