This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Conflict of interest?


Why we are in decline. Reason #584.

Presbyterians seem to be particularly allergic to what we like to see as conflicts of interest. We get nervous if the people involved in making a decision have something at stake in that decision. We have this apparent bias towards “objectivity,” believing that the people best equipped to make a decision are those who have nothing to gain or lose. We feel that they are more likely to make a better decision since they won’t be swayed by their own self-interest.
I suspect that this approach is rooted in the doctrine of total depravity, which we inherit from some elements of the Reformed tradition. Everyone is perverted by sin and will have a natural bias towards their own self-interest. In decision-making, they will do what benefits them personally and not care about what is best for the whole group, let alone the mission of the church.

To reinforce this allergy we look at the examples of corrupt judges and politicians. And of course there are plenty of examples from the church as well. It’s not like it doesn’t happen that people pervert the system by their own self-interest.

Thus we seem to have this attitude that church groups should be as neutral as possible, kind of like juries in our judicial system. Any interested connection to the parties actually involved in a decision is considered suspect.

We have ignored two problems with this way of thinking and acting. 1) There is no such thing as objectivity. Objectivity is a false myth of modernity. Just because people may not have a visible personal stake in a matter doesn’t make them objective and unbiased. They undoubtedly have personal stakes in some of the issues and personalities involved. They come from somewhere; they have accumulated baggage/wisdom which will be applied in this case. Our bias towards supposed objectivity is itself a huge bias that blinds decision-making groups to the interests they do have. Often these interests are in caution, inertia, precedent, and so forth, which means that committees often have a bias towards the status quo.

2) What is the wisdom in asking people to make a decision who don’t know or perhaps even care about it? This is what can happen when we exclude stakeholders at the outset. Often what happens here is that the group, not having any interest or passion in the matter, refer to the advice of staff people, who have their own agendas.

We see this in the church all the time, and it is a recipe for paralysis. We become legalists who stick to the letter of the law, because it is easier and seems safer than taking a risk on something new and different. And by all means let’s bracket and exclude the people who care the most about something

I am having less and less of a problem with allowing those who are interested, passionate, invested, and excited about something to be involved in the decisions affecting it. Who else? These are the folks who are going to implement the decisions. Why not include them systematically in the decision-making process?

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