Even Good Policies Have Their Limits

by | Oct 4, 2015 | Reflections Blog | 0 comments

They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.

–TS Eliot, “Choruses from the Rock”

Structural responses cannot solve the problems of human nature.

Last month I described a bureaucratic solution that had hurt a presbytery’s candidates for ministry. This month I want to broaden the discussion of bureaucratic solutions to include a favorite of Presbyterian culture: writing policies against bad behavior.

Consider a retired pastor who persistently meddles with a former congregation. The Session asks the Presbytery to intervene. In response, the Presbytery establishes a covenant preventing pastors from communicating with a congregation they have left.

Presbytery’s response apparently solves the problem. But it can create two new ones.

First, it drives the bad behavior underground. Pastors who want to meddle will not stop simply because of a policy. They will make their actions more difficult to monitor, and therefore more insidious.

Second, it interrupts a congregation’s grief. Careful ongoing contact from conscientious former pastors can help congregants gradually say goodbye. A blunt-instrument policy unhelpfully formalizes the informal friendships and family ties that otherwise would allow the former pastor and his/her former congregation to adjust to the new situation.

Most presbyteries now recognize these nuances and attempt to account for them. As a result, good “former pastor policies” are now much longer than the one I mentioned above. Recognizing nuances is good. But no amount of detail can prevent all harmful behavior while encouraging all helpful behavior. That is the effort of legislation, not policymaking.

Good policymaking, as opposed to legislation, gives voice to a community’s values and identifies the body responsible for determining whether a breach has occurred. One of my favorite lines in the Los Ranchos Former Pastor Policy, for instance, reads as follows:

“If tensions emerge…the Committee on Ministry shall mediate and may determine it is in the best interests of all parties…Good judgment and restraint will go a long way toward preventing such situations.” (Section 1.2.8)

I particularly appreciate three elements of the quote above:

First, it authorizes a particular entity to act—in this case the COM. Assignment of authority prevents interventions from devolving into politically driven, that’s-what-you-say arguments.

Second, it expects the authorized body to act. Committee members would rather not confront. It is much easier to write another policy and expect others to meet it. It takes courage to intervene.

Third, it recognizes the value of “good judgment and restraint.” Ultimately, a policy cannot solve the problems of human nature. But personal virtues applied to interpersonal situations can make important inroads.

I do love good policies. Parliamentary procedures authorize wise and brave moderators to rein in disrupting and disrespectful speech. Requirements for ordination help presbyteries weigh a candidate’s preparedness for ministry. A good policy on preventing sexual misconduct and harassment helps a community distinguish between kindness and abuse.

But good policies, at best, help us to act with wisdom and courage. They will not make us wise and brave, and they will not take away the need for such virtues.

Ultimately, the health of a larger group depends on ordinary people taking steps to protect it. Formal procedures are far less effective in preventing bad behavior.