Vertical Management – Horizontal Leadership


Some accidents of history distort Christian behavior for a very long time. The only way to resolve the problem is to enact a program of serious institutional enlightenment and structural change.

Even in these days of the “Francis effect,” the institutional church is still very much a vertical management pyramid. People at the top protect themselves, protect their friends, make decisions with little or no consultation, and fear and denigrate change-makers. It happens each day of every week. Much of it often goes unreported. A lot of people don’t want to rock the boat, especially when the captain gets positive international press reviews.

We inherited the vertical management church from Imperial Rome. Certainly not from Jesus of Nazareth. Christianity is not about power over people but about empowering people.

First a bit of personal managerial history: A long time ago, in the 1970s, when I was thin and had hair, I was director of a parish catechetics /religious education team in Michigan. We were two women and three men. We were creative and loved our ministry. The parish was happy with us.

The local bishop became very concerned that our team was moving the parish toward “extreme theological liberalism.” To safeguard the faith, he imported and imposed a conservative tyrant as our pastor. Shortly after the new pastor’s arrival, we were called together, by Father X, for the first “parish staff” meeting. He had arrived in the conference room ahead of us, that day. Sitting on a big chair with a row of smaller chairs in front of him, he welcomed us, asked us to sit down, said a brief prayer; and then pulled a slip of paper from his pocket and read his agenda for the meeting. That happened twice.

At our third “staff” meeting, a young woman, our youth minister, and I arrived early. We arranged the chairs in a circle and I invited her to sit in the big chair. Then everyone arrived. The pastor was grumpy that the youth minister wouldn’t leave the big chair. She then invited the pastor to say a prayer and each person to add a petition. The pastor then pulled out his little paper with his agenda. At the same time (it was perfect timing!) everyone else pulled out his or her little piece of paper with agenda items. The pastor now had a grumpy red face. The youth minister smiled and calmly said to him: “Father, in this parish we practice Vatican II collegiality.”

And that is how the horizontal church should work…. empowering everyone. Not overpowering them.

The early Christians understood the horizontal ministry and leadership style very well. They were an ekklesia, correctly translated not as “institutional church” but as “an assembly of citizens”: a community of faith, inspired by Jesus Christ and animated by his spirit. They gathered often in house churches, under the leadership of the man or woman in charge of the household. These men and women presided at Eucharist as well. It all seemed so normal. One faith, one life on Christ, shared by all, with differing gifts, differing roles, and a variety of responsibilities. It was not a uniform nor monolithic reality. It was charismatic and creative.

Jesus, we know today, gave his followers no institutional blueprint and no institutional structure for a “church.” His followers created and adapted appropriate structures, as needed. It made good sense. By around the year 100, there were: presbyteroi, the elders or pastors in charge of the local communities of faith; episkopoi, the “overseers” or supervisors. Today we call them bishops. And then, entrusted with a variety of concrete outreach ministries, there were diakonoi, the deacons.

In the fourth century, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire; and the institutional church began to pick up the language, public style, and ritual elements found in the older imperial religion. Ordained ministers became “priests.” Christians began worshiping around “altars” rather than the table of the Lord. Women were moved to the periphery.

In the fifth century, the Roman Empire in the West collapsed and the Christian Church took over and filled the imperial administrative void. Bishops became regional civil judges…even ordering the execution of criminals. Altars were pushed against the front wall, facing East if possible. Priests, with their backs to the people, celebrated the “sacred mysteries.” Women were no longer welcome in the “sanctuary” except for washing altar linens and scrubbing the floor. The Bishop of Rome (the pope) took over the emperor’s dress, titles, ritual, and pageantry. The emperor had been pontifex maximus and now the pope was given that title and position: the man at the top of the pyramid and the greatest bridge-builder between God and humanity, the Vicar of Christ on earth. The old Roman administrative pyramid was crowned with a cross.

Authoritarianism became a church virtue: there was no need to study or inquire because the authorities possessed the truth; far too often church management became blind to its own hypocrisy and shortcomings; and unchanging dogmatism became the unquestionable rule for belief and moral behavior.

“Yes” you can say “’thanks for the history lesson but times have changed.”

Times have changed but the old management style is still there. Really, I am not anti-church. I have spent my entire professional career working for and within church-connected educational institutions; but I am an old guy who has truly seen and understands how the system works.

