You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. (Matthew 20:25)
The Church of England is all aflutter with reactions to the so-called “Green Report,” which outlines ways that the Church can identify “talent” who can be trained as future leaders of the Church. In it, we are presented with assumptions and ideas about “leadership,” which has become the new buzzword within Anglican circles. As the Acting Principal and Dean of Residential Training of St Michael’s College, Llandaff, I must confess that I’m not surprised. Leadership training is the new hot commodity in theological formation; I suspect it’s a rare seminary or theological college that isn’t under pressure to develop courses in Church or Ministry Leadership, either to meet a need perceived by the Church hierarchy or to attract students and funding.
The other reason why it’s not surprising that leadership is the new hot commodity is because we now live in a world in which commerce is everything. The most cutting remarks about the Green Report have been directed at its seemingly wholesale and uncritical importation of business-speak and managerial concepts. It seems to imagine future church leaders, armed now with all the professional development training that one would find in corporate culture, redeeming the Church from its incompetence and outmoded ways. That may be harsh — and the Report does contain some useful wisdom — but it describes the impression the language and promotion of the Report seems to have made on a great many Anglicans (interestingly, liberals and conservatives alike).
We should prepare ourselves for a lot more language about leadership in the months and years to come. Already, I’ve noticed that leader is regularly used in places where, not so long ago, we would have used minister or even priest. Take, for example, the transformation of “collaborative ministry” into “collaborative leadership.” We are quickly becoming a Church of certified leaders: “Take the course and you, too, can be identified as a true leader.” Whether this will make any real difference to the fortunes of the Church is another matter altogether.
Here’s the thing: none of us have ever actually met a leader.
Think about it for a moment. Except for the famous image of a ray-gun wielding Martian saying, “Take me to your leader,” we hardly ever call someone a leader. We’d probably think someone odd if he or she opened with, “Hello, I’m a leader.” The reason for this is that leader is a category or a type rather than an actual person. The word is normally used to provide a rationalized or standardized way of understanding particular roles within organizations. So, institutions can offer “leadership training” to a wide audience who can then take back various techniques and insights to improve the performance of their organization, be it an accountancy firm, school, global corporation, or, it now seems, the Church.
But there aren’t actually any leaders. To use my examples above, there may be a chief accountant, a principal or a headteacher, a CEO or a bishop, but none of them is actually this curious creature called a leader. Leadership is simply a set of characteristics that these various roles share in common. Of course, the implication is also that organisations contain lots of followers (however much they get to bask in the collaborative leadership of their leaders); but, thus far, no one has had the gumption to offer courses in “Collaborative Following” or “Ministry Following-ship.”
For all the benefits of rationalizing leadership into something that can be packaged and promoted for the benefit of others, the very act of doing so begins to break down its connection with actual flesh-and-blood human beings. It’s an example of “excarnation” (to borrow a wonderful word from Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age). That is, it lifts actual roles — each with their own traditions, ends, contexts, and relationships — out of the real world by disembodying them. Once done, those roles can be treated scientifically or, even better, turned into a commodity, which we can then fit, like a puzzle piece, into our complex, excarnated, and rationalized organizational systems. That’s the language we know best.
But it’s also the language of disenchantment. I can get hold of the image of a parish priest, bishop, lay minister, warden, and the like. I may imbue those images with all sorts of romanticized nonsense, but that only speaks to the power of my affection for, attachment to, and experience of those people. I’ve known each of them as actual people in a hundred different guises in a hundred different places and situations. Indeed, as I wrote those words, images of the actual people sprang to mind whereas when I think of a leader no one concrete appears; the image is vague and somehow clinical. The difference is that the parish priest, bishop, lay minister, and warden actually exist and have existed within an actual community (the Church) whose beliefs, traditions, and ends shape all its people in a unique way. To standardize those roles is to rob them of their magic every bit as much as when we begin to think of our faith in terms of mythic archetypes. As for the supposed “leader,” he or she only exists within a system explained on the two-dimensional surface of a page.
And that takes me to what makes me most anxious about all this leadership talk: it strikes me as the kind of language people use when they no longer really believe in what they purport to uphold. It suggests surrender, that we no longer actually believe in the Church as the Church, the ministry as the ministry, the mission of God as an actual mission of salvation, the uniqueness of the Body of Christ as a mystical community.
Now, the goal is to make the organization work in an efficient way so that it can continue to exist in whatever bureaucratic guise is deemed most useful. To chase after the rationalized concept of leadership is already to have half-forgotten the tradition of ministry within the Church. It is to have lost touch with the Church’s own culture, imagination, symbolism, and ethic. It is to view it as an outsider, as the cold analyzer, as one without poetry running through his or her veins. Above all else, it is to lose sight that the Church’s ministry, embodied in all who seek to fulfill their vocation within the Church, sprang partly from Christ berating his own disciples not to lord it over each other but serve one another as he served them. He offered no program on how to do that; he didn’t even leave us a seven-step process. He simply gave us himself nailed cruelly to a tree and the Spirit poured out into our hearts so that we might manifest, however imperfectly, his broken, resurrected and glorified body through Word and Sacrament to our world and our generation. That is the richly theological, poetic, and humanely Gospel image to which our ministry strives to conform and to which our liturgy, hymns, symbols and ethic point.
I, for one, will take that image over that of rationalized leadership any day of the week, however inefficient it may be deemed to be.