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 the residentiary canon of Brecon Cathedral in mid-Wales, with primary responsibility for pastoral care, community engagement, and formation.

Mark has published four books: On Consumer Culture, Identity, the Church and the Rhetorics of Delight (Reading Augustine. Bloomsbury), Rescuing the Church from Consumerism (SPCK), Eloquent Wisdom: Rhetoric, Cosmology and Delight in the Theology of Augustine of Hippo (Brepols), and Stewards of God’s Delight: Becoming Priests of the New Creation (Cascade).

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8 years ago

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.

8 years ago

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… Read more »

8 years ago
Reply to  Mark Clavier

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… Read more »

8 years ago

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… Read more »

8 years ago

…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… Read more »

8 years ago

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,… Read more »

8 years ago

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.