Church leadership; just a few thoughts as I approach incumbency.

Leadership is in the spotlight like never before, at least in church circles. The C of E has determined, through its acceptance of the Green Report for instance, to put in place mechanisms and procedures to identify and train its leaders of the future. Leadership conferences abound: New Wine, HTB, Willow Creek and Hillsong all offer events for existing and aspiring leaders, with key note speakers lined up to share their wisdom and experience.

I suspect that many, lets hope the majority, of speakers at such events have something of real substance to share. But, I also suspect that, as at all conferences, some of the key note speakers will have developed the art of saying not very much at all, but doing it with supreme eloquence.

Leadership is a word that attracts some and, frightens others. It is an emotive word and concept and, I think we all need to be aware of this in our discourse around the subject. At one level it is only a word, but it is a word that seldom, if ever, is spoken or written about dispassionately. It is a word that excites some and exercises others.

In the church leadership and theology must go hand in glove. My problem is not so much the word itself, although I do worry about the tendency to fixate on leadership as a good in its own right, but rather how ‘leadership’ is exercised.

I also worry about the ‘traditions’ and disciplines the church draws from in developing its theologically distinctive models of leadership. In saying this I am, of course, working from the assumption that the Church of England (the church into which I was both baptised and ordained) is concerned with theologically distinctive approaches to leadership, strategy and decision making. If our approach to leadership is not predominately inspired through the Christian tradition, then it surely stands that secular approaches are the only other sources of data?

The problem with secular approaches is that they are inherently competitive,somewhat utilitarian and endlessly calculating. If left unchallenged secular approaches to leadership, even when dressed in the clothes of the visionary, descend into managerialism and functionalism.

I hope the church is inspired as much, if not more, by Benedict (the Rule of….)  and Gregory (the pastoral dialogues) as it is by the Harvard Business Review, successful business leaders, who happen to be Christian and, pastors of mega churches.

The problem of leadership is particularly sharp in my own mind at present because next Wednesday I am, God willing, going to be installed as Rector of the Winslow Benefice (I have been serving, on placement in the benefice since July last year). I have to acknowledge that even though I don’t very often use the word leader, parishioners will look to me for leadership and direction. So the questions of where I will draw inspiration from and how I will exercise leadership are very real questions.

I hope in my own ‘leadership’ to draw on Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. I am, you see, a member of the Church of England!

Starting with tradition (yes, I know I really ought to start with Scripture),  I have already mentioned the significance I find for contemporary leadership in the Rule of Benedict. Turning to experience I will of course draw on my thankfully positive experience during my curacy, in the Schorne Team of Parishes, where I served in a very well led team ministry. Reason also has a part to play for the church does have to exercise prudent stewardship of its assets, whilst also taking calculated and discerned risks from time to time.

And of course we have Scripture to draw on as our bedrock, and I think we can learn an awful lot about Christian leadership from Scripture! Perhaps, this is statement of the obvious! But the problem is that there are many different ways of engaging with Scripture, with these in part being dictated by our prior theological convictions. As someone who would want to assert that the Church of England is reformed-catholic I would want to draw on last Sunday’s Epistle (Colossians 3, 12-17) and Gospel (John 19, 25-27) readings as inspirational to my understanding of what it means to be a ‘church leader.’

The epistle lists the virtues with which Christians are expected to clothe themselves  and the Gospel is the story of Jesus giving his mother, from the cross, to the beloved disciple:

Here is how I ended my homily:

‘In the world in which we live strong and decisive leadership have their part to play, of course they do, but, and its a big but, never at the expense of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, fortitude, and love.

As I look forward to my time with you as your official Parish Priest I hope and pray that I will dress myself appropriately, perhaps taking Paul’s words and Mary’s example as my guide. I hope that I will be able to inspire and encourage you on your journeys. I hope that this church will stand as a beacon for all that is good and true and that people will be drawn to us not simply because of what we say, or even necessarily what we do, but because we are compassionate, kind, humble, meek, patient and loving because if we are we will equip people to grow in their own faith towards maturity; we will be Mother Church, of if you prefer the Bride of Christ. And that is our vocation.’











4 thoughts on “Church leadership; just a few thoughts as I approach incumbency.

  1. It strikes me that there’s one major difference between secular leadership and church leadership, and one that rarely gets mentioned or acted upon. That’s the difference in the extent to which everyone’s participation in the system is voluntary.

    This has 2 sides to it – for many participation in the church is in many ways more voluntary than in secular environments, and in other ways less voluntary.

    For secular leadership, we’re mostly talking about work. Now the modern work environment is underpinned by the fact that people get paid to do their jobs. This creates a certain obligation to accept leadership, but also a mechanism to reject it (you can resign your job and find a different one)

    For church leadership, the leader is mostly leading people who are not paid to participate, but many of whom may feel a religious obligation to participate. This creates added challenges which experts on secular leadership can ignore (and which almost everything I’ve read on church leadership ignores). There is an extent to which people are under no obligation to follow leadership (when they feel their involvement is a voluntary action which they can participate in or not as they chose); in these situations they must be persuaded that they themselves believe in the leadership offered. But there’s also an extent to which people are under an obligation to follow leadership which they feel they have no option to escape (when they see participation in the church as a religious obligation); in these situations the leader is obliged to ensure their leadership is reasonable.

