Patronage, Exemption, and Institutional Policy

by Perry Shaw

Rule of Law emphasizes truth; patronage emphasizes grace. Only through a balance between the two can the life of Christ be modeled for emerging leaders in our care.

Photo courtesy Perry Shaw

The future health of the global Christian movement depends on the quality of leadership training. The growing commitment to quality control, capacity building, and accreditation in ministry training programs is therefore not a surprise.

Accrediting agencies around the world expect clearly-defined and implemented policies as an essential element for healthy institutional functioning; consequently, reputable schools and programs have devoted significant time to the documentation of their policies and procedures. In practice, however, for many schools the written policies are little more than ink on paper, and the actual processes are based on patronage and exemption.

Rule of Law vs. Patronage
Because westerners believe in the “Rule of Law,” they desire clear institutional policy. In general in the West, the law is perceived as a “friend”, existing for the communal good, and providing a level of protection for the weak.

In much of the world, however, the law is seen as an “enemy”, designed by and existing for the benefit of the strong. In many places, laws are contradictory and open to varying interpretations, such that whoever is in the most powerful position ultimately decides what is and is not lawful.

In such contexts, the weak have no choice but to enter into a dependent relationship with a patron. A good patron is someone who has sufficient influence to intercede on behalf of the weak client and provide an “exemption” from some decision through influencing a decision-maker to change his or her mind, or through accessing a higher authority to overturn the decision of the slightly lesser authority. The cost to the client is unquestioning loyalty to the patron, and turning a blind eye to the patron’s shortcomings and wrongful acts.

People from the West often have difficulty appreciating some of the strengths of the patron-client system, such as its ability to promote interdependence and deal with individuals as persons. A friend from the Philippines, for example, told me of the common expression “debt of the heart” to describe client-patron relationships, pointing to the humanizing and relational aspects of this approach.

In contrast, Rule of Law can sometimes be quite dehumanizing, and certainly promotes a level of independence which undermines the sense of community consistently affirmed by scripture and rooted in the divine community of the Trinity.

The major weakness of the patron-client system is that it can lead to a high level of lawlessness, especially in contexts where there is more than one all-powerful person of authority. I have witnessed firsthand this lawlessness in the multi-patron political scene of many Majority World countries, where the judiciary is simply a pawn in the hands of the various rival patrons who use it as a test of their relative power.

Patronage in Christian Colleges
In much of the world, both students and national faculty come into theological institutions with a life experience profoundly shaped by patron-client relationships. There is a general perception of all regulations as the “enemy”, and the expectation that a powerful “patron” in the institution will help the individual work through the system, and get around what regulations need to be circumvented in order to complete the program of study.

Many students will spend the early part of their studies feeling their way through the system to discover where the power lies and ingratiating themselves to the major power-broker(s) in the school. Most of this process is not even conscious; it is simply a familiar pattern.

In these contexts, there tends to be a high level of relationship and sense of belonging between the patron and those under his or her patronage. Acceptance into the school is often based on who you know, and the decisions of the acceptance committee are vetted by the patron, who makes the ultimate decision. For the more benevolent fatherly patrons (common in theological colleges), direct punishment of any student is seen as shaming the student, the institution, and the patron. Consequently, irrespective of the written policy, actual practice is based on the decision of the patron.

Unless the student commits a crime of such magnitude that removal from the community is necessary for the protection of the community, the student will continue to be granted a level of “exemption”, being allowed to do quiet compensation for wrongful acts rather than suffering the consequences delineated in the written policies. Any record of wrongful act is seen as shaming the student out of proportion to the act, so little is ever recorded.

For example, in several schools I have observed a zero tolerance to academic dishonesty on the books, but in practice students are given repeated opportunities to redo plagiarized work. To do otherwise would be seen as inappropriately harsh for someone who is “one of ours.”

The Problem with Patronage
While the highly relational aspects of a patronage system have many attractions, the approach is fraught with difficulties, and can easily undermine the quality of learning necessary for preparing future leaders for the Church of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps the gravest concern of patronage systems is that, for the sake of preserving harmony and image, students with foundational character flaws are “pushed through the system.” Patronage covers the flaws, and these weaknesses are not addressed prior to graduation. The student then carries these same weaknesses into church leadership.

