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Introduction: Toward a Theology of Leadership

Christopher A. Beeley and Joseph H. Britton

In recent years, many in the Episcopal Church and other Anglican churches have recognized an urgent need to reflect on the central principles of vital and effective church leadership. This surge of interest correlates with a similar concern to understand leadership in a variety of organizations and institutions in Western society at large. This is not a superficial phenomenon. We seem to be living in one of the many times in the history of the church when many are sensing an acute need to recover a sense of the basis of Christian leadership, in order for the church to be able to fulfill its core apostolic mission. Every age presents a new set of problems and opportunities that call on the church to renew and give a fresh account of its understanding of leadership, from Jesus’ many instructions to the twelve disciples recorded in the four gospels, to Paul’s appeal to the Thessalonians to esteem highly those who “have charge of you in the Lord” (1 Thess. 5:12), to the treatises on church leadership in the later patristic period, the Middle Ages, and the Reformation, or to more recent treatments of church leadership in the modern period.

There have been several attempts to discern the theological nature of Christian leadership in recent years by pastors and scholars in each of the major Christian traditions. Attempting to take account of the influence of these various concepts of leadership, the Episcopal Church Foundation in 2003 issued a report entitled The Search for Coherence: Soundings on the State of Leadership Among Episcopalians. While the report observes that there are many examples of creative, energetic congregational life, it notes that, at a deeper and broader level, the church lacks a coherent sense of what leadership entails. The authors comment, “Alarmingly, there seems to be no theology of leadership among Episcopalians, as evidenced by the popularity of secular organizational literature that makes broadly spiritual references.” The report concludes by encouraging conversations that “would facilitate much needed clarity about the means and ends of mission and the leadership we need to accomplish it.” It is to this critical need for a discussion of a theology of leadership that this issue of the Anglican Theological Review seeks to respond.

The idea of leadership has come to possess great currency in American society in recent years. Air travelers, for example, are well acquainted with the plethora of leadership manuals to be found in airport bookstores, and almost every seminary advertises on its website that it is preparing “leaders for the church.” This surge of interest in leadership would seem to indicate both an innate sense of the importance, and perhaps the nature, of real leadership, as well as a painful recognition that it is lacking or absent in many places, in both church and society at large. To think of the leadership of the Christian church, however, takes us on a rather different tack from the more common ways of thinking about it in secular contexts. As The Search for Coherence puts it, religious leaders must be especially aware of the “why of their activity,” even more so than the “what.” Following several decades of renewed attention to the nature of the church, the Anglican priest and theologian Paul Avis writes that pastoral leadership can only be understood within the larger context of an underlying ecclesiology: “As clergy or ministers we receive our authority for ministry from Christ through the Church. Therefore we must grasp the theological credentials--the defining ecclesiological characteristics--of the Church that has bestowed on us the authority to minister word, sacrament and pastoral care in the name of Christ.”

In his classic work of Anglican ecclesiology, The Gospel and the Catholic Church, Archbishop Michael Ramsey reminds us that the church cannot be understood apart from the gospel of Christ crucified and risen: “Thus the first need of Christians, in face of the apathy and the bewilderment about the Church, is to know and to be able to say plainly what the Church really is.” Ramsey’s own articulation of that ecclesial identity is that the church is the one and only human organization that is able to give expression to Christ’s death and resurrection. The church is, then, the bearer of God’s saving work to the world (the why of church leadership). So if we transfer Ramsey’s point to the what of religious leadership, the key question is to ask what patterns of thought, speech, and action on the part of the church’s leaders--both lay and ordained--most effectively contribute to the fulfillment of this gospel mandate. In these terms, the essential consequence of the finding of The Search for Coherence that the Episcopal Church lacks a theology of leadership could be formulated this way: the church’s thinking on the question of leadership is too often divorced from a clear articulation of the content of the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected.

In seeking a more coherent connection between the familiar forms of our common life in the church and the content of the leadership that inhabits those forms, the essays in this volume present several key points about the nature of vital church leadership. First, they strongly affirm, in distinct yet harmonious ways, that the Episcopal Church does, in fact, have a theology of leadership, though perhaps one that has been overlooked. Each author turns to a variety of biblical and traditional sources and finds in them abundant resources to be mined for insight into the practice of church leadership. This thoughtful use of Anglican tradition suggests that, rather than there being no theology of leadership in the church, we might better say that the church has become neglectful of its own insights acquired over the centuries. One finds in historical texts carefully thought-out priorities, standards of personal conduct, and spiritually focused patterns of individual and corporate existence that remain deeply applicable to even the most progressive of contemporary church settings. Moreover, it is striking how much contemporary secular leadership theories echo the time-honored truths of classical sources (whether knowingly or unknowingly). The unanimity on this point among the authors in this volume is, we believe, a telling sign of how the church should proceed in recovering a theological sense of its leadership.

