Effective Communication: Why Is Transparency So Difficult?

September 27, 2021

by Greg Henson, President, Sioux Falls Seminary; David Williams, President, Taylor Seminary

Last week, we began looking at the importance of transparency as it relates to organizational communication. Today, we begin a deeper look at that concept by reflecting a bit on why transparency is so difficult for organizations – particularly institutions of higher education in the modern western context. Kairos is striving to be a fresh expression of how theological education can be a movement, not an institution, which means it is important for us to consider how we overcome the hurdles that so often get in the way of transparent communication. Movements flourish when information is shared freely and openly. To be frank, that has not been the forte of modern western higher education. Instead, we have tended to be opaque in our communication.

But why?

We believe there are at least three reasons it has been (and continues to be) difficult to practice transparent communication. Obviously, there may be more, and there may be ones that are more relevant to particular contexts. The three we share here are those that have been the most prevalent in conversations with seminary administrators, faculty, and board members over the past 15 years. They are: 1) A focus on institutional existence, 2) North American definitions of blessing, and 3) A broken relationship with money.

A Focus on Institutional Existence
Most seminaries trace their founding to the need for “trained pastors” within their particular communities of faith. The wording often varies from situation to situation and focuses on more specific pastoral vocations or sometimes even the formation of “lay leaders.” The point is that the purpose for their founding was to address a communal need.

Over time, institutionalization sets in as structures and processes are developed and become codified. As the institution ages, it accumulates financial and human resources, invests in physical property, develops additional programs, etc., as the stated purpose remains the same (often with a little nuance here and there). But the work of what Willie Jennings calls “institution building” begins to become the center of attention and energies rather than attention to mission. To put that more bluntly, we shift into a mindset that is focused on our continued existence as an institution as the primary goal. We may wrap this reality in the idea that these structures and these processes are so valuable and unique to fulfilling our vision that they simply must be preserved. If we are honest with ourselves, what has actually occurred is a shift to a new goal: institutional existence. The temptation of shifting focus from the institution serving the mission to the mission serving the institution is subtle but all too real.

When this happens, when we place our ongoing existence as an institution above our commitment to the Great Commission or our participation in The Story, transparency becomes difficult. We begin to run communication through an “institutional risk” filter that attends more to our continued existence than to mission. We think things like, “We can’t say something negative about the institution or people will stop giving or new students will stop enrolling.” Our “institutional risk” filter has more to do with money than mission, and we begin to fear transparency.

North American Definitions of Blessing
Our fear of saying something negative about the school is compounded by the fact that we live in a culture where “blessing” means “more of what I think I need.” This is an outgrowth of our cultural conditioning that tells us more is better. Because “more is better” it’s hard for us to talk about things not growing. In the context of a school, we have to talk about more students, more donors, more programs, more buildings, more provision. Tony Blair, President of Evangelical Seminary, refers to this as the “bigger, better, faster,” mentality and it is pervasive. It informs our thinking around leadership (e.g., how do we produce leaders who can produce more), strategy (e.g., how do we plan to grow our numbers), programs (e.g., how do we design programs that attract and/or impact more students), and much more. When it comes to communication, this mentality leads us to only share good news.

In this culture, it is easy to talk about things that are “growing” because that is what we think people like to hear. However, nothing is ever perfect. If we only share “good” information, then we are not being transparent. Once again, we tend to be afraid of sharing information that is “not good” because of the negative impact it might have on how people see us.

This worrying about how people see us tends to be a common source of institutions’ struggles with transparency. We often think we must keep up appearances. In that effort, we paint a picture of the institution we want people to see rather than the institution as it is. Rather than saying “I don’t know” or “we failed” or “that program/process is broken and we are sorry,” we try as hard as possible to describe reality in a way that presents a particular image – one of growth and increase, as we are silent about our struggles, smaller numbers, and/or scope. Maintaining this image helps us keep face with givers, students, alumni, and supporters – the people who give the money or refer the students (or at least we think it does). Once again, our failure to be transparent is rooted in our fear of what would happen if people knew the whole story.

A Broken Relationship with Money
That brings us to the third reason we struggle to be transparent – and perhaps the core reason institutions tend to be opaque in our communication. We struggle with transparency because we have a broken relationship with money.

It is common to hear phrases like “If we have $100,000, then we could…” or “If enrollment grew by 50 students, then our tuition revenue could pay for…” or even “Money makes the world go ‘round.” Language is important, and phrases like these too often reveal our belief that money is what makes ministry happen; that money sustains us.

It is hard to be transparent in our communication if we are worried about how “bad news” will impact the “bottom line” (especially when the “bottom line” is having enough money to ensure institutional existence). But too much focus on the “bottom line” is, at its core, a lack of trust in God which creates a lack of truthfulness in its wake.

To be transparent in our communication as an institution, we must securely place our trust in God. As we trust that God is at work, we are invited to engage in faithful activities which align with that work. Faithfulness will always result in fruitfulness – we just might be surprised by the kind of fruit it produces. Placing our trust in God does not mean trusting that God will ensure we will get the results we want, such as that the institution will always exist, or even that it will grow. Trusting God is risky, and it makes us vulnerable.

God is our sustainer, yes, but God is not a magic genie that grants us whatever we wish for. God provides the resources to do the things God is inviting us to do. When there is a misalignment between what we feel called to do and the resources God has provided, the issue is with our discernment, not God’s provision.

We have work to do, and money is connected to that work, but money is not what sustains us. Money is something we steward. It is not something in which we place our trust. If Kairos fails to have a right relationship with financial resources, then Kairos will always struggle to be transparent.

We talk about stewarding followers of Jesus who flourish in their vocations for the sake of the world. That means our work is not about us. It is about what God is doing in and through our work for the sake of others. To be transparent in our communication, we must first, wholeheartedly, trust that God is our provider and that our primary mission is to participate in what God is doing – even if that means we put our institution at risk.

Next week, we will look at why transparency is important by discussing the impact it has on trust and alignment by reviewing Acts 15.

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