MAKING MEANING OF DECISIONS AND MULTIPLE AGENCY ROLES IN COMPLEX MORAL DILEMMAS AMONG EXPERIENCED PASTORAL MENTORS: A PHENOMENOGRAPHIC STUDY

Abstract

This study examined the qualitatively different ways in which experienced pastoral mentors made meaning of multiple agency roles when faced with decision-making during a moral dilemma. The framework of agency, traditionally discussed on a single plane, was viewed as occurring on complex, multiple levels in life, affecting the decision-making observed in the exemplary value traits of mentors. These mentors were seen as those whom psychologist Abraham Maslow (1970) described as peak performers (p. 32).

Phenomenography was used to better understand the variation in ways participants made meaning of both their decision-making and their multiple agency roles. Seven participants provided data through in-depth, semi-structured, open-ended, qualitative interviews that were examined using phenomenography, Maslow’s model of peak-experience traits, and the biblical model of the Fruit of the Spirit traits. Mentors made meaning of decision-making through categories of faith, values, past experiences, outcomes, and moral dilemmas. Life experience played a key role in how their decisions changed over time. They also perceived multiple agency in categories of stratified, prioritized, prioritized/unified, and unified agency.

The study findings support both trait models. The findings also suggest understanding of both trait and agency theories that was not present in the literature reviewed.

KEY WORDS: Leadership, Mentoring, Decision-making, Ethics, Agency

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CHAPTER ONE: THE STUDY

Introduction

CHAPTER TWO: LITERATURE REVIEW

            My personal interest in the issues of meaning, agency, and mentoring began in the mid-1980s during a time of life in which I found myself often on the receiving end of the need to be mentored due to conflicting dilemmas in a ministry that seemed, more often than not, to have multi-levels of agency and roles which exponentially increased the difficulty of decision-making. Although this study focuses on the participants and their experiences in times of moral dilemma, the propitious fact is that “it’s [my] story” (Farrell, 2006, p. 35) as well.

This chapter is examined in terms of a problem—agency; a potential approach to addressing that problem—mentoring and personal belief systems; a pair of concepts to be used in this study to frame the participants’ responses—Maslow’s model of Peak-Experience Traits and the Bible’s Fruit of the Spirit model of traits; and finally, a research methodology to determine participants’ meaning—phenomenography.

Conceptions of Principals and Agents

            Agency is defined as “the consensual relation existing between two persons, by virtue of which one of them is to act for and on behalf of the other and subject to his control” (DeMott, 2007, p. 26). The two persons in this equation are the principal and the agent. For the purpose of this study, relatively uncomplicated definitions, unclouded by legalese are used.

  1. I define a principal (as noted in chapter 1) as “one who employs another to act for him [her] subject to general control and instruction, [specifically] the person from whom an agent’s authority derives” (Webster, 1969, p. 676).
  2. I define an agent as “one who acts for or in the place of another by authority from him [as in] a representative, emissary” (p. 17).
  3. I define a fiduciary (derived from fidelity) as “of, relating to, or involving a confidence or trust” (p. 310).

From a legal perspective, agency and fiduciary are often used interchangeably in describing the trust issues involved in this relationship (Barclift, 2006, 2007; DeMott, 2007; Heath, 2007; Rounds, 2005; Traynor, 2007). In exact terms, from the American Law Institute, the “fiduciary duties of the agent to the principal are the duties of loyalty, obedience, care, and to provide information [or candor]” (Barclift, 2006, p. 277). These terms are most often found in management and law literature in the areas of corporate governance (Barclift, 2007; Beccerra & Gupta, 1999; Daft, 2008; Rasmusen, 2004; Rounds, 2005; Traynor, 2007; Weiss, 2006), but may also be found in abundance, with identical meanings, if slightly different applications in the area of real estate practice (Delphi Information Sciences, 1979). The Bible positions the pastor as an agent of God to the congregation (Acts 14:23, 15:6, 1Tim 5:17, Tit 1:5, 1Pet 5:1) and an agent of the congregation to the community (Matt 5:16, 1Tim 3:1-7, Tit 1:5).

