‘Talent’: Pros & Cons

Michael Fass.jpgAn article by the Revd. Prof. Dr. Michael Fass, Senior Research Fellow at the Westcott Foundation, who will be a seminar for the Westcott Foundation this term:  Responsibility without Authority (Saturday 5th March, 10-4) – a day for SSMs, NSMs, and retired clergy who hold significant responsibility for the ongoing mission of God’s church.

In the last few months there has been discussion about talent in the CofE that has raised hackles.  What is ‘talent’ as an idea and what might its role be in the Church?

In secular language it is used to describe individuals with a ‘special aptitude or faculty’ and of ‘high mental ability’ (OED). Anyone thinking about this definition – and with a modest turn of mind – might feel that they did not meet this standard!

In the life of faith, there is the parable of the talents in which Jesus reprimands the individual who has done nothing with his talent except to bury it in the ground and condemns him to a life in the dark.

A talent group could have its place in both secular and faith organisation – think of Jesus’ selection of the first disciples – but it has come to be associated with the secular rather than the Church until recently.

leaderIn that part of the world called secular – from which a number of the current leaders of the Church are drawn – talent management has been used as way to identify individuals who can be helped to develop themselves into future leaders. To be fair, any human organisation, secular or faith-led, needs leaders in its own generation. I always keep in my mind the words of a wise person who said: ‘If the leader is not leading the organisation forward, then who is?’

However, it is one thing to have this idea of the management of talent – and of developing it – but quite another to identify those who should be included in its activities.

We all have our own experience of how this works and I always remember (when I had just failed yet another set of school exams!) my uncle’s salutary warning in his story about his head of class with every prize under their belt, bursting with potential talent and expected to go to the very top, ending up managing BAs landside operations in Singapore!

Does this mean, on the one hand, that those outside the magic circle of talent risk becoming bitter and disillusioned about their talents and, on the other, that those who are selected risk becoming arrogant and demanding?

There is no dispute that in this age of uncertainty when so many alternatives are available and so many different opinions exist, that the role of clergy is complex and that the use of talent development to meet these challenges is important, but should this be of, and for, the many or the few?

jigsawOne should start from the premise that each individual has talent and is talented in their own God-given way and that by Ordination these talents are enhanced, for the common good. We are all different in our ability, personality and motivation but we all share the desire to do something for God and His people. Does this mean that the talents of each and every clergy person should be developed with no special treatment of any individual or should the Church identify those with ‘special’ talent and, if so, what would these talents be and how could they be identified?

Would Jesus have qualified for the talent ‘pool’? He was from a small village (Parish!); He may have had some formal education in the synagogue but not much (no tertiary education then!); He went round with a thoroughly bad lot (no fixed abode or mobile billing address!) and came to a sticky end (no CV!). So, how can talent programmes cope with mavericks, non-conformists and those who do not travel traditional roads?

If talent pools are going to work, those responsible for selecting the individuals who will participate in them, would need to have advanced skills in appreciating the infinite variety of humankind and the ability to recognise those with a strong desire for change and doing things differently; the ability to think and act creatively; a dogged persistency to see things through and pursue their dreams and be hard-working and visionary. A tall order indeed!

In other words, those who might be rather difficult to deal with but who might be counted on to help the Church to find new ways of doing things. Are these the types who sit around the table at the Bishop’s Council?

Finally, is talent a function of age so that talent programmes are inherently ageist as they over-represent the younger age group and neglect the over-50s? We all know about this older group, who we are in danger of leaving too long in their posts so that they are at risk of becoming demotivated and unproductive.

If the resources used in talent programmes were re-directed into the mentoring and support of all front-line clergy would this have a similar effect as a talent programme? There is a sense in which a top-down talent programme suggests displacement activity as in: ‘We know we cannot reach all clergy so we will act on, and with, a few of them and hope that things will improve.’

The pros and cons of talent management are complicated but I always keep in mind the words of Hugh Lister, a radical priest of the East End of London in the 1930s, who said: ‘Here is your life, here are your circumstances & endowments. Now make the most beautiful thing of it you can.’

The Revd. Prof. Dr. Michael Fass is a Senior Research Fellow at Westcott Foundation. This term he will lead a seminar for the Westcott Foundation:
Responsibility without Authority (Saturday 5th March, 10-4) – a day for SSMs, NSMs, and retired clergy who hold significant responsibility for the ongoing mission of God’s church. To book a place for this event, or on any of our other seminars, please contact us or use this booking form.