Someone wrote a letter recently to the editor of a denominational magazine, proposing that since the staff at the denomination's main offices had been mandated at a recent ecclesiastical assembly to review its bureaucratic structures, this would be a good time to change the “executive director” title to “chief footwasher.” This would better reflect “Jesus’s leadership style,” the letter writer said.
I’m not convinced by the proposal. Not that I am opposed to leaders as footwashers. Jesus did indeed set the example on that, and photos of Pope Francis following the Lord’s example were for many of us profoundly moving. But one can imagine someone being quite skilled at washing feet, not to mention rightly disposed to it, but inept at what one associates with the title “executive director.”
Indeed, one could argue that the great Jesus-as-servant passage in the epistles, the wonderful hymn in Philippians 2, sees the foot-washing aspect of Jesus's redemptive mission as preparation for a cosmic “executive director” role. Having taken the form of a servant, Christ ascended to a “highly exalted” position in the heavens, in anticipation of the day when every knee in the universe will bow before him.
I worry that the kind of title change proposed by the writer to the magazine is associated with an all too common view these days about the nature of leadership. I was fortunate, during my years as a seminary president, to be mentored by the late Harold Leavitt, who retired to the Pasadena area after having taught organizational behavior at Stanford University for many years. Hal was frequently quite critical of current bureaucratic models. When I told him once that some of our trustees were teaching us some helpful things about how to apply insights from the business world to academic life, he smiled and said, “Well, I hope your trustees are also open to learning about how business types can learn lessons about management from the humanities!”
While Hal was well known for his commitment to “humanizing” bureaucratic systems, he was no critic of bureaucracy as such. The title of his last (2004) book bears witness to that fact: Top Down: Why Hierarchies Are Here to Stay and How to Manage Them More Effectively.
I wish I had already read that book when I was berated, early in my presidency, by a Fuller graduate. He stood up after a talk I gave to an alumni gathering and asked me what I was going to do as president to “release seminaries from their captivity to the patterns of modernity.” When I asked him what particular aspects of “modernity” were holding Fuller captive, he responded that the reference in my talk to drawing up a strategic plan signaled my commitment to “Enlightenment thought.” I then asked him what our seminary administration should be doing instead of strategic planning. His response: “vision casting.”
I replied by telling him about a seminar on fund-raising I had just attended. We had discussed the ways that a new generation of donors wanted to provide funds for projects that they thought schools needed to undertake, instead of supporting the normal operational needs of an institution. A common theme in our seminar discussions, I told him, was “how to find folks who will pay for the light bulbs.” That, I said, was a very real exercise in “vision casting.”
And as much as folks like him might find the vocabulary offensive, academic administrations cannot avoid thinking about projected enrollments, income streams, “customer satisfaction,” and “branding.” Insofar as such things require planning for the next year in the light of an overall plan for five years, and then formulating strategies for achieving specific goals, I could see nothing particularly offensive—“Enlightenment” influences or not—about engaging in strategic planning. “Vision casting” is certainly an important part of the picture—as long as it does not ignore the need for light bulbs.
I think I am right about all of that. But in reflecting recently on what the letter writer said about denominational leadership titles, which in turn recalled for me the Fuller graduate’s complaint about strategic planning, I had a nagging sense that there was something in their concerns that is worth heeding. And then I remembered a time when, as a young faculty member at a church-related college, I was asked to serve on a denominational study committee on “the church’s mission.” One of my fellow committee members was a successful business executive who made insightful contributions to our discussions. In making a point, however, he typically would begin by reminding us that “mission is really all about marketing.”
Again, there were some good things that we learned from his marketing perspective. But at a certain point I got a bit exasperated with his refrain, and I interjected: “Yeah, there is something to be learned from your insistence that mission is marketing—but we also have to remind ourselves that marketing is mission.”
I hear in that insistence from my younger self, not yet caught up in administrative issues, something that was informing the concerns of the letter writer and the Fuller graduate. Our bureaucratic roles—whether in manufacturing baked goods or in leading denominations or presiding over faculty meetings—have to be seen in the light of our overall mission. Why should families eat cookies? Why develop catechetical curricula? Why teach medieval church history? And in those discussions, while never losing a focus on the need for light bulbs and budget plans, some discussion of foot-washing and servant leadership and big picture vision-casting should be essential to the conversations.
Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.