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 Competence and Religion Leaders

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A recent New York Times article by David Brooks is entitled "Complexity outruns our competence". His ideas are a commentary on how our dependence on an "ever-expanding array of intricate high-tech systems" have moved us into an era of complexity for which we are not prepared. Brook's primary points are as follows. Then come comments on how I see the role of religion leaders in terms of competence and complexity.

Small failings can combine to catastrophic disasters.
People become acclimated to risks.
Undue faith is placed in backup systems and safety devices.
Good news is spread abroad and bad news is hidden.
People in the same field come to think alike.

1. Small failings and catastrophic disaster.  The widespread nature of religious organizations, formal and informal, mean that millions of decision happen out of necessity and beyond surveillance. The human relationships within local units are so multifaceted that when a bad thing happens it is impossible to track down genuine causes. Hence, leaders tend to move ever farther away from noticing the small failings all along the line. Religion centered wars have been culmination of small failings all along the line. At one time, when religion was a dominating force, wars such as the Thirty Years War in Europe were a sadness beyond compare because the moral force of religion was eroded almost beyond repair. Today the role of religion in society is more difficult to track. How can we discover the actual role of religions in failures of society? Leaders who are open to seeing small failings can make allowances for this reality in setting or priorities.

 2. People become acclimated to risk.  Leaders learn to live with small failures. In local units where leadership rises from the gathered community and oversight is fragile there is no time to deal with small failures because the next crisis arises and after that another and another. The objective distance needed to see what is happening on the macro level is simply not available. Life proceeds and leaders scramble to solve the issue of the moment and keep themselves physically and psychological alive. The so-called "ordinary people" of religions often become disenchanted with any form of leadership and simply do what has to be done to keep their community and themselves alive. The culture demands that religion fulfill certain roles, usually related to the various and sundry celebrations and calamities that consume time and energy. Risk is taken for granted

3. Undue confidence in back-up systems .  In religious organizations there is often a trap door escape hatch for leaders and it is God or Fate. It is so tempting to believe that no matter what happens, the long term destiny of "my religion" will prevail. Or on the more local level people come to seriously believe that "those folks up there" know what they are doing and will take care of matter so as to avoid disaster. Unrealism about how much resources are needed to repair the life of even one single person leads to big promises and minor delivery. Too much information arrives in the minds of leaders and in an attempt to keep control of some sort, the response is to get at busy work and keep people occupied.

 4. Good news is advertised and bad news is hidden.  If there is a number one weak point in the tool box of leadership it is the tendency to say that which will make people feel good or at least better. The Casandra role of the bringer of bad news is simple not a winner. When the culture itself demands "feel good" as a sign of mental health there is little choice but to go along with the show if a leader wishes to continue her/his job. If people want to read good news then the publicity department will produce good news. Leadership in religious organizations can present the bad news as part of a long range strategy that makes sense by recalling that people are able to handle good and bad news at the same time. The manner of presentation demands professional excellence, psychological realism and ideological courage.

 5. People in the same department come to think alike.  When religion leaders talk only to each other, and only to those with whom they are comfortable, their organizations are at risk in that the world around is moving on and will discount those leaders and those religions as irrelevant. This pattern is complicated by the fact that in many religious traditions thinking alike is expected and demanded. So the challenge is to maintain religious identity and at the same time be open to the questions and issues raised by other religions and by society at large. This is where complexity really forces the hand of religions in a world of global communication and interchange. Complexity has no mercy on lock step leadership.

As leadership competence is expected in religious organizations the issue of ever increasing complexity is forcing its way to the top of the priority list. David Brooks illustrates his article with the Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig disaster, the Three Mile Island nuclear facility problem, and the Challenger NASA explosion due to faulty O Rings. Every one of those tragedies demanded more competence than was brought to bear because of the vast complexity that was present.

This article could give a long list of religions disaster but I will only refer to the present day Christian/Muslim tug-or-war and the Jewish/Palestinian struggle. National and local illustrations will come to the mind of readers. Thanks to David Brooks for giving a framework in which to raise the issue of competence and complexity.

Delton Krueger, Elder
Methodist Order of the Christian religion  

Minnesota, USA

September 28, 2016

 This commentary grows out of an article by David Brooks in the New York Times. His wordsstrike me as appropriate for thought leaders in the field of religion.