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.

8755526695_23dff7d746_zThink 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.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Mark Clavier is Canon Theologian of the Diocese of Swansea and Brecon in the Church in Wales, Bishop’s Chaplain, and Vicar of St Mary’s Brecon.

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8 Responses

  1. Charlie Clauss

    You open the door to looking at the place of “efficiency” in the world and how the Church has taken it on as a core value.

    If what we are about is “getting things done,” then we need leaders who will do it “efficiently.”

    But we are not about accomplishment, and so the world’s primary criteria for leadership is not appropriate.

  2. Benjamin Guyer

    In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, there was quite a lot of debate about the Church’s incorporation of various secular (meaning non-ecclesial, rather than non-religious) legal standards and procedures. The cultures of the Church had been heavily shaped by monastic practices and, although these remained, they now had to share space with legal training and, among other things, its attendant quest for legal clarity. Plenty of monks were upset by it (one recalls Bernard of Clairvaux complaining about the new influence of Justinian), but can one really imagine Aquinas’s Summa without the legal background that helped give rise to (and later sustained so much of) scholastic theology? Monastic Biblical commentary is fascinating stuff, but no one today looks at that material as representative of the so-called medieval ‘synthesis’. Rather, they turn to Aquinas. Of course, the system wasn’t perfect, but no system is.

    How is the use of managerial terminology now any different than the use of legal terminology then? Are not both – management and law – ways that human beings have sought to organize themselves, and do not both constitute non-experimental investigations into nature that aim at the better attainment of human well being? (I am taking it as a give that, as Aristotle and so many after him affirmed, human nature is inherently political.)

    I sympathize with the claim that none of us have ever met a leader, but one could also argue that it is a non sequitur as all of us have experienced leadership. I sympathize too with the claim that the symbols, etc., of Christianity can be forgotten amidst managerialism. But at the same time, there is no actual evidence that this has happened. In terms of logic, correlation does not imply causation. Although ecclesial managers might very well lose sight of the liturgy and all it contains, of the creed and all it conveys, etc., there is no necessary reason why they should do so. (So too, despite criticisms long ago, scholastics did not abandon mysticism – and Aquinas, again, is a remarkable example of this.) An argument against change should in some way(s) show how change results in a set of necessities that are somehow antithetical to the Church. The above article does not show this.

    I suspect that the rise of managerial standards have resulted from both change and decline in a wide variety of other standards – doctrinal and moral standards to be sure, but also simply due to change in how humans today think that things ought to be done. Insofar as change demands us to revisit our cherished assumption and submit them to the cold, harsh, and even brutal light of reason (by which I mean methodologically sound investigation), change is a good thing. Truth never has anything to fear. The same cannot be said of romanticism.

  3. Mark Clavier


    In many ways, what you say is right. From a viewpoint, the aping of managerialism is not better or worse than the aping of other power structures by church dignitaries: Roman patricians, Feudal lords, Georgian gentry, and the like. In fact, I think the Church can’t help but do that, often much to the regret of later generations. And you raise a particularly good example, as the legal developments of the 12th/13th century impacted the ministry powerfully. Given constraints, I’ll point to just three differences:

    1. Although obviously rooted in the classical tradition, the law codes of Justinian were deeply shaped by the Christian tradition (compiled and edited as they were by Christian scholars within self-consciously Christian culture), operated within a shared understanding of the world (albeit more Eastern), and grew out of shared traditions and assumptions: divine order, role of law, cosmology, not to mention the guiding role of Scripture. Those who made use of it in the West (Gratian & co.) were themselves immersed within a Christian culture that could easily absorb and adapt new strains of thought and practices from sympathetic sources. Equally, there were many other possibly useful sources they rejected (aspects of Aristotelianism, for example). My own view of managerialism is that its excarnational and mechanistic methods and ends (efficiency and productivity for their own good) are antithetical to the Gospel. That is not to deny that there is much practical know-how within the business world and organisational theory that can be baptised and put to good use.

    2. I would be far more sanguine were it not for the growing dominance of managerialism in all sectors. I regularly get to experience two of them–the Church and the Academy–and see first hand how demoralising those multitude of policies can be. I can’t even begin to describe to you the pressure on ordinands, clergy and lecturers here to conform to a narrow understanding of leadership (which is itself a fabricated model built from a collection of ever-shifting certified courses in techniques and practices).

    3. Finally, I’m glad that you raise the issue of romanticism. Guilty as charged. But I see us entering a world that’s like a world where romantic love has been banished as poppycock (which it can scientifically been shown to be) and replaced with rationalised practices to satisfy biochemical impulses implanted for the reproduction of the species. May be more logical, rational and even theoretically efficient; but I suspect most people would agree that something important has been lost along the way.

    • Zachary Guiliano

      An interesting quote in this context: “Monastic Biblical commentary is fascinating stuff, but no one today looks at that material as representative of the so-called medieval ‘synthesis’. Rather, they turn to Aquinas.”

      The sentence presumes that we want to find the “so-called medieval ‘synthesis'” and that its fruits are wholly desirable. The medieval synthesis that most refer to is simply one reaction, in one part of the Middle Ages, to the ever present need to understand and interpret Scripture and tradition in the light of inspired reason.

