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

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Conflicts of Interest.

Good decision-making cultivates creative passions while mitigating self-centered, destructive interests.  This means focusing primarily on Jesus Christ, and organizing mission around open-source conversations specifically including interested, motivated, knowledgable, and involved people.

The term “conflict of interest” does not appear anywhere in the Constitution of the PCUSA.  Robert’s Rules basically says that a member of a body should disqualify her/himself from voting when they stand materially to gain or lose from a decision.  I repeat: it’s about voting and material gain.  Conflicts of interest are also mentioned in the PCUSA “Standards for Ethical Conduct.”  Each member pledges to: “Avoid conflicts of interest that might compromise my witness and relationships within the community of faith.”  So what has priority is the integrity of our witness and our relationships.
The obvious problem with conflicts of interest is that people will use their position of power, influence, or authority for personal, usually financial or sexual, benefit.  That is a horrendously bad thing.  I get that.  It is manipulative and coercive; it destroys communities, relationships, and people.  Real conflicts of interest like this can be lethal, especially if they are hidden.   

Presbyterians have always taken sin seriously.  We acknowledge that every human action is tainted by self-interest and the limited perspective of our mortal, temporal existence.  Therefore, we have always emphasized the personal disclosure, naming, and recognition of our own biases and self-will, against the standard of the Word of God.
This understanding of sin relates remarkably well to the post-Modern insight that everyone is inherently conditioned by the circumstances of their own historicity.  There is no such thing as objectivity.  No one is neutral about anything; each of us comes with our own baggage, background, assumptions, prejudices, biases, and desires.  No one stands effectively apart from or above any system in which they are involved.
  In other words, broadly construed, our whole existence is pervaded by conflicts of interest.  They cannot be eliminated or avoided.  Everyone has them, all the time.  Therefore, the responsible and creative way to deal with conflicts of interest is through open, honest, courageous, and critical conversations among people who are essentially equals recognizing their own biases.  

At the same time, having an interest in something is not always a conflict or bad.  Indeed, it is necessary for life and creativity!  Organizations need the enthusiasm, commitment, expertise, and passion that comes from people having an interest in the organization’s mission.  It is a grave mistake, then, to imagine that we are avoiding conflicts of interest when we allow to be excluded, even from a discussion, let alone a decision, people closest to, and therefore having the most direct knowledge, commitment, and insight into, the matter at hand.  In some circles it appears that simply having any interest in something disqualifies one from being part of decision about it!  As if being interested and committed to something automatically becomes some kind of disastrous conflict.  
For instance, I have seen pastors and members of churches excluded from conversations in presbytery entities about the mission and future of those very churches!  This happens all the time!  When I was a Stated Clerk, hearing of presbytery leadership’s plans for this or that church, I learned that I had to ask, “Has anyone actually talked to people in the church?”  I have seen Personnel Committees evaluate pastors without interviewing them.  I have seen staff positions redesigned without any consultation with the people serving in those positions.  And so on.  And the rationale is invariably: conflict of interest.  
What sense does it make to decide that the people actually involved in a ministry are “too biased” to make good judgments about it?  Of course they’re biased!  We hope and pray that our churches are full of people biased towards effective and faithful mission!  The biased people are precisely the ones we want to hear from!  
It is an important role of a council to distinguish between interested, involved, engaged creativity rooted in a deep spiritual calling which benefits the whole mission, and destructive conflicts of interest which benefit mainly the individual.  

The attempt to avoid conflicts of interest leads us to believe that they can be avoided and that there are people who have avoided, or are even immune to conflicts of interest, and who are therefore uniquely able to identify and call out the conflicts of interest of others. 
The assumption of such objectivity is itself yet another manifestation of the imperialist, colonialist, hierarchical, slavery-based economic framework undergirding our whole civilization.  The carriers of privilege lay claim to objectivity by virtue of their “higher” place on the empire-defined ladder of education, wealth, power, and success (not to mention race and gender).  They claim to have a wider and more inclusive viewpoint, and therefore perceive better than anyone what is best for all.  Under this way of thinking, the subordinate people (that is, the ones who actually do the work) are derided as hopelessly mired in conflicts of interest; while the leader class knows best and is all but immune to conflicts of interest.  
This assumption about privilege automatically seems to get extended to all leaders in our culture.  It’s like anyone given authority becomes an honorary white-male-owner, and is accorded the same authority and deference. 

Our Presbyterian system was designed from the beginning to mitigate against this kind of self-righteous blather, corruption, and power-centralization.  Presbyterianism diffuses power into councils of presbyters which have no hierarchy of power-wielding “executives,” or “leaders,” only “moderators” and “clerks” who oversee and manage processes to ensure full inclusion and openness.  Presbyters/elders are to be chosen for their demonstrated wisdom and their conformity to the one leader and Head of the Church, Jesus Christ.  In other words, they are required to prove how thoroughly biased they are… towards the mission of God!   They are to be supremely interested in the Spirit’s work!  The whole reason we gather in councils is so we may discern the will of God together, recognizing and calling each other and ourselves out on our myriad prejudices.
The strategy then for good decision-making is to manage the various and sometimes conflicting interests of people in the gathering in such a way that the creative passions and faithful interests are cultivated, and the self-centered and destructive interests are mitigated.  This means organizing our mission around open-source conversations specifically including interested, motivated, knowledgable, and involved people.  It means listening to each other honestly and carefully.  It means focusing primarily on the Word of God, Jesus Christ, in Scripture.  And it means actively critiquing our own biases and where we might gain personally.  In the end, the best route is where we are obedient to the Word, while finding what is in the best interests of the whole gathering and its mission, and rejecting what is merely in the interest of particular individuals within the gathering.
More specifically, councils need to categorically identify and define in writing what does and does not constitute an unhealthy conflict of interest, and what actions should be taken to mitigate them.  This would prevent unscrupulous leaders from inventing conflicts of interest as a means of excluding others merely to maintain their own power, privilege, and salary.  Councils should also adopt policies to ensure that the people with the most invested energy are explicitly included in decision-making processes.

1 comment:

Carl said...

Important insights. I haven't thought so deeply about this topic before.