The Episcopal Church has more leaders than it has leadership, that is, more persons in positions of responsibility than the capacity to exercise that responsibility well. In this, we are not alone, but the fact that we have company is not even small comfort, but rather sorrow upon sorrow.

I think what I just said is true, but I don’t know how I would prove it; my evidence is anecdotal, as would be the case of any who should think I am mistaken. Nonetheless, I think that there is evidence of a leadership shortage in the form of an institution declining by every objective measure at a breakneck pace. Even in a season of significant downturn in “organized religion,” we are among the leaders of the pack. Anecdotally (and, again, I’m not sure how else to substantiate the claim), our church seems to have more than its share of persons — from vestries to bishops and everything in between — occupying offices that are just beyond their ken, sometimes having vacated a role for which they were reasonably well-suited for one for which they are not (with many, to be sure, just where they ought to be). That most of these are gracious, faithful, and well-intentioned folk does not change this fact, although it evokes admiration and compassion. It is good and right to spiritualize that last observation by noting that God calls people beyond their natural capacities and undertakes for earthen vessels, that no one is sufficient in themselves, that God does not call the able but enables the called, and so on. To all of that we exclaim a hearty “Amen.” Yes, yes. But can we also agree that, even if all of that is true, it still remains the case that too many holders of office in our church are not especially good at what they do?

Those who read this scenario similarly might offer a variety of accounts for why it is so. One explanation is sociological. It is regularly noted that the Anglican ethos and corresponding aesthetic draws to it persons of moderate temperaments, contemplative, introverted, retiring, passive, conflict-averse, and so on — not the stock whence is drawn the natural leader. For such as these, it can be supposed that leadership is an ill-fitting cassock on the contemplative spiritual director or just a mantle too heavy on the shoulders of the bookish sage. Should we not celebrate the gifts they have rather than rue what is “missing?” Indeed. Yet if there is some truth to this generalization on all counts, it falters as a satisfactory explanation, not only because the generalization admits countless exceptions, but, more problematically, it assumes that such personality traits are antithetical to Christian (!) leadership. Unless we are willing to define leadership as extroversion, self-assertion, ambition, or a need to be in charge (Heaven forbid, literally!), then this will not entirely satisfy as an explanation of our shortage.

A second, partial explanation lays the responsibility at the feet of our instruments of formation. It is pointed out that seminaries, for example, do all kinds of marvelous work in the preparation of clergy, save perhaps for training them to do the work that will occupy most of their time and attention and which will almost surely define success and satisfaction — administration, communication, planning, leading meetings, reckoning with finances, working toward consensus, moving ahead without it, managing conflict, decision-making, and so on. While I doubt if any of our seminaries fail to give some keen, even expert, attention to all of that, it probably still remains the case that most alums have a mental (or written!) list of “what they should have taught us in seminary” after a few years in the parish, and, for better or worse, “a more detailed account of Nestorianism” doesn’t make its way on that list. Seminaries and other training entities should surely do better on this score — I think it is fair to expect that of us — but it is unlikely that even several excellent courses of this sort would make leaders of those disinclined to leadership, any more than a few excellent courses in historical theology will make experts in Nestorianism of those averse to philosophy. People and curricula are both finite.

This observation points us one step back to the discernment and selection of our would-be leaders. Here, practical and generous impulses conspire toward an unwitting subversion of an otherwise admirable process. The practical impulse is the reality that dioceses have, or will have, positions that need to be “filled” (think about that word “filled”), and good people are offering themselves to God to do the work of ministry. How do you say “no” to that? And so this is frequently reasoned:

I don’t suppose this is the sort of person who is likely to turnaround a declining parish or to lead a growing one, but the sense of call is so sincere, and, besides, there is plenty of pastoral ministry that isn’t all about “building churches.” Success isn’t all about numbers, after all.

And so on. Meanwhile, before long, this sort of exception actually becomes the rule, since people invariably aspire to the available models, while mentors call and replicate themselves. If one should doubt that this is so, ask a bishop if they have a longer list of (1) caretakers and placeholders (to say nothing of troubled and toxic clergy) or (2) persons with a charism for planting a church or turning around a declining parish or leading a parish from viable to dynamic and growing.

I’m sure there are more possible accounts of the leadership deficit, but I would propose one more, a counter-intuitive one at that: the episcopacy. Well, not the episcopacy itself, but what becomes of the episcopacy when it goes the way of all flesh, and not the episcopacy alone, but what that symbol might convey as an enculturating token of hierarchy. Mind you, what follows here is not a complaint about or against any of the supremely dedicated, self-sacrificing, and hard-working men and women who have “taken one for the team” in the thankless job of diocesan bishop. Even less is it a complaint against the noble, and as I understand it, right polity that understands bishops as necessary to the definition of the church, if not her sine qua non.

I suggest, however, that the very role that embodies and symbolizes leadership itself can be inimical to leadership. It is inimical to leadership because, besides embodying and symbolizing leadership, the episcopacy is invested with unmerited authority, as indeed it should be. Left to itself or in the wrong hands, the concentration of authority in an office to which obedience is owed, reinforces all of the wrong habits and becomes subversive of leadership. Thus, a person who plays the authority-of-the-office card often is not demonstrating “leadership” or exercising “spiritual authority” or even “courage,” even if playing that card will win the admiration of some and is sometimes necessary as a last resort. But the very need to play the card is an implicit concession to a failure further upstream. That “the card” needed playing is a sign that persuasion, consent, and deferring trust have failed, so that all that was left was “the card.” Persons in any office who play “the card” frequently concede unwittingly in doing so that they are not very effective leaders.

Because as a matter of instinct, we all tend to lead as we are led — from Presiding Bishop to usher and altar guild — “the card” is invoked in the sociology of this tradition unto our undoing. The right structure is prone to yield the wrong results, weakening the fabric in the process. Paradoxically, leadership laziness is crouching at the door of the church’s hardest working servants and is constitutive of a larger culture where office and hierarchy function as shortcuts. Office holders rightly hold “the card”; leaders play with a full deck.

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Dear Woody, I appreciate the way you have named a problem here, the dearth of leadership in the Church and the lack of consideration of leadership potential by commissions on ministry. That said, I am concerned about this in two ways. First of all, I suspect of the notion that “leadership” is actually a thing. It strikes me as a kind of pop sociology that has become fanciful in corporate circles and has now started to bleed over into the Church. There are lots of different kinds of leaders, and what makes one a great leader in one place and… Read more »