Drawbacks of a Really Flat Church

I’ve been blogging about Valve, their leaderless structure and how that might work out in church over the last week or two, first with an overview, then looking at what I perceive to be strengths of this kind of holy anarchy. As with any idea, there are minuses as well as pluses to what I’ve suggested. If this post is a bit disjointed, it’s because they don’t flow into each other that naturally, but go with it, we’ll get to some kind of a conclusion eventually!

One big difference between Valve and any church I would be prepared to be a part of is the ‘hiring’ process (as was pointed out in the comments last week). Only exceptionally good people are able to get hired at Valve – ‘T-shaped people’, (‘broad ranged generalists with deep expertise in one area’). Each employee is a stakeholder, responsible for the direction the company will take, so it’s essential that every single new Valve employee raises the average of the company.

A church must be the exact opposite, though, no policy of only hiring people smarter than yourself. But it does raise questions about what it means to be a part of the church. Perhaps it’s too easy to walk in and be a part of our churches – the early church made it easy to hear and believe the good news but a long process to be baptised and join the church. But doing that seems to over-value commitment and certainty in a way that seems at odds with the way I value space for doubt and questions.

Occupy’s answer to this, in London and other cities, is to welcome anyone to their camps. This is one of the things that has been turned on them as a criticism – that most of the people there are homeless drug addicts. It’s caused problems in the camps as they do not always share the same priorities as other occupiers. In a hierarchy, ‘the least of these’ can be dismissed in order to follow the vision of the leaders, but in a flat church everyone is a leader as well as a stakeholder.

Conflict resolution would have to be deliberately planned; with no authority to appeal to, each group or committee (or ‘cabal’ in Valve-speak) would have to decide how they would go about making decisions between different ideas. Is consensus realistic? Is it even desirable – is it a certain route to mediocrity and mundaneness? Is a majority decision enough, or do we look for 60/40, 70/30?

It’s in the most mundane of issues that problems occur, whether in churches, companies or families – with money being the foremost. I have no idea how Valve control purchasing and equipment, though the handbook talks extensively about hiring. I do know that Occupy set up committees to handle the money and make them responsible to the General Assembly and that being on that committee is strictly voluntary and based on willingness and ability. Would that work in a church context? Total transparency on finance, anyone can attend scheduled finance meetings. A commitment to consensus decisions would reduce the likelihood of loose cannons derailing things. But can it work in a context where only a small number of people get paid for what they do as part of the church?

One thing is for sure, finance would still happen in a totally flat, non-hierarchical church, but whether the other things we are used to in a church would is debatable. There are always people interested in money, but any activity without people willing to get involved would not happen. Valve works hard to make sure its employees don’t work to hard or take too much on – would a church be able to do that? Would a flat church be able to make sure that no one was over committing – enforce sabbath? Cutting programs at churches can easily lead to guilt, though in a new church this may be less of an issue. It’s fascinating to imagine what might survive and what might be cut, some kind of holy battle royale!

There are certainly many problems with the concept of a radically flat church, both conceptually and practically. We run the risk of over-valuing the individual at the expense of the community. We have to recognise that this is the bias of contemporary society, the exact opposite to the bias found in scripture. Jesus himself taught that the only way to be a Jesus-like leader was to be a servant – not just notionally with a humble job title on your gilt-edged business card, but in reality, by taking the job that really needed to be done that no one wanted to do. Would anarchy encourage that kind of service or would it lead to selfishness?

What do you think about the weaknesses I’ve described? What have I missed, what have I over-stated? Do they out-weigh the strengths from before? I’ll try to pull this all together in one more post…