Wright, N. (2002) ‘Vanquished: A Christian Contribution to OD’, Organisations & People, Association for Management Education & Development, August, Vol 9, No3, pp43-45.
A fresh challenge
I was struck by declarations in the media(1) not so long ago that Christianity is all but vanquished in Britain today. You may well ask, with some justification, what this has to do with management and organisation development (OD). The wider question of what Christianity has to do with almost any aspect of modern society is a vexed one and, although as a committed Christian(2) I am tempted to say, “absolutely everything”, this is clearly not the perception of the majority of people in British society who could arguably respond, “absolutely nothing”.
There is an important underlying issue here that want to clarify here before I explain how I believe Christianity can speak to OD today. I want to start by differentiating between the following two propositions:
Christianity is relevant
Christianity is perceived to be relevant
I hope you’ll agree that these statements actually point to two different things. The first statement is concerned with truth (that is, whether Christianity is essentially relevant or not), the second with experience (that is, what we perceive and believe). I believe that the subjective dimension of experience is one that we Christians have failed to address adequately and which probably accounts, more than anything else, for the disconnect that we see now between Christian values and the overriding ideologies defining contemporary organisational life.
What I will try to do in this short piece is to re-contextualise Christian beliefs and values into OD as one dimension of British cultural development as a whole – an ambitious project, you might say. I will do this by offering reflections on central OD-related concerns from an explicitly Biblical basis. This will, I hope, influence positively perceptions in this field but I will include my email address at the end of this piece so that you can tell me whether I have been successful – and I will be genuinely interested to hear your comments.
The Bible starts with the famous words, “In the beginning, God…”(3) and goes on to describe God’s activity in creation. Without getting lost in secondary arguments about whether or not the Bible’s description of the creation process is meant to be understood literally or metaphorically, what is clear is that the Bible portrays God as the prime initiator and actor in creation who creates the world and, subsequently humanity, with a conscious, deliberate, good, eternal purpose in mind. At the very least, a Biblical worldview challenges us to see beyond our immediate goals in light of bigger-picture, longer-term perspectives.
We may not, of course, accept a theological definition of our situation but we should, nevertheless, consider seriously the longer-term/global significance of the policies and strategies that we pursue. Do we see connections between our plans and activities at an organisational level and their wider implications at local, national and international levels? Do we count ‘ethical development’ (e.g. impact of our decisions on future generations and/or those who are most vulnerable) as a core OD goal? Do we stop to ask such questions at our board/executive meetings with a determined commitment to change where radical change is needed?
I believe that our organisational purpose statements should be linked explicitly to wider ethical aspirations and that our strategies, policies and practices should be subject to periodic external evaluation against these primary criteria. An organisation that I work with currently opens its mission statement boldly with the words, “…to serve Jesus Christ…” and, although that might not be a shared aspiration for many organisations, it does call attention to the importance of significantly higher goals than, “increased profit for our shareholders”.
Let us flesh out this notion of organisational ethics in a bit more detail. The Bible (somewhat surprisingly, perhaps) defines ethical responsibilities more in terms of relationship than, say, rules or policies. The primary relationship described is that between God and humanity, a relationship initiated by God and calling for a response. In paraphrase: “I love you. I want you to know my love and to learn to love me too.” God’s love and commitment is demonstrated ultimately in the sacrifice of his son, Jesus Christ, to provide a basis for new, living and dynamic relationship with him(4).
The secondary level of relationship described by the Bible is that between people, inspired by relationship with God and intended to reflect the character of that relationship. The human-relational dimension is intended to be worked out in ethical practice which would, in our context, include the way in which we choose to act in and as organisations. The implications for OD become clear when we stop to consider what kind of organisations we are really seeking to develop in terms of identity/character and whether our vision/methods are genuinely consistent with higher ethical goals.
Organisations of genuinely ethical character are led by genuinely ethical leaders. The Bible doesn’t provide us with leadership blueprints or textbook techniques but it does paint a portrait of a person, Jesus Christ, who challenges us to face the most central of issues – a call to personal renewal of character that works itself out in hard human-ethical commitment.
Jesus is portrayed in the Bible as leader par excellence who embodies the nature and character of God in human form and a model of leadership that has inspired quite literally millions of followers over two millennia. On closer examination, Jesus’ model of leadership is somewhat unexpected, confusing and even alarming at points (considering the Bible’s portrayal of his Divine status), based on profound integrity and servanthood(5) and clashing fundamentally with more popular, charismatic, power-orientated leadership models of that day and ours.
Jesus’ leadership approach led naturally to his teamwork approach. The Bible portrays Jesus as a leader who appointed around himself a team of people whose choosing must have been, if we’re honest, a bit of a mystery to onlookers; people who would have been unlikely to survive even the most lax of our organisational recruitment & selection processes today(6). We can only assume that Jesus saw intrinsic value and potential in people, challenging our views of ‘human capital’ to consider the person over and above their immediate functional value.
Jesus’ team-orientation also cuts to the heart our contemporary emphasis on viewing and evaluating individuals (e.g. personal development, personal objectives, personal appraisal, personal performance-related pay) as if social and organisational contexts (including teams) did not exist or had no significance at all. The radical alternative advocated in the Bible is based on the following central premises with inter-dependence at its heart:
God has created people in his own image(7)
All people should be treated with dignity and respect(8)
People are different in terms of their gifting and abilities(9)
The difference in gifting and abilities necessitates interdependence(10)
Interdependence should be based on genuine care for one-another(11)
Individual gifts are to be used collectively for the common good(12)
The common good is that which is consistent with God’s character and purpose(13)
For those who accept the possibility of a ‘creator God’, it is feasible that certain aspects of our organisational lives (e.g. team dynamics) may simply work the way they do because God has designed things that way. Even without a shared theological base, I believe that Biblical principles can offer an effective mirror against which to reflect on and critique our own beliefs and values as OD practitioners today.
I hope that what has been written here, even at a very introductory level, will help to substantiate that Christian beliefs and values can have an important, legitimate and helpful contribution to make in the OD field. Christians have rested for too long on an assumed authority passed down from previous generations and our challenge today is to present a new paradigm to contemporary society that engages with the real issues and challenges of the future.
If by writing I have helped to move this process just one step forward among my colleagues in AMED’s readership, I will consider my efforts well worthwhile.
1 Quoting Cardinal Murphy O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster (Sept 01).
2 I subscribe to an ‘evangelical’ persuasion which means that I believe the Bible is true and am committed to living out its implications.
3 Genesis 1:1.
4 John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
5 Philippians 2:5-7: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus who…made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant…”.
6 For example, Matthew the tax collector – a profession characterised by corruption and extortion and one of the most despised of the day. (See Matthew 9:9-11)
7 Genesis 1:27: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
8 Leviticus 19:18: “…love your neighbour as yourself.”; Matthew 7:12: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”
9 Romans 12:6: “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.”
10 1 Corinthians 12:12: “(by analogy…) The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body...”
11 1 Corinthians 12:24-26: “…God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honour to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.”
12 1 Corinthians 12:7: “…the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”
13 Psalm 119:68: “You (God) are good, and what you do is good; teach me your decrees.”