    Of course, what falls in what category will vary from person to person and will be unclear.

  2. As always Andrew you write with clarity and thoughtfulness – and no, there’s no “but”.

    You are right to start with tradition. Scripture can only be understood within a tradition.

    Here’s something of what I’m up to in my last parish before retirement – a few years away yet!

    I bumble about and pick up on things that need doing. It might be learning to set the heating timers in one of my churches, for the first time after 3 years, coz the usual suspects are away. It means doing an emergency editorial for one of the 3 magazines coz we’ve not ye found a permanent editor in that parish. But there’s a chap phoning later. Please, Lord…. for next month!

    Then there listening to Mrs X who is old school and finds our go-ahead Friends of the Tower group (half of whom don’t come to church ever) leaves her in the last century. And I just listen. And listen..

    But I am also proactive. I call people the the “brittle miracle of the bread”. Some come. But the fraction is a “mass over the world” and celebrates grace abounding whether we’re 3 or 23. Or 50 or 60 one of my parishes too! And the world turns a little smoother because Christ is still incarnate.
    And I visit with Communion to the housebound… just the one at the moment.

    And I’ll lay hands on the sick and anoint them – and all sorts come (even couples just here for a “Connection”) and ask to be prayed for – no fuss, this is just normal, after Communion.

    And I’ll say yes when Janet and John ask me to Baptise twins Algernon and Priscilla because why would you say “no”? Because mum and dad didn’t pass my faith test, of course. Oh, right. Actually, no. I don’t have the exam papers, so I’ll just say “yes”.

    And next year J&J will get married and we grace them for the unknown journey to the heavenly banquet, and the twins will giggle as they all kneel at the altar rail.

    And I’ll sit and listen whilst Mrs W tells me about 7 happy years with her partner, both in the 60’s. And a few days later I’ll try to articulate something of her grief as I write the tribute for her, because she has no emotional strength left to do it,and go on to speak of the hope of a love that’s bigger than death at the crematorium. In fact in turns out that loves bigger than death beyond the crematorium.

    And on Sunday I’ll witter on about the fact that God loves you just as you are, and I’ll tell the baptism congregation that God thinks the baby is the best thing God’s ever made… oh and so are each of them too.

    And I open a letter from the Archbishops and feel tickled that I’d already told our parishes that those dates we’d hold a Novena of prayer, and I’ve already given them a some resources. So of course I’ll pray for evangelization…the liberal seeding of good news, though maybe not for evangelism, which is too soon turned to proselytism and making people like us. And I am chuffed that the ABs have picked up on my initiative.

    And I ignore well meant (I trust it’s well meant!) nonsense about being ordained to get more people to come to church. That’s not my responsibility. Never was. I am not responsible for converting my parishes. I am simply here to be, and help others be, salt (which should disappear in the cooking) and light ( which must be neither too dim nor too bright). And the rest is God’s job. And all I do is help keep the rumour alive.

    And I encourage contemplative prayer, where we sit in silence, and just be with God. Which I believe, God enjoys quite as much as we do.

    And because I’m going a bit deaf I rejoice that our curate is much better at assemblies than I am.. and am happy to let them go. But I’m not senile yet and can still knock out a few worship songs on my guitar..though who knows at what volume!

    And I watch the Church of England organize itself out of existence. Except I don’t mean that. I mean the National Church implodes. But the parishes carry on. In some way, in some form. They will reinvent religion again. Just as Anglicanism was a reinvention for modernity….. what comes next it an exciting adventure…. I read the names of my predecessors, especially those who rode out the mid 1500s and the early 1600s. And I ask for their fortitude, and perhaps prudence too.

    And I thank God that he has gives us no more than bread and breakfast ( so says the Lord’s Prayer) and we have no idea where we shall sleep tomorrow night. But sleep we will. If only we would believe it (we institutionally don’t) that God gives his Church everything it needs to be the Church today. But not tomorrow.

    And I listen while people (especially “senior leaders”) read this (as if!) and shout at me that it’s because of Priests like me the Church has withered.

    And I say, Maybe, maybe.

    But I doubt it, and carry on anyway.

    Stuff leadership. Just be. Laugh a lot at the foolishness of it all and enjoy your Ministry.. (my favourite sermon has the text “If it’s not fun, don’t do it”.)

    oh, and let the Churchwardens deal the Archdeacons 😉

  3. The readings from Colossians and John are very inspiring for leadership. Gentleness is a very effective quality, in dealing with people and yourself. Every blessing.

  4. Dear Andrew, I reckon that, if you celebrate the Eucharist with passion and reverence; whatever follows will be directly informed by the Christ-in-you-the-hope-of-glory.

    Happy Servanthood,

    Fr. Ron Smith (ACANZP)

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