      Personally, I’m rather less interested in that (and the hype surrounding it) and more interested in the monastic (and episcopal and canonical and scholastic) biblical commentary method of theological inquiry, which has rather more productive things to show us about the interpretation of Scripture and the passing on of tradition. The Summa mode of inquiry was somewhat of an aberration, not the norm.

      But that’s me being cranky. I probably ought to say something about management culture. Frankly, I fail to see the analogy you’re drawing, Ben. The reception of legal reasoning and Aristotelianism are hardly like the reception of contemporary management norms.

      Let me just voice a general note of caution, though, as I am not entirely negative when it comes to applying management norms to ecclesiastical structures. Administration, after all, is a spiritual gift (1 Cor 12:27-28), and if it doesn’t consist in certain methods and skills applied to the organization of human productivity, I’m not really sure what it is.

  4. Jordan Hylden

    Really great stuff here on church leadership. (I’m re-posting this comment from my Facebook page.)

    Like many, Fr Clavier here has issues with business-speak about ‘leadership’ being imported into the church wholesale. The philosophical point, I think, was made 25 years ago in MacIntyre’s After Virtue, where he criticized the very idea of the “manager” who’s supposed to be an expert in leading groups without any reference to shared ends, practices, and virtues.
    Clavier says that in the church, this is an example of “excarnation,” cf. Charles Taylor. The very idea of a “leader” is entirely non-role-specific, meant to apply to leading everything from baseball teams to Amway sales teams to churches. But coaches, salespeople, and priests are not generic leaders, but specific persons who have authority in a group w/r/t its shared aims, inherited traditions, and practices, and who manifest the virtues that the good life in such a group demands. (I’m getting more MacIntyre here than Clavier was, I think, but I’m a Duke student and I can’t help it.)

    Ok. I think that’s all very good. Yet at the same time I continue to think that if we keep the main thing the main thing (which is NOT generic ‘leadership,’) nevertheless we can learn a good deal from the business and management world. (Cf. Greg Jones and his Faith and Leadership initiative at Duke.) How do you lead a meeting well? How do you encourage and inspire your staff? How do you keep a large organization focused rather than scattered?

    To my mind, this is analogous to the widespread use of family-systems psychology among the clergy. And, to the TREC report on the future of the Episcopal Church, which Keith Voets and Crusty Old Dean among others have decried as mere technical and managerial deck-chair-shuffling, while our real problems are theological. There’s always the temptation, which is the temptation of a liberal (read: not left-wing, but liberalism as political type) society: in the absence of substantive shared ends, focus instead on technical or ‘scientific’ (supposedly, universal across traditions) or managerial bullet points. Can’t agree on who Jesus is and what he calls us to be? Well, ok then, we can at least all agree that the House of Deputies is way too big. (And I do think it’s too big… but the point is, if that’s all we can do together, then we have bigger problems than the size of the House of Deputies.)

    Yes, yes, this stuff can be useful, so let’s use it, but let’s also recognize that descriptive languages tend to come along with their own theological and anthropological assumptions, and work very carefully to see how we can use them while keeping the main thing the main thing: the Gospel of Christ, the body of Christ, the church’s embodied life of worship, prayer, and discipleship. (Cf. Sam Wells, Stanley Hauerwas).

    P.S.– This is half-baked, but that’s what blog comments are for…

  5. Jordan Hylden

    …And Mark responded to me thus, also on Facebook:

    “Remember, I’m a Dukie, too! And, I agree, that there is much useful practical knowledge from the business world that can be used in our churches. As long as we understand it to be practical ‘know-how’ and not something else. In other words, one can master all the various elements now identified with leadership (’emotional intelligence’, ‘change management’, ‘collaborative leadership, etc.,) and still be a thoroughly useless priest! What I’m less confident about it that one can dive headlong into the world of management theory and techniques and hold long onto an understanding of the priestly ministry rooted in the Gospel and the Church’s tradition. ‘What good is it for someone to gain the world and lose his soul’.”

  6. Neil Dhingra

    I really liked this post, but I wonder if it might prove useful to contrast the pseudo-scientific, “standardized,” “rationalized” idea of leadership to something like Isaiah Berlin’s idea of political judgment, instead of “poetry.”

    In place of unchanging laws or systems, Berlin espouses a capacity for “integrating a vast amalgam of constantly changing, multicolored, evanescent, perpetually overlapping data.” It is like “practical wisdom, practical reason, maybe,” “a capacity for taking in the total pattern of a human situation, of the way in which things hang together,” and so on.

    We see this judgment, he suggests, in novelists, cooks, and gardeners, as well as statesmen. Perhaps we also see it in certain businessmen. Thus, I’d think that this capacity really could be taught to a certain extent. But this is different from being schooled in “scientific socialism” or Comtean sociology.

    So, it would seem that one can oppose certain dogmatically inflexible concepts of leadership without dismissing leadership tout court and ignoring the businessmen.

  7. Christopher Wells

    Excellent comment, Neil. I think that’s my view. “Leadership” is indeed a useful notion, however lame much of the literature is around it–precisely to account for the “capacity”/skill for “integrating a vast amalgam of constantly changing, multicolored, evanescent, perpetually overlapping data.” Yes, successful businessmen often have this capacity, and many academics and other dreamers (whom I love) do not, some of whom would do well to cultivate it.

    It may also be useful to recall analogously that, e.g., the priesthood or Christian theology are still useful notwithstanding many lite-and-popular treatments, deconstructions, explorations, and so forth.


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