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.

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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.

About The Author

Dr. Garwood P. Anderson is Dean and President of Nashotah House Theological Seminary, where he also holds a chair as Professor of New Testament.

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2 Responses

  1. Jonathan Mitchican

    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 time may have no bearing at all upon leadership in another place and time. So looking for “leadership qualities” is a bit of a misnomer and is probably not the best place to direct discernment over whether the Holy Spirit is actively calling someone into the ministry, particularly the priesthood. When it comes to the priesthood, I would be far more interested in knowing someone’s relationship with and sense of calling towards the Holy Eucharist than how personable or extroverted they are. I know plenty of introverts who are extremely good preachers, teachers, and pastors. I also know plenty of extroverts who are very bad at being preachers, teachers, and pastors.

    Second, I can speak as someone who had the opposite experience coming out of seminary. While I was in seminary, people were always clamoring on about how seminaries ought to teach “real world skills” like how to handle budgets and preside over meetings. I took more than once class designed specifically for that. But now that I’ve been ordained for almost a decade, what I wish I’d done while in seminary was more theology and more biblical languages. I am grateful for every bit of that which I had. I think there would be some benefit to making sure that parish internships deal with some of those topics. It would certainly be useful. But most of that stuff you can learn on the job. What a seminary can give you that you cannot get elsewhere is a strong grounding and formation in the Christian tradition. That is what I fall back upon when I am at the bedside of someone dying of cancer and I don’t know what to say, or when I am preparing a sermon after a particularly devastating moment in the life of my community, or even when I am trying to get a handle on how to make the budget work. Seminary is only three years, not nearly enough time if you ask me. Given that shortage of time, what ought to be emphasized is what is most pressing. I really wish I could have back every moment I wasted in leadership seminars.

    Grace and Peace,

    Fr. Jonathan

    Reply
  2. Garwood Anderson

    Jonathan, I appreciated your comments very much. After reading them, I wondered if you think we are very far apart in our thinking, or if yours is a refinement of what I’ve said. If the latter, I would concur (to the extent that I can concur with the autobiographical bits).

    As for “leadership” being a “thing,” I think we disagree. I am rather confident that it is a “thing,” but with you I completely resist the notion that it is a stereotyped thing. I hope that you saw that in the original post when I reject the “personality / temperament” explanation for the dearth of leadership. For example, I think that extroversion and introversion are completely irrelevant to the question of leadership, other than that such tendencies make up some of the raw materials or givens that a person brings to the party. But that’s all. (In the spirit of full disclosure, there may be some self-interest at work on this point, since I am an off the charts introvert.) So I was actually trying to argue against a presumptive stereotype for what we mean by a “leader.” I would say, however, that, leadership being an interpersonal endeavor, that a functional emotional IQ of some sort is not optional.

    You will also have noticed that my little post was steering away from a strict equation of clergy and leadership, believing that lay people are an important part of the whole fabric and, if well formed in the Christian faith, having an extraordinary capacity for influence (here also I confess self-interest). But as it concerns seminary training (for whom prospective clergy are the primary audience), you will see that I relativized the ultimacy of “leadership training,” though I sometimes wonder (being in this business) if we could not do a better job of integrating leadership concerns throughout the curriculum, to wit: the centrality of character and integrity; that trust and wisdom are precious commodities; the need to take responsibility for oneself and for the well-being of communities in which one is a member, and so on. Some people get this; some don’t. It is extraordinary to meet clergy who are among the latter. But I’m really not thinking in terms of seminars and “sure-fire principles and the like–though the routine cluelessness about practical matters I observe does concern me, and if I knew there were ways to spare people of shooting themselves in the foot, I would endorse such interventions.

    Anyway, how can I not love your response when you say, “what I wish I’d done while in seminary was more theology and more biblical languages.” Hear, hear! I gotta say, if your response is to me, “Now there’s a guy with an emotional IQ off the charts!”

    Thanks for engaging. Cheers.

    Reply

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