By Eddie Pipkin

Image by Myriams-Fotos from Pixabay

Among the many heart-wrenching narratives from the recent catastrophic earthquake that impacted Turkey and Syria, none was more tragic than the realization that one of the principal reasons so many structures collapsed was that earthquake safety building codes had been willfully subverted.  Countless thousands of lives were sacrificed due to greed and criminal neglect.  The stringent construction rules, modified following a previous seismic tragedy, had been strengthened to guard against exactly the devastating outcome that played out on February 6th.  No protective guidelines for any jurisdiction or community are worth the paper on which they are printed, no matter how thoughtfully crafted, if they are ignored.

The news contained numerous accounts of the increased mortality caused by substandard construction, and the government has already responded by arresting a score of builders they claim have broken the law by undermining earthquake-proof building standards (even though many experts cast equal blame on government officials as corrupt and implicit in the troubling building practices):

For years, experts warned that many new buildings in Turkey were unsafe due to endemic corruption and government policies.

Those policies allowed so-called amnesties for contractors who swerved building regulations, in order to encourage a construction boom – including in earthquake-prone regions.

Thousands of buildings collapsed during the earthquake, raising questions about whether the natural disaster’s impact was made worse by human failings.

Whether the people of the earthquake-prone regions will take to heart the lessons of this most recent tragedy and redouble their efforts to promote safety remain to be seen, but the related impulses – to respond to a crisis by coming up with new and better rules, only to immediately see people start to scheme ways to circumvent those rules – is nothing new.  It’s basic human nature.

I liked the phrasing from the article quoted above (one of those delightfully British turns of phrase since the article is from the BBC): it references “contractors who swerved building regulations.”

We all swerve the rules from time to time.  We swerve the rules we have set for ourselves.  We swerve the rules that organizations have set for us.  We have set distinct goals, we publicly communicate those goals with fanfare, then we conveniently move the goal posts.  If there are provisions set in place to govern our behavior, we make exceptions for ourselves (and for the people we like – not so much for people who are not our favorites; we tend to hold those folks to the originally stated standards).

Why do we bend the rules?

  1. To make things easier. It turns out that following the rules / regulations / administrative steps / provisions for good government are harder than we thought they were going to be.  They make getting things done more complicated.
  2. To make things faster. We don’t mind the rules so much, we say.  We understand their theoretical value.  But we need things to happen faster than the process allows!
  3. To keep us from having to deal with people with whom we would rather not deal. Following the agreed-upon rules is just going to let Person X ramp up the drama.  If we circumvent a few technical requirements, we can avoid all that, can’t we?
  4. The rules prohibit a specific outcome that we think is important. Well, we all know rules are meant to be broken!  All great leaders must smash things up from time to time.  Rules for good governance that are too fussy get in the way of innovation and experimentation.

On that last note, let it be said that I have been one to write about the oppressive nature of overly fussy rules, regulations, and traditions in organizations, certainly in long-established local churches.  But there are ways to deal with the stranglehold of such restrictions that are far better than just ignoring them.  We can advocate for rule (or tradition) changes.  We can advocate for temporary suspension of rules (or traditions) for the purposes of experimentation.  Simply ignoring what we don’t like (when they are the rules by which everyone agreed we would conduct ourselves) leads to a culture of administrative lawlessness that ultimately ends in chaos, bad feelings, and damaging outcomes.

Yet people do this all the time.  And local churches, being composed of and governed by people, do it with elan.  Sometimes the swerving is quiet and kept on the down-low, hoping no one will notice or care.  Sometimes it’s more overt, framed as a creative revolution and classifying those who are opposed as obstructionist Pharisees.

Every rule exists for a reason, however, and one of the keys to thoughtfully considering the impact of casting a rule aside is understanding the original motivation for the rule.  If the reason for the rule is fully considered (and sometimes this may take a little research), even a seemingly nonsensical rule may begin to make sense.  Perhaps the context for the original rule or process has dramatically changed; that’s a great incentive for changing the rule or process.  Or perhaps the outcome of following a rule or process is not evident in our current context, and it’s useful to revisit the positive effects of doing things by the book.

Ignoring the rules for good governance in the local church can undermine accountability.  Undermining accountability can lead to a swerve from carefully established community-formed goals.  It can lead to personal agendas usurping the objectives and vision that have been painstakingly forged.  Ignoring policies is one of the surest signs that a cult of personality has arisen, that the value of individual leaders has swamped the principles of community governance and shared leadership.  Core values get sacrificed in service of the outcomes that have been prioritized by charismatic leaders.  Anyone who challenges this swerve from the core values and published policies is branded as a troublemaker in the way of progress.  But discipleship, well-practiced, embraces both process and progress.

As an example which will be familiar to you many United Methodist readers, I’ll cite a paragraph from The United Methodist Book of Discipline (a regular source in the UM community of reverence and ridicule).  Paragraph 258.1 deals with the “Committee on Nominations and Leadership Development,” and it’s important because it establishes that the leaders of any ministry are clearly critical in determining the health and success of that ministry.  The paragraph clearly indicates that the committee shall have a year-round mission that not only nominates people to serve, but promotes leadership training and, as the heading itself proclaims, development.

Here is subparagraph “a” in all its glory:

The committee on nominations and leadership development shall serve throughout the year to guide the church council, or alternative structure, on matters regarding the leadership (other than employed staff) of the congregation so as to focus on mission and ministry as the context for service; guide the development and training of spiritual leaders; recruit, nurture, and support spiritual leaders; and assist the church council, or alternative structure, in assessing the changing leadership needs.

That is a lovely vision for how leadership development should work, but let’s be honest: very few local congregations have anything close to a healthy and highly functioning “nominations and leadership development” group.  For many churches, this group serves strictly as the “nominating committee,” thrown together in early fall when the realization dawns, once again, that Charge Conference is just around the corner, and leadership slots will need to be filled.  Imagine a world in which more churches took that subparagraph more seriously.  The rules / guidance in this case work in the same way that enhanced construction guidelines work.  They make the whole structure stronger in the face of an uncertain and potentially perilous future.

Paragraph 258.1 has lots more to consider: rules for terms that rotate leadership (term limits of three years); rules that keep family members from serving together; rules that promote diversity and inclusion (including specific guidance for involving youth leadership).  Yet local churches “swerve” this guidance on a regular basis.  Why?  See the bullet points listed earlier in the blog.  It’s easy enough to justify reasons to circumvent the contextually cumbersome commandments.  It’s harder to project the subtle ways that ignoring them will eventually undermine ministry vision and goals.

For everything we do together as a group of leaders engaging in ministry, we have established processes and rules, goals and core values.  Whether we hold ourselves accountable to them on a consistent basis is an ongoing challenge.  Following the processes produces a leadership discipline that promotes accountability, communication, and proactive management practices.  I’m not trying to be a negative Nelly here.  I’m advocating for positive outcomes through putting in the work.  It can be an exhausting effort, but it’s worth it.

How do you do at holding yourself and your team accountable to proclaimed processes, procedures, and rules?  Is there one rule in particular that feels worthy of your ire because it routinely holds you back?  If so, do you regularly circumvent it?  How would things be different if you put in the work of honoring (or changing) it instead?  How have you seen organizations undone by ignoring the rules?  How have you seen them healed by returning to the discipline of good governance and management processes?