Published by Rachel Noel on 15th September 2016

Creating the Future of the Church: A Practical Guide to Addressing Whole-System Change, by Keith Elford. Reviewed by John Carlisle and Norman Speirs

Creating the Future of the Church: A Practical Guide to Addressing Whole-System Change, by Keith Elford.

SPCK, 2013, 128pp, ISBN 978-0-281-07077-0, £10.99.

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Reviewed by John Carlisle and Norman Speirs

creating-the-future-of-the-churchThe author is both a successful priest and successful businessman. Now this is no doubt a somewhat controversial description, i.e. a successful priest?? That must be anathema to some of the clergy. His book is a handbook for parish priests of all denominations and a challenge to their leaders, explains what it takes to be successful in meeting the critical challenge of articulating “what it means to be the Church in a society like ours”.

What we like about his approach is that, despite the strong warnings he gives, the framework he proposes and the pragmatic implementation strategy, Keith never departs from the God-willed and God-filled mission of the Church. It is a sacred task. He does not dilute its purpose in favour of a business model that would then make it easier to apply his consulting knowledge.

What we like about the content is that it is in two parts: the first to help us to see the Church as an organisation (to quote Ruskin: “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way”.) and, secondly, having done this, to then apply the best organisational principles to transform it. The device he uses is system thinking, in particular, a deceptively simple Viable Systems Model that allows the right conversations to take place about the identity and effectiveness of the ministering organisation. This is profoundly important, as too often change processes are ungrounded by good theory and provide much action but little improvement.

The implementation advice is what we would expect from any good, thoughtful, organisation development consultant. This includes the leadership role, the importance of teamworking, defining and agreeing the identity, and involving the constituents. But, at the same time, it is also the weaker part of the book. The resistance to change is considerable, and while there may be acceptance of the change of perspective needed, this is a long way from changed behaviour and practice. The old adage of leading a horse to water but being unable to make it drink comes into play here. The only horse that will drink is a thirsty one. The key question is: how to make it thirsty?

We are not sure this is answered, although the book itself goes part way to addressing it. It will be essential for the top leadership team to build trust in each other, the organisational model and the method. Here we come up against the time issue, particularly as, Elford says, for bishops. The need for the change must be so intense that the time is found, and the organisational issues are given their due weight, as opposed to “church” issues. We think the seriousness of the situation needs to be re-emphasized at the end of the book. A bit of Jeremiah might help.

Overall, though, this book is a real contribution to the Church on its journey, and also to any other company of people who may have overlooked that profound knowledge of the organisations they serve in is fundamental to their sustainability.

John Carlisle is a senior adviser on organisational effectiveness in the public and private sectors. He was a Visiting Professor at Sheffield Business School and member of the Cabinet Office Construction Strategy Group, and runs his own company.

Norman Speirs is Course Director at Management Wisdom (Europe), dedicated to spreading the knowledge of W. Edwards Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge. Both are committed Christians.

This review first appeared in MODEM Matters Issue 25 in December 2013.

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