As the debate on how women will enter episcopal office is delayed until November it struck me this morning how this conversation questions an assumption of leadership that is prevalent throughout the church. The issue of leadership and how we talk about such a topic has baffled me for some time and I continue to struggle to articulate my discomfort with it. Essentially it circles around the, as far as I see, overemphasis on ‘leadership’.
Since Easter friends and colleagues have been jetting off to participate in leadership conference after leadership conference. Christian leaders have met all across the country to discuss how we can be better leaders and to encourage us to lead the church and to hear the best ways to lead…
I have not been to any of these conferences, partly because I know I’d be frustrated and sin by not loving my brothers and sisters because of their ‘misplaced passions’; this means that my reflections are not pointed at any one of these conferences. Indeed the conferences, in and of themselves, are not the problem but the popularity and vast array of them communicates something that needs to be questioned. Many of my friends and colleagues have come back with stories of encouragement and inspiration and I really don’t want to deny them the power and truth of those experiences. I do, however, want to briefly explore the question, “Is focussing on leadership detrimental to equality and unity of God’s church?”
HTB (Holy Trinity Brompton) Leadership conference was a two day event taking over the Albert Hall with seminars and talks from leaders across the world. This was followed, two weeks later, by New Wine Leadership conference, this one taking three days. What was interesting was that the people who went to HTB Leadership Conference also seemed to go to New Wine Leadership Conference! Alongside these national events there have been countless diocesan training events and programmes to help encourage leaders within the church. The intentions behind such programmes are good and healthy but like most things, only in moderation. As I hear about more and more of these events I have become increasingly uncomfortable and see it as betray a cultural shift towards an, often explicit, belief that to further God’s Kingdom we need strong leaders.
Why do we need so many leaders? Where are the servant conferences?
I was ordained a deacon last week and, as I approached the day I took on Holy Orders, my prayers circled around being made nothing, empty, naked before God; Stripped of any talent, ‘gift’, strength, competences, everything which made me feel I could do or be what was being asked of me. I wanted to say, “My one desire to seek you and to be transformed into your likeness. I want to be more and more Christ-like.” Philippians offers a great guide to being a disciple of Christ.
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:1-8 NRSV)
My first and only call is to follow Christ, not to lead. We are disciples, a people chosen, not because of what we can do but because of God’s good pleasure. We are chosen to follow Him, to be transformed into His likeness and what did he do? He humbled himself, he emptied himself, he took on the form of a slave. Paul urges us to let the same mind be in us that was in Christ as He did these things. I can find no place in Scripture where Jesus commands us to lead in strength; in fact, I can only see him command us to be like slaves, to put ourselves last, to serve. To have a conference specifically focused on improving yourself for leadership, equipping you with gifts of leadership is an anomaly in my eyes. Firstly it’s a gift given by God not demanded by us. Secondly if we study the gift and not the giver then we are surely committing idolatry. I am not suggesting that these conferences are not considering God in them but the moment we talk about how we use a gift our eyes are taken off the giver. Thirdly, and most importantly, this fascination with this one role when we have yet to grasp fully what it means to be a humble disciple of Him is building a tower on weak foundations.
I spent my preparation time for ordination reading Thomas Merton and a theme that continued to encourage me is summed up when he quotes John of Ruysbroeck (I apologise for the dated gender exclusivity!),
The interior man enters into himself …to apply himself to a simple gaze in fruitive love. There he encounters God without intermediary. And from the unity of God there shines into him a simple light. This simple light shows itself to be darkness, nakedness and nothingness. In this darkness, the man is enveloped and he plunges in a state without modes, in which he is lost. In nakedness, all consideration and distraction of things escape him, and he is informed and penetrated by a simple light. In nothingness he sees all his works come to nothing, for he is overwhelmed by the activity of God’s immense love, and by the fruitive inclination of His Spirit he… becomes one spirit with God (John Ruysbroeck, The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage II)
I would suggest our one task is to contemplate God, to seek His reign in our lives. What unites us together, so Paul suggests in his letter to Ephesians, is our identity in Christ. We are united when we cast off all other things that define us and distinguish us and we are known only as ‘in Christ’. Paul also says in Galatians,
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28 NRSV)
Here is where our focus on leadership may be disrupting our unity in Christ. If we separate ourselves on those who are leaders and those who are not, we are divided as we have put our ministries before our discipleship and the simple command to love God. The moment we segregate ourselves off in the belief that one disciple can’t or shouldn’t be listened to or served we deny their part in Christ, Merton asserts.
Without contemplation and interior prayer the Church cannot fulfill her mission to transform and save mankind. Without contemplation, she will be reduced to being the servant of cynical and worldly powers, no matter how hard her faithful may protest that they are fighting for the Kingdom of God. (Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer)
Steven Croft famously states,
The word leader is now being used not only as a substitute for the Anglican titles priest or presbyter but also in preference to the much more common expressions of minister (meaning ‘servant’) or pastor. This change of use in the way we describe the ordained should give us pause for thought… As John Finney points out, one Greek word which is never used to describe Christian ministers in the New Testament is the word archon, the normal secular greek word for a leader in business or politics or industry. (Steven Croft, Ministry in Three Dimensions)
As we consider the headship of the Church let us all stop and reaffirm that our only head is Christ and let us contemplate Him above all else. Let us cast off these designators of male and female, educated and uneducated, northern and southern, ordained and lay and begin in unity of Christ admitting the truth of our condition as dust enlivened by the Spirit of God by His grace and good pleasure for the praise of His glory and nothing else.
One may ask about the role of the ordained. I see my ordination as the church, here on earth, publicly declaring that they affirm me as a model of discipleship. This may sound like a glorious thing for my ego but if you consider what is being said it becomes scarier than you first thought. I am to be the model of discipleship. All people will now look upon me and judge the Christ I profess to emulate; that’s a massive responsibility and one that I fail at many times each day. The congregation I now belong to have me as a living example of what it means to serve and follow Jesus (pray for them!) This leads to a side not on why more people should consider ordained ministry and why we need to begin a big conversation as to the role of ordained ministers in the church… not for now though!
Back to my main point; Our one call is to be disciples of Christ our one and only head. We must seek to be united in Him as equally deserving/undeserving of His grace. Scripture seems to suggest that we are called not to ‘lead’ in the secular sense but to serve, to love, to consider others above ourselves and more than all that, to see ourselves as sinners before a gracious God who alone can transform us and the world.