Conceptions of Multiplicity of Agency

Based upon a preliminary literature review regarding multiplicity of agency found in the pastorate, I found myself in a similar situation to Dr. Cynthia Scarlett (2001) when she searched for literature on adjunct faculty members: “Because the dimensions of the phenomenon were not known from the literature, it was essential that the internal experiences … be accessed” (p. 39). I use two studies to examine the concept of multiple agency: Jill Barclift’s work from the Franklin Pierce Law Center: Fuzzy Logic and Corporate Governance Theories (2007) and Joseph Heath’s business study: An Adversarial Ethic for Business: Or When Sun-Tzu Met the Stakeholder (2007). The practice of multiple agency has existed for a long time, but is just recently receiving attention in the scholarly literature. Enron’s 2002 filing for bankruptcy and the 2003 Sarbanes-Oxley legislative reaction propelled academics to adopted a stakeholder approach to many business subjects (Weiss, 2006).

Led by Edward Freeman, from the University of Virginia (1984), stakeholder management, stakeholder ethics, and stakeholder marketing have taken root in academia, redefining the primary interested parties of the corporation from its stockholders (those owning stock) to its stakeholders (those owning a stake in the corporation such as customers, suppliers, employees, and stockholders) (Shaw, 2008; Weiss, 2006; Williams, 2007).

Weiss contended that, in the 21st century, management would use a stakeholder analysis to “identify issues … revolving around complex ethical dilemmas” (2006, p. xix). These multiple stakeholders are the source of multiple agency. Barclift defined this phenomena as an agent (see definition above) who is “serving multiple agency roles, and owes each fiduciary [or principal] duties that vary depending on whose agent they are functioning as” (2007, p. 178).

Barclift’s theory of fuzzy logic spans multiple groups and accounts for function and agency in situations “when no one definition or membership” (2007, p. 177) can adequately define the reality. Her research into corporate governance, from a legal viewpoint, concluded that a multiplicity of agency is “not easily reconciled within agency theory and is therefore not always explained” (p. 177). In an earlier article: Senior Corporate Officers and the Duty of Candor (2006), Barclift elaborated on this aspect of agency:

To whom do officers owe their duties? In returning to agency principles to more precisely define the nature of the three-way agency relationship among senior officers, directors, and shareholders, it is necessary to understand issues of sub-agency and co-agency … [the sub-agent] has two principals. (pp. 292-293)

            Continuing in the discussion of corporate ethics, researcher Joseph Heath postulated that “failure to distinguish adequately between the moral obligations that managers have toward individuals who are ‘outside’ and those who are ‘inside’ [the organization is causing] serious confusion” (2007, p. 359). Although he did not use the term multiplicity, Heath described an individual’s “various agency relationships that exist within the firm [and used this as a] model for positing additional [agency] responsibilities between managers and so-called ‘stakeholder’ groups” (p.32).  The stated implication of his research was that “managers are agents with multiple principals, who must therefore exercise a duty of care and loyalty toward all of these different stakeholder groups” (p. 367).

            Both Barclift and Heath have presented a multiplicity of agency in the realm of corporate governance. However, they are not without their detractors. Originally derived from English common law (Rounds, 2005, p. 261), the legal issue of agency has seen a first, second, and third Restatement by the American Law Institute (Traynor, 2007, p. 145), and none of these corrections have addressed the issue of multiple agency. Harvard Business School professor Michael Jensen takes a strong stand against a stakeholder approach to management, criticizing the theory for offering “no account of how conflicts between different stakeholders are to be resolved, and giv[ing] managers no principle on which to base decisions, except to follow their own preferences” (2000, p.32).

Many who oppose the entire stakeholder approach to management, and the multi-fiduciary responsibility that multiple agency brings, suggest that management and shareholder relationships are privileged and any other relationships should be on an entirely different level (Heath, 2007, p. 367). Heath makes a good argument that weaker, less-powerful individuals and groups, are “more in need of protection [and are therefore] owed a greater

duty of care” (p. 367). He then extrapolates the duty to care in multiple principal-agent relationships and suggests that a “moral obligation … takes on a fiduciary [agency] form” (p. 368). This transmutation of moral obligations into agency duty will be used in my argument that the husband to wife relationship is in fact a non-contractual agency relationship (see wife as principal, below).

Agency as Presented in this Study

For the purpose of this study, the agent is a pastor. The principals are potentially quite numerous, but have been, somewhat arbitrarily, limited to three main categories: the pastor’s wife, the congregation, and God. This is not to deny or diminish the importance of other categories such as children, those who hold the least power and need an agent the most, nor does this assume that all pastors will have a wife. These three categories have simply been chosen as examples from the multitude of potential principal/agent relationships that a pastor faces on a daily basis.

