Last week I came across one of those news articles that makes you wonder if we're all just flying upside down. This headline comes from the UK Telegraph: "Council sets up scrutiny panel - to scrutinize its scrutiny panels"
A spokesperson from the Wealden District Council said a working party was established in July to oversee the decisions of its three existing scrutiny panels and to "scrutinize the Council's scrutiny arrangements." It sounds to me like the citizens of Wealden District are the ones getting scrutted…but I digress. The article continues:
Mark Wallace, from the Taxpayers Alliance, said: "Whilst it may be well-intentioned the council appear to have wrapped themselves up in knots and ended up in an absurd situation. By all means they should review their procedures but there's no reason why a separate committee to scrutinize the scrutiny panel should be any better than the original body itself…. Local residents would probably prefer they were asked how the council was run instead of adding this extra layer of bureaucracy."
If my interest were primarily political this article would be raw meat for those who believe government is wasteful, bloated, and inept beyond redemption. But my interests are not primarily political but ecclesiastical. This wonderfully tongue-twisting article offers the opportunity to question how many of our churches are organized and governed.
We like to make cracks about the inefficiency of church committees almost as much as Fox News likes to ridicule congressional sub-committees. But committees have their place-both in church and congress. The creation of an "extra layer of bureaucracy" in Wealden to scrutinize the three existing scrutiny panels reveals a value that permeates governments and churches alike-distrust.
The separation of powers was a principle of wisdom embedded into our Constitution by its framers, and it was born out of the abuse of power evident in monarchs over the centuries. The checks and balances embedded into our form of government was predicated on distrust-the fear that power will be abused and those with it will run amok. But when "checks and balances" is taken to an absurd degree the result is scrutiny panels for scrutiny panels for scrutiny panels.
Unfortunately the same fear permeates many church governing structures. We worry that a pastor, a board, a staff, a committee will amass too much power and that abuse will surely result. To keep power in check, some churches construct numerous committees, panels, teams, policies, processes, bi-laws, and clauses to ensure power is diffused and its implementation scrutinized.
But at what cost?
Do all of these fear-based structures end up hindering the mission of God's people by creating stable but ultimately unresponsive church bureaucracies? Do they inhibit the nimble (what is now called "missional") engagement of the church with its community? And do we occupy people on so many boards that they have little time left to engage the world outside the church institution? And might these unending layers stifle new ideas in a black hole of church oversight committees.
To be fair church history has no shortages of stories of abuse, and it only takes one wayward pastor to leave a lingering distrust of power in a congregation for decades. Structures of distrust are usually born out of the pain from earlier mistakes. And there have been occasions when I have been very thankful for the structures of oversight within my own church and denomination that have prevented or limited abuse. As long as people are sinful we will need structures that protect us from the damaging power of their sin.