At a more immediate level, the dominance of patronage over policy provides little genuine protection of faculty from the wrongs of students—or students from the wrongs of faculty.

In communities with mixed Western and Majority World faculty, the tensions are magnified by the differing attitudes toward Rule of Law and patronage. Westerners see Rule of Law as empowering and reassuring. For many in the Majority World, it is seen as ungenerous, demeaning, inhospitable, and offensive.

However, the patronage system effectively undermines initiative: all initiative must be seen to come from the patron, and any creative initiative with which the patron disagrees will be undermined. Work rapidly becomes “just a job,” with responsibility but little genuine authority. Most Western workers have limited patience in such contexts, and schools that function with a patronage system tend to have high turnover of foreign workers.

Scripture contains many examples of patronage. It could even be argued that the well-quoted Council of Acts 15 was not genuine consensual leadership, but more a pattern of Middle Eastern tribal leadership, with James functioning as the sheikh with his shura (patron and council). However, the extent to which these biblical examples are supposed to be paradigmatic or merely descriptive is a major hermeneutical question.

Of greater significance is the imperative of shared leadership modeled by God himself (Shaw 2006), practiced by Jesus (Mark 6:6-13) and the apostles (Acts 3:1; 8:14-17; 13:1-3; 15:39-16:3), and repeatedly emphasized in Paul’s letters (1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4:11-16).

The model of shared leadership questions the tradition of “one-man-show” patronage in institutional contexts and calls for a form of team leadership where all are empowered to use their gifts for the common good. Such consensual leadership is dependent upon a universal commitment of all those with authority to some sort of shared understandings, and these shared understandings are the foundation for institutional policy. When consensual understandings are overridden by any individual, the shared leadership process is undermined.

Rule of Law emphasizes truth; patronage emphasizes grace. Only through a balance between these two approaches can the life of Christ be modeled for the emerging leaders in our care. How then do we respond? On page 11 are five ways we can confront this issue in a biblical manner.

The quality of leadership training is a major factor in serving or hindering the effectiveness of the Church in fulfilling its missional mandate. Ignoring the building of capacity and quality in training programs is not an option. May God grant us all wisdom in the way we structure our leadership training so that grace and truth prevail in all we do.

Shaw, Perry W. H. 2006. “Vulnerable Authority: A Theological Approach to Leadership and Teamwork.” Christian Education Journal 3(1): 119-133.


  Balancing Quality Assurance and Relationships in Community

1. Recognize the realities associated with the patronage culture from which both students and faculty come. Before even considering the establishment of policy, the institution needs to ensure that there are multiple layers of pastoral care in place that promote the relationship and community so valued in patronage societies. At our own school we have seen a direct relationship between student commitment to institutional policy and the pastoral heart of the academic dean and the dean of students.

2. Time must be given to introducing students and faculty to the policies, and in what ways institutional policy serves them as individuals and as a community. Policy needs to be personalized rather than distant and abstract.

3. Explain the reasons. For the more sensitive and commonly-applied policies (such as cheating, plagiarism, and lateness), we have developed purpose statements that explain how the issues at stake in the policies contribute to the students’ own formation as emerging Christian leaders. Both students and faculty have found these purpose statements beneficial.

4. Provide extra layers of grace. We are currently experimenting with an academic dishonesty policy that gives a “first time grace,” in which students who are caught are warned and then given the opportunity to resubmit without penalty, with the strict discipline beginning at the second offense. With many policies, we see the first offense as an “educational phase,” and in some cases have asked students to write a reflective paper on the relationship between the policy they have broken and their own personal formation as emerging leaders. On the second offense we work through the policy with the students, ensuring that they understand the rationale. We then ask students to make a written commitment to do what is right. Significant discipline comes on the third offense. These levels of grace and learning help to personalize the policy and most students come to see the policy as a vehicle for learning rather than punishment.

5. Simplify the policy as much as possible, including only what is essential. Writing a detailed policy with dozens of clauses and regulations is an invitation to seek gaps and exemptions. 

 Perry Shaw is professor of Christian Education and associate dean at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon. He and his family have been living in the Middle East since 1990, serving in a variety of church and seminary-related ministries.

EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 1, pp. 8-13. Copyright  © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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