Federal Governance And Its Discontents

This is sort of random, but I find it fascinating so please bear with me:

Whenever power is split between one central and several regional authorities, we are talking about a federal system of governance. The most obvious American example is the federal government (Washington, D.C.) versus the state governments.

In a federal system of governance there is a built‐in tendency towards tension between the central authority and the regional authorities.

Each side is trying to do the best they can from their perpective, yet each side keeps making decisions that don’t make sense from the other side’s perspective. This results in a lack of confidence in the other side. Most regional authorities probably have a 85–95% confidence factor in the national leadership (which is reciprocated by the national authority). This distrust centers on two areas: competence and character.

  • incomplete trust in competence: I believe that you mean well, but that you lack the necessary attention to detail/big picture perspective/fundraising knack/writing ability/knowledge of the issues/etc.
  • incomplete trust in character: I don’t think that you’re evil, but I do think that you’re operating with a different set of values than I am. You define honesty differently than I do, or you have a personal as well as an organizational agenda, or you lack the courage to disappoint people, etc.

I’m not talking about a complete lack of confidence, mind you. I’m merely talking about a lack of complete confidence. A complete lack of confidence calls for drastic action. A lack of complete confidence calls for mid‐course adjustments.

Some specific examples of a lack of complete confidence:

  • “Will this really happen or is it just a big todo about nothing?” (character)
  • “This is what they say here and now, what will the emails say in three months?” (character)
  • “This is what they want to do, but can they really pull it off?” (competence)
  • “Are they willing to actually enforce this policy or it really going to be the same‐old same‐old?” (competence and character)

The Assemblies of God tends to use a federal system of governance:

  • Springfield, MO versus District Officials
  • District Officials versus Sectional Presbyters
  • the national youth department versus the district youth departments
  • Chi Alpha (see my notes on a Chi Alpha leadership team meeting)

Since we have a federal system of governance we shouldn’t be surprised when the same tensions emerge in our movement that we see in other federal organizations. But we are surprised. Not only are we surprised, we tend to diagnose it as a spiritual problem such as disunity, a failure to submit to authority, an example of unethical leadership, or the politicization of a spiritual organization.

While a spiritual problem may be present and exacerbating the situation, it’s not the causal factor. The tendency towards tension is produced by the structure itself.

Is the federal system a bad system of governance? No. It just provides us with challenges that we need to overcome: other systems provide other challenges and there is no panacea.

So what should we do if we realize that a lack of confidence is hindering our effectiveness?

A few things occur to me:

  1. Remember that this is a natural problem, not an intrinsically spiritual one.
  2. Remember that this is not evidence of a failing organization or failing leadership. This will recur over time regardless of the organization’s health or the leadership’s competence (although the frequency and duration of the cycles of mistrust will tell you something significant about the organization and its leaders).
  3. Realize that you would probably agree with the other side if you had their responsibilities and resources. You’ve seen it a million times: someone who previously agreed with you changed positions and all of a sudden became unreasonable. You would do the same thing.
  4. Be reluctant to criticize where you are not willing to help. I say “be reluctant” rather than “refuse” because sometimes you’re asked for feedback–giving it honestly is a matter of integrity.
  5. Be frank about the tensions and their reasons. Forthrightness is the long‐term key to health. Pretending that they aren’t there exacerbates the tension.
  6. Focus on the issues and not the personalities (and most assuredly not on the history).
  7. Pray.

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