Hierarchical and Collegial

I am in the midst of a 15-week course studying the theology and teaching of the Second Vatican Council held from 1962 to 1965. We started the course by looking at the state of the Church in the decades preceding the Second Vatican Council. It was there that I heard the expression “Hierarchical and Collegial.” From the earliest centuries the governance of the Church was both collegial and hierarchical. It makes provision for both a center and the periphery. It is a shared power.

The dictionary defines hierarchical as being arranged in order of rank. It defines collegial as relating to shared responsibility, as among a group of colleagues. So “Hierarchical and Collegial” is a shared leadership model that replaces the strict, top-down, chain of command with a collaborative alliance. It is not a competition, nor a zero-sum game, between the two styles of relationship. It is synergistic.

In my experience, good governance results when a healthy balance is achieved in the interaction between center (hierarchical) and periphery (collegial). If the center becomes too dominant, it loses touch with what is going on in the trenches and risks becoming stagnant and irrelevant. If the periphery becomes too dominant, the result is a lack of cohesiveness, maybe even chaos.

I have worked in great organizations with the shared leadership model. I have also worked for hierarchically dominant companies where the culture was ‘command and control.’ These are challenging environments when we want to have a voice and proactively make a difference. Being told my role as a leader was for my team to make my boss look good and ease his burdens was diametrically opposed to my belief in creating an environment to improve my team’s path to success.

Pat Lencioni is a great resource on business team management. He has written books and offers podcasts and video blogs about Organizational Health and Cohesive Leadership. A main point of his is that effective cohesive teams are built on the elements of trust and vulnerability across all levels. Whether the leader is a CEO, Pastor, Department Head, Parent, etc. they must be vulnerable and possess the virtues of courage, justice, humility, and wisdom.

When I volunteered as a high school football coach, our coaching staff was very much a hierarchical and collegial one. We were also a very successful staff. We knew the ultimate decision was always the Head Coach’s, but he gave us all a voice and the ability to significantly influence those decisions. It modeled what we asked of the players. I am currently part of a Homeowners Association, an organization composed of volunteers with no single person is in charge. Decisions are made by the consensus of an elected board with member’s input. A healthy balance that includes the periphery is challenging due to the breadth of voices, as well an apathy to participate and acknowledge the need for an eventual central decision.

One of the most fascinating events in David Hackett Fischer’s book, “Washington’s Crossing,” is a meeting the week after the attack on Trenton. In that meeting, George Washington created a new style of leadership completely at odds with the norms of the time. After Washington’s success at Trenton, the British had brought in reinforcements and were poised to counterattack. With no clear line of retreat, the American army faced a crushing defeat. The British approach was strictly hierarchical, following the traditions and plans of the British military. Washington led a completely different kind of approach. He made the diversity of his troops – volunteers and militias with different traditions, backgrounds, and loyalties – an asset. He encouraged discussion and consideration of alternate approaches from his subordinates. The techniques Washington improvised from that meeting were crucial to his success.

Our nation was founded as a “constitutional federal republic.” “Constitutional” refers to a government structured on an ideological framework with limits and balance on powers. “Federal” means that there is both a national government and governments of the 50 states. “Republic” is a form of government in which the people hold power but elects representatives to exercise that power. It shares the power both hierarchical and collegial. We have tools like bureaucracies and military, that aren’t organized democratically, and operate under political control and under rules that are designed to keep them aligned. We also have institutions like legislatures and courts to blunt the mob-rule aspects of democracy that could lead to turmoil. Our nation values the general welfare of its people, their justice and liberty, as well as domestic tranquility of all.

We read in Numbers (11:16-17), “Then the LORD said to Moses: Assemble for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be elders and authorities among the people and bring them to the tent of meeting. When they are in place beside you, I will come down and speak with you there. I will also take some of the spirit that is on you and will confer it on them, that they may share the burden of the people with you. You will then not have to bear it by yourself.” A distribution of the Holy Spirit to grow the recognition of God’s presence.

The again in Luke 10:1-2, “After this the Lord appointed seventy others whom he sent ahead of him in pairs to every town and place he intended to visit. He said to them, “The harvest is abundant, but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest”.” Only the Gospel of Luke contains this second episode in which Jesus sends out additional followers on a mission after sending out the twelve Apostles. As with Moses, witnesses are being established to represent the Christian mission.

As Christians we are commanded to Love God, which is hierarchical, and Love Others, which is collegial. It is the essence of who we are. It is not a competition between the two loves, it is a synergy. The Church operates out of a hierarchical structure, but it must reach to the periphery in which all individuals are treated with respect and dignity. We are all bound together by a common commitment to the divine truths and the salvation of souls. In this sense we are all colleagues, seeking God’s greater glory in all things. So long as these two primary objectives—love of God and neighbor—are respected, we can operate in unity and harmony.

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