There is still too much of the old vertical management imperialism in today’s church:

(1) There is not just a reluctance but a refusal to examine and take to heart the findings of biblical scholars and historians who know our tradition. Many church leaders are convinced they have a unique kind of grace and they know it all. A year ago, by way of a small ample, I was amazed when, while chatting at JFK airport with a bishop, who like me was on his way to Baltimore, the bishop told me he had read “some of that contemporary biblical stuff” but he was still convinced that Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament.

I wanted to ask him what his thoughts were about contemporary research into women’s ordination and women deacons. When I said the words “women in ministry,” he rather nervously stood up, and said he had to make a phone call before getting on the plane. He was up and away, before one could say “woman priest.”

(2) There is still today in the church not just a reluctance but a refusal to deal in depth and effectively with clerical sexual abuse. The problem is not over. There is much talk – even from Pope Francis — but little action. There are bishops and priests who are deviant criminals. They should be defrocked and put in prison.

(3) Our institutional leaders are very good at critiquing personal immorality – usually focusing on sexual and genital issues – but are far too blind to institutional immorality: institutional immorality when it comes to allowing sexual abuse (rape) of children and young people to continue, institutional immorality that discriminates against and denigrates women as well as gay, lesbian, bi, and transgender people. Institutional immorality that even tolerates, in some parts of the globe, the use of women religious as sexual playmates for the male clergy. Celibacy after all is a special gift to the church….

(4) There is a great reluctance to acknowledge and confront institutional immorality when it’s comes to church finances and investments. Here financial transparency is often praised but remains a fantasy.

(5) Earlier I mentioned the great need for institutional enlightenment. Sorry to say, far too many of our leaders are grossly ignorant about human development, human sexuality, an historical understanding of natural law, and (of course) the necessity of a horizontal understanding and approach to church leadership.

If there is to be life for the Christian church tomorrow, and I hope there will be, a number of transformations must be implemented. We need to say goodbye to Imperial Rome. We need decentralization, shared decision-making, and putting all the old regalia in a museum where it belongs.

In a vertical church one speaks about granting mercy. In the horizontal church, people demonstrate compassion for each other.

In a vertical church, a bishop or a pastor is the boss, and gives directives.

In a horizontal church, the bishop or pastor is a leader; who says: I trust you. Thank you. What do you think? How can I help? And….I am proud of you!

10 thoughts on “Vertical Management – Horizontal Leadership

  1. Bravo, Jack. Well written as well as instructional. Are there not other Christian groups who have attempted to mimic this original model?

  2. J.A. What you have said is well said.

    Unfortunately as far as the Institutional Princes are concerned, past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. It took the horror of the Holocaust and the exceptional Pope John the 23rd to call the Great Council to “Reform and Update” the Church, only to have it undone by his successors.Sadly, my life has taught me that even a pope like John the 23rd cannot reform the Church.

    The systemic corruption of the Episcopal Office itself is frozen in its obedience to the Absolutism of the Vertical Power Structure. This is the lesson of the Worldwide Abuse of Power that has victimized tens of thousands of children. The universal excuse given as a reason: “to protect the Church from scandal,” which certainly did not apply to the children and their families because the phrase “Protect the Church” meant only “Protect the Bishops,” especially the teaching authority of the bishop’s office most notably, that of the Bishop of Rome. Lord Acton’s dictum: power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely is found in the continuing pain of the victims because Rome cannot tell the whole truth regarding its universal requirement of secrecy.

  3. Dit een heel duidelijke stellingname met een onderliggende toon van enerzijds frustratie (hoelang zal het nog duren ?) en toch hoop . De boodschap van Christus is zo mooi en blijft eigentijds, helaas haken zovelen af wegens de “verpakking” , de structuren en het ego van de boodschappers. Heel veel mensen denken zoals jij maar verliezen de moed om almaar opnieuw te proberen iets te veranderen.
    Ik bewonder de mensen die volhouden terwijl ik soms denk dat het misschien beter is een oud gebouw af te breken en opnieuw te beginnen in de geest van de vroegste christenen en gemeenschappen.

    • René en Lea, Hartelijk dank voor uw opmerking. Meer en meer ik denk dat het oude gebouw is verslechterd en niet kan worden gerenoveerd. Iets nieuws wordt gebouwd ……Kind regards, Jack

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