Blessed are the Bean Counters
Let’s face it: There’s no glory for the Bean Counters.
Let’s face it: There’s no glory for the Bean Counters. No gold stars, no throngs of people clamoring to hear them speak or read their latest book, no invitations to keynote conferences or lead retreats. The work of the Bean Counter is quiet and unassuming, steady and thorough. It’s also the backbone of our institutions and organizational structures, keeping processes running smoothly and ensuring that information gets to where it needs to be.
Because of the inconspicuous nature of the Bean Counter, it’s easy to assume that they are unnecessary for the functioning, nay, the well-being of organizations. Often, they are the first to be laid off from institutional structures when finances call for staff downsizing. Because people beyond the organization and—let’s face it—people within the organization itself are not aware of the value and contributions of Bean Counters, it is assumed that they are expendable. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Without the Bean Counter, there is chaos. These individuals are also the ones who often possess institutional memory; so when they are gone, collective amnesia ensues and the wisdom of the system is lost. Many would argue that the system needs to be transformed and new processes developed in order to be sustainable for the future, and the Bean Counters would just thwart organizational progress. But let’s not conflate the gifts and historical wisdom of Bean Counters with resistance to change. Some Bean Counters may resist change (but honestly, it’s probably because they have tried every other way of doing things and found this way to be the best way). In general, I’ve found that most Bean Counters are looking for opportunities to innovate and move organizations forward. They often possess the technological, financial, statistical, legal, or procedural experience and “know how” to get things done.
Visionaries are all the rage these days, and there are plenty out there. Most of them believe that they have the best ideas about what will fix institutions or, at least, keep them from diminishing further. They share their ideas—broadly and frequently. At their best, Visionaries challenge and inspire people toward action. At worst, Visionaries are ego-driven and “all talk, no action.” Let’s not conflate the gifts and wisdom of Visionaries with transformative leadership. Many Visionaries exhibit traits of leadership in faithful and fruitful ways; yet the same can be said of Bean Counters. Both Bean Counters and Visionaries bring wisdom and leadership to institutions, just in different ways.
An organization of Visionaries without Bean Counters is like a rogue hot air balloon—lots of ideas and discussions floating in the air without the mechanisms necessary to bring the balloon back down to earth. This metaphor doesn’t really work, though—a secret among the Bean Counters is that they, too, possess many brilliant ideas. It’s just that no one ever asks them what their ideas are when the Visionaries are around.
Likewise, an organization of Bean Counters without Visionaries has the possibility of not being able to lift itself off the ground—a hot air balloon with no hot air. But I will bet my life that the hot air balloon is flawless in its design and function.
The church today is enamored with Visionaries, believing that what will carry its structures into the future is more Visionaries or, dare I say, a Visionary-only existence. If Bean Counters go the way of the dinosaurs, what will become of the church? Without the bones to provide structural support for the body, what happens to the muscles and the organs?
Real leadership is a deep understanding of the need for both Visionaries and Bean Counters (and, yes, some can be both Visionaries and Bean Counters, though this is rare). This type of leadership acknowledges the essential contributions of Bean Counters to the thriving of any institutional structure. After all, they are the ones who actualize the Visionaries’ ideas, bringing the hot air balloon back down to the ground when necessary. Blessed are the Bean Counters, for they will inherit the earth—or, simply, make it a more habitable place to live.
Sparking Ministry Conversations
Are you a Bean Counter, a Visionary, or a little bit of both? What do you imagine are the dispositions of those who provide leadership in your congregation? How might you be more attuned to the wisdom that all individuals bring in shaping the mission and vision of your church?
The Rev. Dr. Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi is director of the United Church of Christ’s Center for Analytics, Research and Data (CARD). She is a card-carrying member of the Bean Counter revolution but also exhibits a few Visionary tendencies.