  1. Pastor’s wife: this relationship is presented first because it is the most flexible and confusing of the three to be studied. This relationship is also in the weakest position to make an argument of principal-agent. There is evidence that this could be a situation of co-agency or even sub-agency. Any pastor will recognize the similarity to discussions of husband/wife submission—and the temptation to gloss this over with a casual it’s all about mutual submission (Eph 5:21-24). The following will delineate this into three possible relationships:
  1. Wife as principal: from a biblical viewpoint, the relationship between husband and wife is clearly laid out in the fifth chapter of Ephesians:

Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God. Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. (Eph 5:21-24, KJV)

Regardless of the doctrinal position that one takes on the interpretation of this passage, it is clear that these positional relationships establish the wife as a stakeholder (as defined in conceptions of multiplicity of agency, above) in the marriage. Heath (2007) pointed out that “one of the most influential impulses among business ethicists has been to take the fiduciary [agency] relationship that exists between managers and shareholders [and extend it to the] stakeholder groups” (p. 367). The pastor has a duty to his wife, bound by a trust relationship (a fiduciary relationship) (MacArthur, 1986, p. 271), that is sufficiently similar to that found in Heath’s stakeholder model to establish an agent-principal relationship.

  1. Wife as co-agent: from the position of mutual submission (MacArthur, 1986, p. 271) found in Ephesians 5:21 submitting yourselves one to another coupled with verses such as Revelation 1:6, 5:10, & 20:6 which declare the individual believer to be a believer-priest, accountable only to God (Vine, 1966, p. 212 Vol. III): “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:5, KJV), the wife has the role of co-agent to the principal, God, for the responsibility of raising her family and “having the major influence on their early training and development” (MacArthur, 1986, p. 276). With this duty of trust, comes a strong warning: “But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Mt 18:6).
  2. Wife as sub-agent: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord” (Eph 5:22, KJV). According to pastor and mentor John MacArthur (1986), the term submit is also translated be subject to and is “from hupotasso, originally a military term meaning to arrange or rank under” (p. 276). In this situation, the wife as sub-agent is an “agent who performs functions on behalf of the agent’s principal” (Barclift, 2006, pp. 292-293).

Maslow’s Model of Peak-Experience Traits

There is little research on the essential nature of mentor traits.

                                                                                             – Smith et al. (2005, p. 33)

Maslow’s model of peak-experience traits (1970) is not inherently a meaning-making or decision-making model. However, meaning and decision-making does not occur in a void. Maslow’s peak-experience traits provided a framework of conceptions to examine (through phenomenography) the setting and depth of rich story telling that create meaning between the mentor and his personal phenomena.

            Pick up any late 20th century or early 21st century management textbook and within the covers will be Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, usually expressed in a pyramid (although Maslow did not express it that way himself) (Daft, 2008; Dessler, 2004; Dunham & Pierce, 1989; Vine, 1966; Williams, 2007). The five levels in Maslow’s hierarchy include:

  1. Physiological needs: food, water, heat, air, and base salary.
  2. Safety needs: freedom from war, pollution, violence, safe work, fringe benefits, and job security.
  3. Belongingness needs: family, friends, community groups, work groups, clients, coworkers, and supervisors.
  4. Esteem needs: approval of family, friends, community, recognition, high status, and increased responsibilities.
  5. Self-actualization needs: education, religion, hobbies, personal growth, opportunities for training, advancement, growth, and creativity. (Daft, 2008, p. 525)

These traits are graded examples of various cognitive conceptions individuals use to create significance, sense, and purpose in their lives; in other words, make meaning of their situation (see key definitions, chapter 1).

Maslow was a paradox: a self-professed atheist of Jewish descent, he had many beliefs that paralleled the Bible. For example, Henry Geiger, Maslow’s friend and fellow author, stated that he, Maslow, held the belief that “how a man thinks cannot be separated from what he is, and the question of what he thinks [emphasis in original] he is, is never independent of what he is in fact” (Maslow, 1971, p. xx). Man creates his own meaning. The Bible also speaks of this issue in Proverbs 23:7 saying: “For as he thinks within himself, so he is” (NASV).

