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Tyranny Of The Tacit

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 312

 
Why is it that ministry initiatives fail so unexpectedly? Even when leaders take the time to get the initial support for key influencers, get the backing of the respective board, attain the approval of the governing board and the blessing of an unanimous vote of the congregation, ministry initiatives can fall flat on their feet and backfire right in the face of leaders.
 
What has happened? All the procedures were followed. All the right things were done. The ministry initiative was well-promoted. People were given their voice. The blessing of God seemed all but certain. Somehow, amid the expectant enthusiasm the initiative is rejected, the vision squashed, and the leaders bewildered.
 
Tyranny Of The Tacit
 
This is but one of many ways the "tyranny of the tacit" presents itself. Regardless of the nature or relative support of the ministry program or initiative, the tyranny of the tacit is always present in the background. Though largely unnoticed and unrecognized, leaders must learn to recognize and understand the tyranny of the tacit.
 
What is the "tyranny of the tacit"? The tyranny of the tacit is an unwritten code of norms and mores which govern any organizational system or structure. These unwritten statutes are simply "the way we do it here." Though not written down in formal documents, these tacit structures, patterns, roles, mores and rituals are codified in the thinking and behavioral patterns of any organizational system.
 
Tacit elements define the personality of an organization. They determine how various people will function, their boundaries, who is in charge of what, and what things will be supported, permitted, tolerated, or rejected.
 
System Goals
 
Organizational systems have three levels of goals: formal, informal, and tacit. 
* Formal Goals are those "officially" stated goals clearly written and codified in institutional documents such as constitutions, bylaws, and written policies.
 
* Informal Goals are those goals which are established largely by tradition. Though not written down, these guidelines are frequently voiced and overtly practiced. "Everyone" knows what these guidelines or rules are.
 
* Tacit Goals are those which are unwritten and often unspoken. They consist of the unspoken understandings of what does and doesn't--and what will and what won't--happen in an organizational system.
More On Tacit Goals
 
Tacit goals are covertly embedded in an organizational system. Tacit goals are the reason behind why a lot of things happen. Unfortunately, not many will recognize or acknowledge their existence and control of everything in the organizational system.
 
Tacit goals like the air we breathe or the beating of our heartbeat. We inhale and exhale air every few seconds in a repetitious manner for the duration of our lives. Our hearts beat within us in a constant repetitious--but unnoticed--manner. While these are essential life functions, they are tacit actions. We don't record them, write them down, or legislate them. Neither do we seek to change or alter them.
 
Why don't we change them? Because to do so would be dangerous. It would threaten the  equilibrium of our existence and our lives. Even with professional guidance, whenever these tacit functions are altered it always entails fear, trepidation and considerable pain and risk  These tacit functions are important for our life. They go on virtually unnoticed unless disrupted.
 
Tacit goals are the "breathing" and "heartbeat" of organizational systems. The act to preserve the system. They provide energy and impetus for organizational development. They defend the system from disruption in equilibrium by resisting change. They establish authority, deference patterns, boundaries and determine how the internal parts of a system will connect and interact. Like the beating of an heart or the constant inhaling and exhaling of the lungs, the go virtually unnoticed until disrupted. 
 
The Tacit: The Leader's Enemy
 
Change-directed leadership requires many things. Regardless how skilled, personable, charismatic, dedicated, organized and competent the leader, they will fail if they do not recognize the power the tacit elements of an organization. To defeat one's enemy, one must first know the enemy. Such is the strength of the tyranny of the tacit.
 
Perhaps the tacit's greatest tyranny lies in the fact that it often doesn't come forth until after changes have been introduced and implemented. When the organizational system perceives that equilibrium has been disrupted, the tyranny of the tacit appears. Suddenly, the unsuspecting leader gets an unwelcome "surprise" in the form of passivity, resistance, rebellion or worse.
 
Dealing with the "surprise" can be the most aggravating, frustrating and agonizing experiences of ministry. It can be the cause for the rise and fall of many pastorates. It can fan the fires of distrust. It can cause disruption between staff members and congregational leaders. It can undermine the most thoughtful, conscientious and painstaking ministries with remarkable swiftness. It can do these things...and more!
 
Identifying The Tacit
 
Perhaps the best defense against the tyranny of the tacit is for leaders to learn and identify the presence of the tacit in their organizations. In his book Multiple Staff Ministries (Westminster Press), Ken Mitchell gives a helpful table to help identify tacit goals and distinguish them from formal and informal goals.*
 
 
Formal Informal Tacit
Rules

Constitution, bylaws,
standard operating procedures, written policies, vision and mission statements, etc.

Spoken guidelines not necessarily legislated. "Crying babies go to the nursery," "Be quiet in church," etc. Largely unspoken norms for "expected" behaviors such as dress codes, "politically correct" speech, etc.
Roles Formally defined roles for pastor, president, staff, and other leaders Informal roles include those such as un-elected leaders and influencers, patriarch, matriarch, Devil's advocate, etc. Various "gatekeeper" functions: who determines and sanctions what is allowed and disallowed, who will be empowered and blamed, etc.
Ritual Worship, hymnody, liturgical style, installation rites for pastor and others Bible class always goes out for breakfast afterwards, go out for ice cream after the meeting, etc. Greeting rituals, shaking hands or avoiding same, etc.
Goals Rightly adminster Word and Sacraments of God; maintain doctrinal and denominational standards; make disciples, etc. "We need some more members around here!" "Let's do something about our giving!" "Can't we do something for mission work?" "Let's grow old together", "Let's not be bothered with children", "Let's keep the church well-maintained", etc.
 
