Unsolicited Leadership Advice
  • Friday, May 30, 2014

Cæli enarrant

What is good leadership in the Church? We have published in the June 15 issue an interesting piece by Mark Clavier with a response by Thomas Kincaid (p.16), and Jesse Zink’s fertile reflection on Francis (p. 31), but much more can be said. In a time of general anxiety in the Church — with a demographic cliff straight ahead, rapidly diminishing endowments, and a culture, within and without, increasingly at loose ends on the fundamental matters of existence — the problem of who to listen to, and who to follow, is real, and not easily resolved. And it is complicated in a church whose leaders (clerical and lay) are elected by the faithful who are often ill-prepared to shape the institutions — seminaries, parishes, dioceses — with which they have been entrusted.

Having read through the whole of Genesis recently in the Daily Office, we turned to Exodus, and I was amazed again by the historical whiplash meted out by the Pentateuchal editor: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Ex. 1:6). We are meant to feel sadness and wonderment about the divine purposes, unfolded within time. How will continuity, and memory, be preserved? Only as they are fought for, over and over.

The deposit of faith does not magically pass into our minds by osmosis at baptism or ordination. Key aspects can be forgotten, or dropped; key texts can pass out of circulation for whole generations, only to be recovered, or not, later. Whatever it looks like for the gates of hell not to prevail against the Church (see Matt. 16:18), all sorts of vicissitude and suffering, ignorance, and damn fool error are apparently not precluded along the way. Safe to say that God uses them to educate, reeducate, and mold us into the shape of the cross.

If this seems a bit overwrought, then we may need, as Brevard Childs used to urge his students, to become more profound persons. And part of the task calls for a thoroughgoing honesty about what the evangelical gold standard — character, courage, patience, kindness, generosity, and above all love — comes to in practical terms; for instance, applied to the question of leadership in the Church.

So here’s a first attempt at encouragement and challenge both, offered with gratitude for the pleasure of serving the Lord along side so many faithful colleagues. Let me know if this is helpful, please.

To seminaries dreaming of their next dean, or getting used to the new one — the dean who will, or ought to, be a super-intelligent fundraiser, infinite sage, friend to all, and tough-minded decision-maker: Almost by definition this job, like being a bishop, is undoable, so seminaries need to think realistically about priorities. Rank the primary tasks, and expect to fill in the dean’s skill set with a talented team that will take up the slack and press honest questions loyally when needed. Yes, deans should understand seminary culture and know how to defer and win consensus with often extremely intelligent, if irascibly introverted, academics. But the faculty need to get in touch with their inner Aristotle, as well, and learn to support and cheer for
 the practically-minded in their midst, without whom the whole thing will collapse. And they need to be eager to help — to speak at a fundraiser, travel, or learn aspects of management and oversight when an extra hand is needed.

To declining or declined parishes, running on the fumes of past glory, in need of respect, attention, new vision, and genuine competence at the helm: What you seek may be found. There are truth-telling, smart, winsome, well-educated, and humble folks coming out of seminary. Hold out for one of them, and don’t fall for good looks, mere good questions, or a “passion” for this or that aspect of the gospel sans historical breadth and catholic submission. But while you’re at it, interrogate the entrenched interests, self-aggrandizing old-timers, local bullies, and lazy apologists in your midst. Have you engaged in a vulnerable study of Philippians lately, under the heading “Lord, show us your will and give us the courage to obey it”? Nothing less than the full gospel will suffice. And if you’re attracted to Episcopal idols — style, influence, wealth — offer them on the altar of evangelization. For the latter day, seemingly impregnable parishes in burgeoning urban centers (e.g., in the south) that may be tempted to think they are permanent features of their local landscape: you might want to consider the history of many northern cities. Jobs and resources come and go. Take nothing for granted.

To dioceses on the cusp of episcopal election amid division and/or without a clear sense of direction, wondering if healthy stability may be retrievable, to say nothing of growth: Your task may be the hardest one in the church right now, because our clergy and lay leaders often have unrealistic or misguided, even dangerous, notions of what a bishop is, or should look or feel like. When the wrong leader is chosen, everyone will live with (and often shrink from) the consequences for years, and decades, to come. If at all possible, avoid honorary appointments on the standing and/or search committees, and hold yourselves to a high theological standard; see, for instance, Ephraim Radner’s “12 Theses on Bishops’ Ministry.” Look first to the heart and the mind, because well-formed devotion to God and eagerness to articulate and defend the apostolic faith covers a multitude of sins. And having carefully tended to that indispensable and non-negotiable priority, elect someone with good management sense, lively creativity, a backbone, and guileless love of people. If any of these are missing, I’d encourage you to keep looking.

To all overextended, embattled, and otherwise outflanked bishops, exhausted by the superficiality, fear, and actual shortage of resources all around: Accept that there’s water under the bridge, and dare to cut your losses. Perhaps it took you a while to get your arms around the job, and maybe you even suspect that you lack a few of the skills necessary to be a great bishop. Think of all of that as helpful fodder for humble leadership, and turn again to your responsibilities with gratitude in prayer. Everything is in God’s hands: the God who forgives, and who will supply the grace to love, starting at home and stretching around the globe, to all people. Consider tackling one or two programmatic — structural or strategic, missionary, evangelistic, educational — projects that you believe God is calling your diocese to pursue during the remainder of your tenure and determine to leave the diocese better than you found it. Ask for help, give your colleagues credit when it goes well, and take the blame when things go wrong. Of course, it’s not about you; but steady, confident bishops are of the esse of the Church. “On this rock …,” after all (Matt. 16:18).

“Listen!” says Jesus, striding across time after creating it in the first place: “A sower went out to sow” (Matt. 13:3). To what end? “To know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” (13:11). And on this basis our Lord calls the disciples to see and hear (13:16) as the seedbed of subsequent speech after the Word. Here is the cradle of apostolicity, which would claim the minds of all rational creatures baptized in the name of God — you and me — and send them to Jerusalem, all Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Let us be about our Father’s business.

Christopher Wells


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