Geiger, in the introduction to Maslow’s The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, equated two of Maslow’s key terms; self-actualization, the pinnacle reached in the hierarchy of needs, and peak experiences, “the climax of self-actualization is the peak-experience” (as cited in Maslow, 1971, p. xvi). In a parallel to this study, Maslow postulated that “if we want to know the possibilities for spiritual growth, value growth, or moral development in human beings, then I maintain that we can learn most by studying our most moral, ethical, or saintly people” (p. 7). This study examined a group of individuals who would never personally claim to be among the most moral, most ethical, or most saintly, but who, by their experience and position as a mentor of pastors have, in fact, been nominated by other pastors for exhibiting some of these same honorable traits. In a 1998 research project, Identifying Essential Mentor Traits and Functions Within Academic, Business, and Military Contexts, researcher Jerusalem T. Howard identified “seven essential traits [pertinent to mentoring:] … confidentiality, dependability, genuine, high moral and ethical standards, honesty, integrity, and [being] professionally competent” (p. 82). Howard’s “high moral and ethical standards” (p. 82) match two of Maslow’s three criteria describing who he would ask about “spiritual growth, value growth, or moral development” (1971, p. 7), and is missing only saintly people. Perhaps with the selection of pastoral mentors, this study has met all three.

whole attempt to invalidate this approach … is seen as far from disinterested” (p. 219), and his data as being “somewhat dated” (p. 220).

Conclusions

Falling in love with yourself is a dangerous illusion. It muddles your mind andclouds your thinking.                                                                          – Al Ries and Jack Trout (1989)

            It is my great hope to have followed the advice of researcher Vernon E. Cronen (2001) when he argued “rather than thinking of inquiry into a situation as a way to support a theory, think of theory as a way to improve a situation” (p. 36). It has been my desire to make a difference in the lives of men and women through this study. Of special interest to me was making a difference to pastors. Cronen’s reminder that the “lioness does not hunt to support a theory of hunting” (p. 20) has been an inspiration to keep focused upon the goal of all organizational development—change. I use change and making a difference synonymously in this context to mean the amelioration of agency and decision-making value judgment problems that are currently limiting the effectiveness of pastoral mentors. If change, even in a small way, occurs as a result of this study, then success has been attained.

Potential Change

            Change (as defined above) that might be supported by this study could occur from a number of different areas, subject to the reader’s needs and interpretation. Mentoring styles, value judgments, support for beliefs, or modifying one’s walk might all be legitimate areas of change supported by this study. However I hope, in the long-run, that two issues might be addressed:

  1. Recognition of a unified source of agency and identification of the potential that a unified approach may have to minimize agency problems, primarily in the religious realm, but with applications in the secular organizational world as well.
  2. Recognition by pastors that maturity, which I define as growth through aging, wisdom, time, and life’s experiences, will inevitably occur in the lives of those who are open and aware. This change can be anticipated and welcomed. Anticipated, perhaps, by young pastors becoming cautious of taking hard, black and white, dogmatic stands early in their careers; and welcomed by those willing to follow the participants’ example of searching for answers both in the authority of Scripture and of consulting with experienced, well-seasoned pastoral mentors.

Limitations of this Study

            Any qualitative study has numerous inherent reasons to explain the difficulty in replicating the results. The selection process for participants; the sample, and the population that they are drawn from; the geographic location; and the culture of the participants are all determining factors affecting results. This study, a phenomenographic approach to making meaning of decision-making, is content dependent (Pramling, 1995) and is dependent upon the individual to make meaning of the phenomenon.

            Three distinct limitations informed this study. First, the study was conducted in the United States and is therefore nation-centric and limited to western philosophy and thought. Second, the study included only male participants. Finally, this study only included senior pastoral mentors of conservative Baptist congregations. With well over 200 different denominations (Barna, 2009) in the United States who would claim to be Christian, there could be a lot of potential variation in responses. Obviously, a study from an eastern, female, Buddhist perspective (for example) would produce a different data set, the magnitude and significance of which was not in the purview of this study.

Recommendations

Phenomenography is learning about the variation in order to better develop

effective practice.                   –  Dorothy Agger-Gupta (personal communication, 2009)

            In this section, I examine the implications of my study as they apply to practice and recommendations for future research. A clear implication for both is found in the foundations of phenomenography: a subset, even if it can be considered to be generalizable, is still a subset of the whole. In other words, this study has just scratched the surface of research into a new typology: religious mentors and their way of making meaning of decisions during multiple agency dilemmas. Additional research and broadening of theory through practice could yield positive results as progress is made from the particular to the whole.

Implications for Practice

The large number of moral dilemmas shared by the 7 participants suggests that pastors are faced with a variety of complex issues requiring decision-making. Having an understanding of the qualitatively different ways that pastors make meaning of decision-making and agency is the first step in providing assistance to help future pastors and future mentors grow in their abilities to make meaningful decisions. This might also tend to trickle down to the congregations, who might perceive the benefit(s) of such growth. Knowledge, and the ability to discuss and implement that knowledge, may lead to improved mentoring, better decisions on the part of pastors, and increased levels of success.

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