When networks don’t work

I have occasionally wondered how I would get on in the corporate world. Before falling into a brief career in teaching, I remember going for a job in recruitment. I forget most of the interview but do specifically remember being asked if I was ‘money motivated’. As a Christian, I follow Jesus’ teaching and dared to offer an answer along the lines of wanting an interesting job in which I felt I could add value. The look of horror on the interviewer’s face made clear that – if not already – this was the moment I truly blew it. Apparently refusing to value money above all, nor being the kind of grasping individual that will work harder simply because larger bonuses are thrown their way, was not the appropriate answer.

Alas, it is such things that make it so surprising when business practices inevitably make their way into the church as though they were commands of Christ himself. Yet, there they are for all of us to see. The vision statements drawn not from scripture but corporate companies, the linkage of the biblical criteria for eldership to business acumen and the unfortunate tendency of some to see other churches as rivals vying for dominance in the marketplace of disciple-making. It is no less grubby than the business world, but at least businesses make no bones about it.

Another unfortunate reality is the obsession with networking. I have commented on this phenomena here. In particular, I said this:

I recall being invited to one meeting, entering the room, standing like a total lemon on my own whilst everybody else “networked” around me. I tried to engage a few folk in conversation where it was clear that talking to this no-mark oik – who was unlikely to do anything to advance their standing within the Christian world – was not high on their agenda. I found myself [as per Morrissey] going and standing on my own, leaving on my own, going home and wanting to cry. It is made so much worse when one thinks these people should know better. Among Christians, especially among Christian leaders, these things should not be.

There is clearly nothing wrong with seeking beneficial links and finding other like-minded people with whom we can work together. In fact, the Bible encourages such things. But all too often, it descends into mere networking – akin to some professional business meeting – and becomes more about what is useful to me rather than mutual support and encouragement. In the worst cases, it becomes little more than crass self-advancement. How many links can I make? How much can I make of myself? If you are a “big name” I will make every effort to speak to you, if you are unknown you are not worthy of my time.

I was brought up Strict and Particular Baptist – probably the worst nomenclature in all of Christendom and which the Grace Baptists were right to re-brand. To the uninitiated, it sounds like a denomination advertising to the world that being both po-faced and fussy is an essential part of their core identity. No doubt critics would venture that an accurate representation. Despite giving absolutely no sense of it, the name derives from their historic baptistic position and reformed (or particular) theology.

I am so grateful for the theological grounding I received from my Grace Baptist upbringing. Nonetheless, there can be no denying that they seem to instil a particular character-type within their congregations. They have a tendency to attract people who love the Lord and his Word, but – whilst loving one another – tend to be socially awkward and not a little bit shy. Inevitably, if a crass reading of your theology is that everything good you do is God working through you and everything bad you do is your own, a tendency to introspection, continual questioning of your own motives and a penchant for mental self-flagellation is rarely far behind. Along with the shyness, social awkwardness, introspection and second-guessing oneself, then, comes an aversion to publicity. Being in the spotlight immediately leads to concerns of arrogance and making too much of yourself. If you do ever find yourself being asked about your situation, everything in you wants to play down any sense of being exceptional, seeking to turn attention anywhere else. It feels like a uniquely conservative British dissenting evangelically reformed problem.

My upbringing was such that I do not relish the spotlight. This was not only linked to my church background but also my family. I come from a line of shy men who hate attention. My Grandfather, though an elder in the Liverpool Brethren churches, loathed public attention. Despite forcing himself to do so, he often struggled to stand up and give notices in the churches he helped to run. Here was a man who – as a self-employed painter and decorator – would rather write off hundreds of pounds owed to him than have an argument about money. One infamous story told by my Nana recounts the time he came home with a piano in lieu of payment. A piano, it should be noted, nobody could play. This he preferred to the awkwardness and unpleasantness of a dispute over money. My Father inherited his shyness. He is not a man who relishes the limelight and, as one in a family of 6 boys, found it relatively easy to hide away.  I still notice my dad’s shaking hands when he get up to preach, not least because I have inherited them. Just as my dad used to find cups of tea wobbling in hand as he spoke to people after a service, so I have inherited this nervous tic that worsens in exact proportion to the number of people looking.

What this means is I struggle to deal with public attention and, when I get it, my natural instinct is to want to come across as funny. Making people laugh takes the attention away from me. The need to do this is because seared into my consciousness is the need not to be arrogant and push yourself forward. You wait to be asked, you don’t foist your service on others. You don’t talk at length about what you’re up to, you make sure to take great interest in what others are doing. There is rightness to all of this, for sure. Unfortunately, it makes talking about one’s work and church extremely uncomfortable.

Coupled to this, there are myriads of odious creepy networking types who behave as though they would sell their own grandmother if it meant making a bigger and better name for themselves. They appear to have no shame when it comes to whom they will ask for money and resources nor how often they are prepared to do it. Their work must be front and centre. Their names must be known. Would that it were not so within the church, but it be so. When every part of you refuses to make much of yourself, and every other part of you wants to stay as far away from the sort of repugnant behaviour that many exhibit in getting themselves known, networking becomes extremely hard indeed.

In addition, the sorts of events at which contacts are made and networks extended suit a certain type of person from a particular background. Networking events are a product of the middle class business world. The making and maintaining of networks and contacts is a middle-class business endeavour. If you are from a working class community, having lived and worked in the same area all your life, and never having held a managerial post (and even then, many wouldn’t require it), you are unlikely to have ever needed to network. Even many professional jobs, such as teaching, require minimal networking. It is those in professional corporate jobs that network. These events are driven by middle-class people from professional corporate backgrounds and do not serve those from working-class, non-professional or non-corporate backgrounds well.

The truth is nobody is ever likely to help churches whom they have never met and with whom they have minimal contact. The question is whether networking events and the like are the best way to create links between churches. It would be great if there was some way of larger bodies making the contact on behalf of the churches with need of resources. It would be great if there was a well organised introduction scheme to link up larger, better resourced churches with smaller ones. Just as there are schemes to formally partner successful schools in order to share resources and best practice with failing ones, a similar set up could be useful in the church. It would be great if there was national oversight (or regional oversight) whereby resources could be directed to the places that most need them.

Unless we do something, we will simply continue to rely on networking events. This inevitably means those with the sharpest elbows, the least shame and the best regarded backgrounds will continue to get what they want/need whilst smaller churches and less confident people will continue to struggle on. It amounts to an old boys network where those who don’t wear the right school tie don’t get a look in. Only the basis is not the school you went to (though sometimes it is going to the right seminary) nor the specific job you used to do. It is having been prepared through the right sort of privilege and background to know the social cues, and cultivate the appropriate behaviours, that will serve you well in such environments. It is the sort of thing that is learnt in the corporate, business world – or in similarly privileged school and university backgrounds – which rather lock you out and hold you back if you haven’t moved in such circles. It is an environment the wider church has cultivated and owes much more to the world of business than anything we read in the Bible.