When rapid growth creates a split between an organisation’s founders, the fact that they are running a church is no guarantee of avoiding conflict.
In 1945 the discovery of fourth-century Gnostic manuscripts in upper Egypt unveils remarkable records of antiquity and Christianity. The papyrus manuscripts contain 52 tracts, and in 1977 the first English translations are published. This leads to the establishment, in 1986, of The Church of Nine Gates. Expecting wide criticism and numerous theological battles, the church instead experiences strong growth but is overwhelmed by management problems that lead to a division in its ranks.
The Church of Nine Gates is founded by a group that includes former business managers Peter Urban and Nicholas Dominic. Its teachings are based on a blend of Gnostic ascetic mysticism, Christian doctrine and New Age ideas.
The introverted Urban and the extroverted Dominic provide the chemistry that fuels the growth of the church.
The church is popular in part because it supports the ordination of women. In churches of other faiths the average age of priests is almost 60, and the number of nuns has been in sharp decline for more than 30 years. In contrast, the Nine Gates seems to be attracting younger mentors (priests and nuns) who can serve as celibates or as householders.
The church gains a wide following by appealing to existing local and home-based bible groups and related spiritual groups. The meeting place, rather than the building, is seen as the “church”. Reflecting their New Age influences the groups become known as “energy groups”, or NGs.
After a period of “loyalty time” the enterprising members of each local group are offered basic training in organising fund-raising events. Eventually many of the church’s wards (diocese) have enough funds to hire or even buy local halls and church buildings.
After a period of steady growth the Church of Nine Gates is comprised of numerous autonomous, legally separate, churches grouped into towns, wards, states and a few countries. Each local church is an independent entity and a registered charity. Each local church has at least three directors who are responsible for its financial management.
Its charitable agencies and educational institutions employ a similarly autonomous structure that places ownership with lay boards of trustees.
Finally, each church relies on faith and habit to sustain its corporeal connections. Unlike some “competing” faiths, with deficits running into tens of millions, it is a rare occurrence for a Nine Gates State (diocese) to report a budget gap. Church administrators credit this to strong voluntary compliance coupled with co-operative overseeing, sound financial controls and the flexibility of the groups to meet anywhere, much like a social gathering.
The church introduces management and financial training for its mentors and also continuing training at all higher levels. It promotes the formation of volunteer boards of advisers. The church is thus able to save 35% to 40% on the cost of hiring lay professionals to run its operations.
A big part of the church’s financial management involves investing funds with the Archoffice. The Arch-office in turn ensures that a healthy share of the profit from managed funds is re-invested in the local churches.
By its fourth year of global operations the 10,000 communities of the Church of Nine Gates are tithing an average of $210,000 a year, giving the church $2.1 billion for running costs and for investment.
After its first five years of global operations the Archoffice deposits and borrows funds with God’s Earth Investments, an organisation that helps churches to expand their operations. Eventually the Arch-office decides that, with its available expertise, the church should establish its own investment house and provide a similar service to other religious groups. The move is a success and the church rides a wave of popularity.
In a bold move away from its core competencies Nine Gates decides to put $US500 million into the establishment of a media company that will eventually provide worldwide broadcasts of its own content and, at a price, the content of other faiths. Within two years of its inception the failure of the highly publicised media company shakes the confidence of investors and triggers a revolt among disgruntled wards and states within the church.
The failure of the media company also draws attention to a five-year plan promoted by the Arch-office. In outline the plan states that some local churches should become incorporated. It also states that some charitable works should be postponed for the five-year period. The goal is to boost levels of investment income, redeem losses and fund other projects that would generate more income in the long term and re-establish the confidence of investors. This in turn would allow the church to secure and increase its charitable works.
Co-founder and Primentor (Cardinal) Peter Urban, in an impassioned service, argues that tampering with the independence of the churches, coupled with an unhealthy focus on investment, marks a move away from the purpose of the church.
He says: “The church was never conceived as a nonnatural person but rather as an affiliation of communities around the faith. The church is here to preach the faith, not democracy, or corpocracy, or any other ‘ocracy’.”
With the support of dissatisfied Nine Gaters he moves to take control of the church. The church’s Primentors are divided and Urban’s opponents accuse him and his followers of being “Alligators who want to tear asunder the good works in progress”. The media have a field day.
Urban enters a private meeting with one of the church co-founders (and now his chief rival), Primentor Nicholas Dominic.
Urban says: “The church has just lost millions on ‘your’ media project and now I hear you want to continue with your plan to build a city. I certainly won’t support this until we restore confidence among the congregation. How does building a city reflect our teachings in these circumstances?”
Neither of them wants to argue. Dominic takes his time in responding: “Our city will have nine gates. Nine entry and exit points through which people will come and go to worship. Yes, it’s a risk at this time, but better that than no sense of direction.”
Urban counters: “Ours is supposed to be a church, not a theme park.”
Dominic continues: “For the faithful it will provide a place of worship. For the curious it will be an opportunity to spend money so that we can increase our works. Let me remind you of the source of my inspiration, a verse from The Acts of the Other Apostles: “I asked him, ‘What is the name of the place to which you go, your city?’ He said to me, ‘The name of my city is Nine Gates. Let us praise God as we are mindful that the tenth is the head’.”
Urban protests: “In your interpretation of this verse he’s referring to a literal city. In my interpretation he’s referring to the contemplative state, the metaphorical city within his own body. Our views on all things, including scripture, are growing farther apart Nicholas, and this is being reflected in the diverging views of our congregation.
“Let me remind you that it is said: ‘But many others, who oppose the truth and are the messengers of error, will set up their error and their law against these pure thoughts of mine … They do business in my word. And they will propagate harsh fate’.”
