Leander Harding recently wrote “The art of leadership: Playing ‘piano’.” I do not have Leader’s experience, and I consider him a champion of all that is good and glorious in the Church. Yet I found his article unsatisfying on a number of levels. My response here is not so much a critique as a call for more depth and scope in the conversation about leadership in the Church.

First, we need to hear more. It is easy to aphorize and say, “There comes a time for fortissimo leadership,” but it is more instructive for those of us who are still learning the art of church leadership to hear — especially if we are to practice a preference for soft leadership — when strong leadership is called for. Are there rules that can express the general shape of church life that, when encountered, calls for our strongest, boldest leadership?

Once the conversation goes deeper than maxims and anecdotes, I think the use of strong leadership patterns appears much more necessary than Leander has identified. A general rule is that the boldest leadership is that which we must do; it is leadership for those situations where no other option is possible, and which we cannot escape without compromising our integrity as clergy or as Christians. Now there may have been an era when Episcopal priests were confronted with few more serious issues than where to build the new building, or how to carpet the narthex. But in these latter days we are confronted daily with decisions that are not merely cosmetic or even pastoral, but which cut to the vital center of the faith: questions about who God is and whether the age-old words for him are still acceptable, policies that demand a heedless transplant of the ancient Christian boundary stones, and attitudes that compromise our whole church’s claim to continuity with the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. A priest may desire to lead softly with humility but be forced by the nature of the issue at hand to take a stand that is and must be as fortissimo as possible. Or a decision that seems piano in the vestry room may be picked up by others and broadcast much louder and for a much larger audience than intended: witness the situation of a church in Dallas that recently exercised biblical church discipline and was skewered in the local press.

There are also times where fortissimo leadership would solve a problem that softer strategies, which indulge our desire to avoid conflict, only exacerbate. The precipitation of a smaller conflict may be better, in the end, than allowing it to spread through neglect and engulf the whole parish. I hope that Harding could give us guidance as to when we should nip a problem in the bud and when to allow it to grow.

Surely there are times when the lay people of the Church have not correctly discerned God’s will for the parish’s direction: Should a shepherd follow the sheep, or exert his effort to direct them faithfully? Leander expressed a tendency to trust the congregation’s lay people: certainly their spiritual lives are as valid as those of clergy, and they will constantly amaze us with what God can say and do through them. But the body of lay people is, by definition, a mixed body in a way that the college of clergy never should be. The gathered congregation is a net cast wide that includes the formed and the unformed, the strong and the weak, the good and the bad-becoming-good, the solid Anglicans and those whose closeted Congregationalist polity or secret Zwinglian sacramental piety might give them a sense of identity that runs far afield of that which is found in Scripture, prayer book, and canons.

Unless discernment is exercised over who becomes a parish leader and how they are formed (and in many small parishes, where you have to beg, borrow, and plead to fill a vestry slate, this is simply not possible), a pastor might need to lead in stronger ways than she prefers simply to keep the integrity of Anglican identity. Again, there may have been a time when it was more practical to lead piano, but in these days, when the Episcopal Church has not solved but exacerbated its problem of poor biblical literacy, when the pressure on our people to conform to a secular culture’s worldview is immense, when consumerist Christians wander from congregation to congregation seeking the most-comfortable, least-challenging spiritual home — in these days, is it as wise a course as it used to be for a pastor to prefer piano leadership?

Leander notes that even fortissimo leadership needs to follow the example of Jesus going to the cross. But Jesus did not go to the cross because he soft-pedaled his criticism of the Pharisees, or let them figure out their hypocrisy on their own, or merely provided the gentlest hint of a suggestion that he might, in fact, be a divine king. Jesus was crucified because his bold-but-lowly leadership put him squarely in the middle of a network of existing conflicts, and he stood there unwavering, pointing to the truth about God and about himself. Jesus’ example proves the opposite of Harding’s point, and beckons instead for the clergyperson to be willing to withstand every sling and arrow of outrageous fortune, and the sometimes-outrageous words and behavior of Christians in our churches, and the still-outrageous ideological crusade driving Episcopal culture — and having done all, still to stand. There have been far too few clergy of this stripe in the last 50 years of the Episcopal church’s history, and those whom we have had were too often pushed out or under-supported. If the Episcopal Church is languishing, as our yearly Domestic Fast Facts continually suggest, it is not because our seminaries are turning out scores of authoritarian clergy.

A biblical example of the relationship between soft and loud leadership styles is in 1 Thessalonians: Paul reminds the congregation that “we were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children” – an excellent example of piano leadership. But even that gentleness came in a context of boldness and a very loud witness against cultural pressure. He writes, “Our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit, and in much assurance.” The church had “received the word in much affliction.” So much did this church thrive in the midst of conflict that Paul holds it up as an “example to all in Macedonia and Achaia.” Paul claims the word “bold” for his own leadership in this context — boldness “to speak to you the Gospel of God in much conflict.” (1 Thessalonians 1 and 2).

The dichotomy that Harding sets up between piano and fortissimo leadership is an oversimplification. Even in music, there are many dynamics both between and beyond these two terms. Harding is not wrong about the benefits of piano and the dangers of fortissimo leadership: but a wise pastor will know when to be pianissimo, mezzo forte, and forte as well.

The pastoral task demands both power and humility. A pastor’s spiritual authority follows humility: he cannot effectively preach against sin unless he has repented of his own; but he must preach against it. He cannot effectively lead worship unless he can humble his own heart before God in his silent moments; but he must lead it. He cannot effectively teach God’s word unless he has humbled his judgment before Holy Scripture; but he must teach it. He cannot effectively exercise authority in participation with Christ’s leadership unless he has laid prostrate before a bishop and vowed to do so as Christ would, and in faithfulness to the Anglican tradition.

To those who are willing to make that commitment, the church grants a very real, if carefully circumscribed, power, both spiritual and temporal. Harding is not wrong about the need for humility, but there is more to the picture. Bishops, clergy, and lay leaders need to understand the full range of leadership dynamics in their task as leaders of the Church.

About The Author

John Thorpe is the chaplain at St. John’s Episcopal School in Dallas, Texas. His Covenant posts are here.

He grew up in Oklahoma as a self-proclaimed “Protestant mutt,” becoming an Episcopalian in his teenage years through St. Augustine’s, Tempe, Arizona, and Church of the Good Shepherd in Sapulpa, Oklahoma. He attended Oral Roberts University, earning one degree in music composition and another in theological/historical studies in 2002.

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