The Madcap World Of Creativity in Canadian Christian Organizations

By John G. Stackhouse Jr.


Let me introduce you to Sharon. She is a change agent, a questioner, a critic. She asks “why” a lot, and suggests alternatives to almost everything we do – even things we have done the same way for years. She’s usually polite, but sometimes she’s uncomfortably direct, even a bit sharp and impatient.

And Sharon is persistent. If she doesn’t get a satisfactory answer, she sometimes drops the matter temporarily, but you can be sure she will ask again the next time the subject comes up. She’s clearly talented and achieves at a high level. But she certainly does disturb the space around her.

We’ve decided, for the good of the group – you know, the sense of unity, co-operation, common vision, camaraderie – Sharon has to go. She will be terminated this Friday with the quickest and quietest exit we can engineer.

Now let me introduce you to Greg. Frankly, Greg is a charming failure. He’s always ready to say hello, eager to engage in small talk and quick with a smile. He works long hours and listens well to everyone. He promises to make amends when mistakes or shortcomings are pointed out to him, and he never directly challenges anyone.

His work, however, is actually pretty bad. He consistently fails to meet targets. He has alienated many of the people who work most closely with him because of his incompetence. The job is clearly too big for him, although he never acknowledges it is, and instead always seems to have an excuse at hand.

We’ve decided, for the good of the group – you know, the sense of unity, co-operation, common vision, camaraderie – we’ll keep putting up with Greg. We’ll work around him, put some of his responsibilities on others, and set lower, more reachable goals for him.

Some organizations prize innovative thinking, “creative disruption,” straight talk and a quest for excellence. Others value mutual reinforcement of the status quo, avoidance of conflict, soothing euphemisms and a quest for “comfortableness.” Why does it seem that the latter culture is far more common among Christian organizations than the former?

Neither Jesus nor the apostles sacrificed the good of the mission for the sake of an individual who refused to change.

We Canadians generally have a culture of pragmatic cooperation going back to the compromises and connections necessary to produce Confederation almost 150 years ago. There is a lot to be said for not pushing the envelope when resources are hard pressed, the stakes are high and another potentially murderous winter is coming.

So we cut off the tall poppies. We fear novelty, resent ambition and reward conformity. If improvement is absolutely necessary, then it will be carefully modulated so as not to make anyone else feel criticized in the process.

Layer onto this culture of moderation (some would say “mediocrity”) a dose of “Christian speak” as well as a fundamental confusion over metaphors and models – running a Christian mission like a family, for example, or a Christian school like a church – and the likelihood increases drastically that we will ostracize the Sharons and keep validating the Gregs.

To be sure, love requires us to treat everyone with compassion and forbearance, including the Gregs. But neither Jesus nor the apostles sacrificed the good of the mission for the sake of an individual who refused to change, however sweetly, and who stubbornly impeded the common good.

Let’s look at the state of Christian institutions in Canada today, then, shall we? Are they suffering from too much innovation, too much risk taking, too many hard questions rocking our established norms? Have we been encouraging too many searching questions, fostering too many wild ideas, harbouring too many crazy possibilities? Do we need to pull back on the reins and settle things down a bit in this madcap scene of Canadian Christian creativity?

Or are we replete with organizations barely surviving, poorly funded, staffed by those who couldn’t get hired elsewhere, plodding along the same paths, and generally in need of serious reconstruction, if not closed doors? Do we need to loosen the reins a lot more, challenge ourselves and each other to think new thoughts, and experiment with a whole wide range of alternatives to business as usual?

Business as usual isn’t getting the job done very well. And changing our institutions starts right here, at the micro-level – listening to, and empowering, the Sharons in our midst as gifts rather than threats.

And disciplining, or firing, the Gregs.

John Stackhouse is a Faith Today columnist who teaches at Regent College, Vancouver. It was recently announced he will move to Crandall University in Moncton. This article first appeared in Faith Today. Read more of this columns hereSubscribe to Faith Today for the best price ever until the end of February, and never miss another Stackhouse column!

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