In the first article of this series, I critiqued “professionalism” in Mennonite institutions without defining it clearly. In the comments responding to the article, a number of people rightly pointed out that professionalism plays a very important role in allowing us to work in consistent, safe and effective ways. As Alan Stucky said in his comment:
Make no mistake that our seriousness and professionalism had a hand in helping to get MVS be the first recognized Christian alternative service organization in 25 years. Professionalism is not inherently evil, or antithetical to the Gospel. Yes, it should be kept in check by the Gospel, but they are not opposites.
Roses shared in their comment about their experience of seeing God move through values of professionalism. Paco, on the other hand, over at Young Anabaptist Radicals speculated on how well Jesus would have done at project proposals and budgets.
I’d like to take the opportunity to define my concern with professionalism more specifically: I am concerned by the way it views internal dissent. During my meeting with Mennonite Mission Network staff that I referred to in the first article, two staff involved with the capital campaign defined professionalism as prohibiting them from publicly dissenting from their institutions public position. As they saw it, their only public option for public dissent was to resign from their organization.
If this were just the personal opinions of two capital campaign staff members, that would be one thing. However, I have heard first and second hand stories from people who were pressured by MMN staff because of their public dissent from the building plan. I have heard how internally, there has been extensive listening by MMN leadership to staff concerns, but dissenters have had little sense that their objections might lead to real change.
Seeing internal (and external) dissent as something to be overcome rather then an opportunity for change and growth is part of the way we can expect institutions to operate . Here’s How Kathy Furgeson puts it in The Feminist Case Against Bureaucracy:
Part of the perniciousness of bureaucracy is that, when passed through the filters of personality, it seeks to “tie up our loose ends” and reduce us to a reflection of the organization…
Since bureaucracy rests on the assumptions of scientific rationality–namely, that there is “a single best solution” (or at least a managerially defined resolution) to organizational problems–and since it cloaks itself in the myth of administrative neutrality, the very effort to deal with conflict must be disguised even as it goes on. Bureaucracy is anti-political because it cannot recognize the legitimacy of conflict, seeing it as a temporary aberration to be dealt with through elaborated administrative technique.
How does an institution respond to a “temporary aberration”? In talking about the building, I heard staff members come back again and again to talking points centered around the financial savings this building promises for the church. It is critical in building and maintaining institutional momentum, that staff members stick to a given set of talking points. For a list of these talking points, see “Joining Together, Investing in Hope” Frequently Asked Questions).
I should say at this point that, in my work as part of Christian Peacemaker Teams support team, I have experienced internal dissent to decisions I was part of making. It’s not fun, it’s messy and it’s often quite emotionally draining. I have no illusions that we’ve got anything “right”. However, I can say that the times when I have felt that dissent enriched us in the long term were times when we talked with each other as members of a community first and professionals second.
I need to be absolutely clear at this point: I have very little hope that any significant change in the building on the AMBS campus. Rather, my hope is that we can examine the processes around this capital campaign and take the opportunity to re-evaluate the role of bureaucracy in Mennonite Church USA. How can we imagine together ways of being that see dissent as an opportunity rather then an obstacle?
In talking with people about this process, I haven’t just heard negative stories. I have heard hopeful stories of affirmation and support for dissenting staff members. This is an important reminder for me that Mennonite Church USA is not monolithic and every staff member of every Mennonite instiution is a child of God. As Walter Wink says, the powers are good, the powers are fallen and the powers are being redeemed.
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