What the Co-op’s woes can teach the church

So today the Co-op bank announces a loss of £1.3bn, acknowledges that it will loose more money over the next couple of years and poses a question over whether the Co-op will invest another £120m in the bank or see it’s ownership share slip further.

At the same time the wider Co-op group has seen the resignation of Lord Myners from the Board three weeks after he warned the group could go bust; a month after the chief executive resigned with immediate effect.

Now I don’t normally follow the fortunes of the Co-op but this has all the hallmarks of a mess. What interests me more are the lessons, questions and parallels it might for church denominations. 

At heart the Co-op saga seems a struggle between two ways of being. There are those who wanted it to be a modern, PLC style corporate entity, seeking to grow by adding Somerfield Supermarkets to their food retailing business and Britannia Building Society (a merger rather than straight acquisition) to their banking business as well as nearly taking over some of Lloyds Banks branches. And then there are those who say that the whole point of the Co-op is not to be like other corporate entities because it is a movement. As a movement with a participatory model of ownership, it is not simply concerned with profitability but with economic return to its members and care for the communities it is based in.

This, if the media is to be believed, has come to the fore in discussions about the groups governance structure. The Myners proposal to reduce the size of the board down to 10 or so people with appropriate professional skills, together with a wider group to represent member interests. However, this would effectively replace the current area boards and reduce the power of the independent societies. At its heart is the question of how the individual members have influence over what happens. 

Which raises some fascinating parallels with aspects of church life.

1. Structures which appear to be very democratic can end up being the preserve of those who can work the system at the expense of the grass roots members. The links between the central governing body and the grass roots are crucial and representative democracy can fail to provide necessary accountability, particularly if this is worked through intermediate bodies. 

2. Models which come from the world of investor-led business don’t fit every situation. Good corporate governance isn’t the same as business efficiency and to put the emphasis here risks undermining what makes the organisation special. A participatory model needs different ways of working which inevitably change the power and control that can be exercised by the board and executive.

3. When organisations forget who they are and act like PLC businesses they can take some very bad decisions

4. Structures and methods which worked when the group was smaller and/or in a previous generation when things operated differently can become stumbling blocks in a changed world. However, change and reshaping structures so traditionally held values can breathe today is hard work and meets lots of resistance.

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