Is faith in the management team enough to solve the problems of the Church of Nine Gates?
Is either side in this argument indisputably wrong? How might they reconcile to prevent a split and move the organisation forward?
Does either of these two leaders represent the ‘leader as a servant’?
You don’t know what people really mean until things go wrong. How do you manage to prevent misunderstandings that could topple an organisation?
Was the inherent structure of the organisation sound?
Further reading The Nag Hammadi Library, James. M. Robinson (general editor), HarperSanFrancisco 1990.
Proposed Solution #1
Ian Carter, MAICD, is CEO of Anglicare in Western Australia. He has worked for more than 20 years in community development and social justice, including national and international roles. He is an adjunct professor at Curtin University and a Fellow of AIM.
The Church of the Nine Gates could represent current faith-related or spiritual groups and some of the church-based or health-based charities, or even some of the New Age, environmental or green groups.
What drives these organisations is a shared belief or set of values and principles. So what are some of the challenges facing CNG?
- Managing change at a time of phenomenal growth.
- Growing an organisation from scratch and keeping in place appropriate organisational structures, visions and strategic plans.
- Balancing tensions between mission and purpose with the needs of members and the demands of money. In a non-profit organisation this process is not simple.
Let’s look at the problems of CNG. Although apparently using New Age language and approaches, including new perspectives on reading the scriptures, ordination of women, young people and home-based groups, CNG has evolved the same broad structures as most traditional churches.
These are hierarchical structures, with centralised core decision-making and high centralised running costs. Also, CNG has moved away from home-based structures to leasing and buying halls and church buildings. It has established autonomous charitable and educational institutions that place ownership with lay boards of trustees.
The Arch-office is making more and more of the key decisions, including the ill-fated one to invest in a media company resulting in a loss of $US500 million. This failure highlights other proposals being pursued by Arch-office. Divisions in CNG are real and now involve the two founders.
CNG needs in the first instance to go back to basics and try to develop agreement at all levels on these foundation stones or pillars:
1. What are the fundamental teachings or doctrines?
2. What are the vision, mission, key goals and values, and are they used as the basis of making strategic decisions?
3. Do the organisational structure and corporate processes reflect (1) and (2) above?
These are difficult matters and often there will be dissent, particularly if they have not been well documented over time, including reasons for any amendments. Is there an alignment between the large, complex, and hierarchical global structure and the original beliefs based on a new way of looking at scriptures in a homebased environment?
CNG needs to identify who can make decisions. It also needs to get support forchanges and decisions from staff, volunteers and members.
Peter Urban and Nicholas Dominic have created a successful organisation in terms of growth and turnover. They need to decide whether they and others have been true to the founding vision. They must agree on history and put in place a clear strategic vision and plan. CNG could literally build Dominic’s City of Nine Gates or take up Urban’s challenge to go back to “an affiliation of communities around the teachings of Christ”.
They may move on to a new vision, or split into separate movements. The long-term survival of any new organisation requires a great deal of work. For CNG, some of the work is based on corporate and strategic planning and some on philosophy, values and beliefs. Globalisation is not just about the corporate world – the challenges are there for all.
Proposed Solution #2
Eric Chidlow has worked in education for many years as a teacher and school principal and is currently assistant director of the Religious Education and Faith Formation Section in the Catholic Education Office in Perth. He has been involved as a faith leader in communities in which he has worked.
The Church of Nine Gates is not immune to the dichotomy that seems to plague most organised religions, the one related in St Luke’s Gospel: “You cannot be the slave both of God and money.” God and money are presented as mutually exclusive, which is a paradox when religions are so vitally concerned with the twofold nature of the person, the spiritual and the material. CNG’s situation has become even more difficult with the co-founders expressing opposing viewpoints.
Any organisation needs a clear statement of vision, and this does not seem present in CNG. The problems CNG is encountering are a direct result of this, and part of the solution will be the formulation of a vision statement that can give a sound foundation for future progress and solve the problem of dealing with the material and spiritual needs of its members.
The reliance on faith and habit to sustain its corporeal connections underlines the need for a clear statement of purpose or objectives. Faith can be a very nebulous term. In his book, Now I See, Arnold Lunn talks of “fif” and faith. The first is a “funny inside feeling”, whereas faith involves an assent of the intellect and the will to the self-revelation God has made through his deeds and words. The faith of the Nine Gaters seems to be more of the “fif” variety, and this lack of substance and direction has led to the problems they are experiencing.
Many of the decisions seem ad hoc. The management training results from financial success rather than recognition of a need. The central investment of funds and the re-investment of profit in local churches does not seem to be based on a long-term plan; it is simply the expedient thing to do with the large sums of money being generated.
The establishment of the media company, although having the potential to support CNG’s work, was a centrally made decision in an organisation that has built its success on decentralisation, and it does not seem that any strategies have been employed to help members cope with the change. Change can be a destabilising and stressful experience in any organisation, and unplanned change especially so. Unplanned change that leads to a financial disaster can be devastating.
The key to ensuring that CNG can move forward has two components. First, the Primentors must come to grips with the apparent contradiction of any religious organisation: that the spiritual and material requirements of members are of equal importance, though each may have priority at different times. This will necessitate a review of their leadership style. Urban’s is more of service to the individual members and Dominic’s is service to the organisation. It is essential for both to recognise that these are complementary styles, not exclusive. If they can see the strength in each other, be prepared to share their talents and establish clear communication, CNG’s chances of survival will improve.
Second, Dominic and Urban need to set up a process for developing a vision statement. It will be important for the process to draw on the strength already present that has contributed to CNG’s success, namely the independent local church communities. If they can maintain their independence while sharing a vision that recognises the duality of the person, CNG should continue to enjoy the success of its early years.