Some Observations About The Tacit
 
1) Congregations and other organizational systems are more strongly influenced by tacit elements than by formal and informal elements.
 
2) Tacit elements may--and often do--conflict with formally stated goals resulting in varying degrees of duplicity and hypocrisy in stated goals.
 
3) Tacit elements give a preference for more indirect and covert modes of influence. Formal means of influence tend to be more direct and overt.
 
4) The greatest and most powerful influence in organizations tends to prioritize the tacit. Informal and formal modes have secondary and tertiery influence, respectively.
 
5) While it may appear as if the formal modes of influence are prevailing in times of peaceful equilibrium, such is not the case. Tacit elements still predominate. In virtually all systems, formal and informal modes gain their power and influence only by the authority of the tacit forces.
 
6) When equilibrium is disrupted due to conflict, growth or other organizational stress, resorting to formal and informal structures may be perfunctory, useless, and/or counterproductive.
 
7) Legalistic appeals by well-meaning leaders to formally stated "rights" and "wrongs" more often than not undermine their position. Unless they recognize the power of the tacit, they will likely become prey of the tyranny of the tacit.
 
8) Lasting internal conflict management and resolution processes, though codified at the formal and informal levels, will not be effective unless the efforts are directed at--and accepted by--the tacit levels of the organization.
 
9) Leaders can frequently alter formal elements without major repercussions. They may also be able to alter informal elements without undue levels of disruption. This is not so with tacit elements. They must be respected. They can be easily disrupted but not easily changed without a great deal of anxiety and disruption.
 
10) Organizations can change the tacit elements without changing the formal and informal elements. Organizations can also change formal and informal elements without changing tacit elements. Leadership requires the ability to discern to what degree the formal and informal actually reflect tacit elements and to be able to recognize any inconsistencies or "disconnects" between the formal, informal, and the tacit.
 
11) Since tacit elements predominate in virtually all organizational systems, it is more important for leaders to know and act upon opinions and feelings of those who are the gatekeepers of the tacit than to know and act in concert with the organization's formal elements and structures.
 
12) Individuals, like organizations, also have formal, informal and tacit elements. Thus it should be expected--and even considered "normal" behavior--when individuals in the organization simultaneously maintain two apparently opposing views. Closer examination may reveal that in individuals (as in organizations) the tacit predominates over the formal and informal preferences. For this reason, leaders must pay greater attention to those words and actions which demonstrate their tacit preferences than to those which indicate formal and informal preferences.
  
Jesus' Encounter With The Tacit
 
Jesus' ministry was a regular encounter with the tacit. Jesus' dealings with the Scribes, Pharisees and Teachers of the Law all demonstrated Jesus' profound understanding of the tacit's predominance over the formal and informal.
 
Jesus understood that the formal had potential to be a mask of hypocrisy. He understood that the tacit could be trusted more than the formal. He understood that one of the key essential tasks of ministry was to distinguish between the formal, informal and the tacit.  Most important, He understood that the process of distinguishing between the formal, informal and the tacit does not come without the risk of pain, rejection, rebellion, and death.
 
Jesus' painful dealings with the tacit are also demonstrated at the Feeding of the 5,000. After the well-fed crowds rejected Jesus en masse, the Apostle John recorded,
"From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed Him. 'You do not want to leave too, do you?' Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered Him, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God'" John 6:66-69 (NIV).
Jesus' inquiry, "You do not want to leave too, do you?" was a test of the tacit. Were the Twelve merely formal and informal partners in the Lord's mission? Or was it tacit--and genuine? Peter's confession, "Lord, to whom shall we go?" was a remarkable formal confirmation of a deep, tacit commitment. He was there to stay--with a formal, informal and, most important, tacit commitment.
 
Perhaps that is why Jesus never gave the church a constitution or bylaws, either. He understood that spirituality and leadership cannot be exclusively inculcated via formal elements.
 
Instead, the goal of His ministry was the tacit--the heart. Whether confronting stubborn hearts, hardened hearts or ready hearts, Jesus directed His ministry to the tacit elements of man--the heart--knowing full well the full range of consequences.
 
Christian Ministry To The Tacit
 
The task of Christian ministry has always been to impart the formal principles of God's revelation in Scriptures by love, not force; by discipleship, not legislation; by a true relationship with God not by a mere external confession of faith. As the Scriptures say "By their hearts you will know them."
 
In Romans 5, St. Paul gave witness to the strength of hope in the tacit and unshakable faith in Jesus Christ. Whatever the response to his ministry among the people of God, Paul's tacit conviction is unmistakably formalized in his confession.
"Hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly...But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." Romans 5:5,6,8 (NIV)
 No matter how many times his ministry was undermined or ministry initiatives frustrated, he was not disappointed formally, informally or tacitly. Even in his powerlessness, God's love was poured into his heart.
 
Like us, Paul vigorously sought the formal extension of the Kingdom. Like us, Paul couldn't control the outcomes. We can learn from him at least two important things.
 * First, Christian ministry must always be directed predominantly to the tacit.
 
* Second, the most important tacit element is having the hope that does not disappoint us deeply rooted in our formal, informal and tacit being.
 Without this Christ-centered hope, the ministry will always succumb to the tyranny of the tacit.
 
When the tyranny of the tacit comes into your ministry, where's your hope? It's in the unshakable formal, informal and tacit conviction of love of Christ Jesus for you in your ministry!
 
Thomas F. Fischer

 * This table is adapted from a handout at Speed Leas' April 22, 1999 presentation
"The Self-Differentiated Pastor" sponsored by Psychological Studies and
Clergy Consultation Program, Inc., Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:02:22 PM