Leadership; idolatry and reality.

Do we need to be more realistic about those who ‘lead’ us and, ‘leadership’ as a phenomenon?

If we are not realistic I think that our responses, or attitudes, towards a particular leader are going be either largely dismissive of their capacity to perform the role they have been asked to fulfill or, uncritically accepting that every view they hold and, every aspect of their preferred way of doing things is always appropriate.

I suggest that we ‘followers’ need to be aware of two equally toxic responses to our leaders and they way they perform their roles. We are likely to afford them either too little, or too much esteem.

Too little esteem is toxic in that erodes the platform from which they conduct their leadership. Too little esteem undermines the institution and, institutional processes that led to their appointment (this is not to argue that the institution and its processes are perfect – they’re not!) Too little esteem undermines the office that they hold. And, if we believe that God calls people into positions of authority and leadership in the Church (as the liturgies for ordination, licensing, installation and so forth suggest) then I guess we stand the risk of undermining God’s work?

Too much esteem is dangerous, and toxic, because it either assumes that the leader is infallible, or it projects our preferences onto the leader. Is this a form of idolatry? Too much esteem also runs the risk of letting us off the hook. If we simply agree with everything the leader believes and uncritically mimic their ways of leading then, I think, we are in real danger. We cease to become a community and mutate into a cult.

Communities are places characterized, in part, by difference. Difference in  ways of thinking about the world and its problems and, differences in ways of both being and doing. Of course healthy communities also have stabilizers, to prevent an anything goes culture, but if communities insist on everyone believing and behaving in the same way on each and every issue, they become a modern-day reflection of the first century Pharisaic communities.

If we are honest with ourselves there must be things about every leader, even if we are broadly sympathetic, with their beliefs and characteristic ways of doing things, that irk us (even if only ever so slightly).

There may be several reasons for our feelings of ‘irk’ (is this even a word?). The leader might in some ways be genuinely irksome. Leaders, aren’t as I have already suggested, perfect. But, it could be that our own perspectives and preferences render the leader irksome; that’s not their fault. Alternatively there could be some prior experiences, or set of allegiances, that condition us to find fault and, find it early. When assessing our reactions to leaders, and the concept, of leadership an honest process of reflection may help? As I say without it we run the very real risks of granting too much, or too little, esteem both of which are unfair to the leader and, potentially toxic.

We also need to develop the ability to appreciate the extent to which our spiritual leaders can control events; in management speak this is referred to as their ‘span of control.’ This means we have to develop a realistic view of the world and the system in which the leader operates.

Very few leaders, and Church Leaders in particular, can be expected to be revolutionary either in terms of the results they secure or, their exercise of leadership.

Leadership is in many ways, by necessity, an exercise in beautifully crafted pragmatism. This does not mean that debates should be shut down and idealists silenced. But, it might mean that we shouldn’t expect ‘our’ idealists (or even our best theologians) to sit at the summit of the institution. Most of the Old Testament prophets resided on the margins of the religious community. Pragmatism is much maligned these days, but realistically it is core to the leadership of people and institutions.

In last week’s Church Times two leaders were profiled (well actually three, Andrew Atherstone wrote an article following the ‘revelations’ about Justin Welby’s background) Barry Morgan and Pope Francis.

Barry Morgan, the Archbishop of Wales, has copped a fair bit of flak, from ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ alike following the Church in Wales decision to write prayers (I would argue liturgies) to affirm, but not bless, same-sex unions. ++Morgan comments that:

‘We knew, for some people, this would be a step too far, and for other people this would not go far enough,’ and, ‘we want to affirm homosexual people. I realize that what we have done is LIMITED in scope, but we have done THE BEST WE CAN, GIVEN THE CONSTRAINTS UPON US CONSTITUTIONALLY.’

These quotes show that ++Morgan’s leadership does not operate in a vacuum. They also show that, as with all of us, doing our ‘best’ is important. Best does not necessarily mean perfect, best does not imply keeping each and every follower happier.Best may mean that no one is completely satisfied. For if best means satisfying one group, at the expense of another, what remains is a game where the winner takes all, and this is the way to fragmentation, isolation and ostracization of the loser.

No, we need leaders who do the best they can, within the limits of their ‘span of control,’ and ‘scope of authority.’

What then of Pope Francis? Well, he too is unlikely to have pleased the most militant of ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ in his reflection on the family: Amoris Laetitia. But, according to ‘Pope Watcher’ Paul Vallely Francis has managed to ‘nudge’ the Roman Catholic Church in a new direction. The new direction is partly concerned with a softening of certain doctrinal stances, but has more to do with how the Roman Catholic Church is to be led.

Vallely argues that Francis, through his advocacy of subsidiarity (the principle that pastoral decisions should be made at the ‘lowest’ effective point, and that uniformity of practice is secondary to context), is the first authentic Post Vatican ii leader. Quite some claim! If Vallely is correct, however, what Francis is saying is extraordinary and runs something like this:

‘Even though I am Pope, don’t hold me in too much esteem. My role is to get you all to think and behave according to the context you find yourselves in. Not everything needs to be neat and tidy. My role is not to provide a new set of ‘general rules canonical in nature, and applicable in all cases,’ (this is a direct quote from the text). My role is to get ‘each country and region’ to ‘seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs.’

The point is this: if you are looking for uniformity, neat, tidy, homogeneous solutions, you are going to be disappointed. The world isn’t geared up to such outcomes, and neither is the Church. Only cults and dictatorships are able to achieve universally applicable, neat and tidy responses and, ways of doing things.

Leaders can’t and shouldn’t be expected to sort everything out. We shouldn’t project our own beliefs and aspirations on to the leader for if we do we run the significant risk of either undermining God’s elected representatives, or turning them into an idol. We need to be both realistic and pragmatic in our appraisal of the Church’s leadership. We also need a generosity of spirit which accepts that most leaders seek to do their best and, that the best often falls short of our own, theoretical, standards of perfection.




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