The most pervasive view presented here is that the center and basis of church leadership is theological. The essays by Christopher Beeley, Joseph Britton, and Jennifer Strawbridge articulate the essence of Christian leadership in unequivocally theological terms, from a Pauline doctrine of mission and power to the classic treatments of the Greek and Latin church fathers to the presentation of Christ as God’s constant question to humanity in every time and place. To be sure, there are many elements and functions that comprise the work of Christian leadership. Perhaps the most central is the character of the pastoral leader. It is practically a refrain in the traditional literature on pastoral ministry, and, as David Gortner’s review essay argues, a central point of the most current studies of organizational leadership, that the nature of the leader’s thoughts, words, and actions have an impact on the health and effectiveness of an organization as much as, if not more than, any other single factor.

Yet, as the church has repeatedly affirmed, all of the many elements of pastoral work are made possible and summed up by what we have called the “theology of leadership.” That is to say, there are basic insights into the nature of humanity and its relationship to God that arise from the gospel of Jesus Christ and the consummation of Christ’s kingdom by the power of the Holy Spirit, and these insights definitively and irreducibly inform all other areas of human knowledge and behavior. A deep awareness of these insights and a profound understanding of their implications for human community are undoubtedly at the core of successful leadership where it is already to be found in the churches, and it lies at the heart of our shared ecclesial life in the Anglican Communion worldwide. In the most practical terms, it is only a theological basis that can keep the church’s leadership from being exclusively defined and limited by the particularities of a single personality, the idiosyncrasies of a particular community or culture, and even the current identity of a Christian denomination--all forces that can have either helpful or destructive effects, depending on the program and values that they are meant to serve. One might say that this is the church’s version of what Ronald Heifetz calls the “wide-angled perspective” that is indispensable for the leadership of any thriving organization. The theological basis of leadership, in other words, preserves God’s guidance and Christ’s headship over the church, providing the divine meaning and function that make it to be the church in the first place. Thus in the 1979 Episcopal ordination liturgy the work of a priest is summed up in these words: “In all that you do, you are to nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace, and strengthen them to glorify God in this life and the life to come.”

Consequently, our authors express a vital need for church leaders to refocus their attention to the centrality of the ministry of word and sacrament. In order for the church’s leadership to be truly theological, how we present Christ to the church and the world in our preaching, teaching, private counsel, and public witness, and in our celebration of the mysteries of the church will be of utmost importance. (Think of Evelyn Underhill’s famous letter to Archbishop of Canterbury Cosmo Lang on the eve of the 1930 Lambeth Conference, in which she reminded him that the interesting thing about religion is--God!) It is through the core evangelical and sacramental activities that the church is most visibly itself as the Body of Christ, and that its leaders are most faithfully carrying out the commissions of their baptism and ordination. The essays by Beeley, Britton, and Greg Jones speak directly to this theme, with Jones calling for a recovery of sacramental leadership in particular, as does Ellen Aitken in her discussion of the church’s collective memory of Jesus as witnessed in the texts of the New Testament and in the reading and interpretation of those texts in the contemporary life of the church. The authors in the present volume thus tend to stress how the church’s leadership can both serve the sacramental identity of the church, and use it to advance the proclamation of the gospel.

True theological leadership, furthermore, involves a disciplined and thoughtful reflectivity about how we are to minister God’s word and sacraments in the unique particularities of each time and place. While Christian leaders are certainly called to be bold and impassioned in their work, they must constantly attend to the personal and cultural complexities of fostering Christian faith in every corner of human existence. It is especially noteworthy that none of the authors in this volume urges the adoption of a prescriptive formula or a mechanical model of successful church leadership. As Aitken notes about the ambiguities inherent in the biblical material, leaders must seek to maintain a prudent wariness of relying wholeheartedly on particular models or techniques of ministry, tempting as they may seem. James Bartz likewise cautions against overly regimented forms of ministerial training and against assuming that “one size fits all” when it comes to understanding the giftedness and nurturing required to produce effective ministers. In this respect, Christian leadership necessarily has a thoughtful, contemplative quality that arises from a pastor’s interior life of prayer and study, and which provides the reflective qualities that many experts in organizational management consider necessary for any healthy institution. In our own time of shallow political and social discourse, it is even more imperative that Christian leaders demonstrate the countercultural values of careful reflection and hard-won insight. This volume argues that the real heart of Christian leadership--and indeed the unity of the church at large--lies in its theological identity, rather than a superficial technical uniformity or the easy answers of a simple functional model. This identity transcends time and place by being rooted in the eternal love and mercy of God. Here is the “coherence” that the Anglican churches, like those of past and future ages, require so urgently--a coherence that can only be given by God, who is the judge and redeemer of all human systems. As seminary faculty, we might add parenthetically that this call to intellectual and spiritual integrity ought to weigh heavily in the church’s thinking about the importance of theological education. The need for authenticity and depth of character among church leaders implies a need for a deep immersion and solid grounding in the core theological disciplines.

It will be noted that each of the authors in this volume has chosen to focus primarily on the church’s ordained leadership. Although we did not direct this choice as editors, we believe that such a focus is both telling and important at this point in our common life as Anglicans. As the essay by Beeley notes, the ordained leadership of the church exists not to replace, but precisely to serve and to enable the ministry of all the baptized, who are the primary ministers of the gospel. As the great treatises on church leadership have done in the past, our focus here is on the leadership of the church per se, which is guided and symbolized, though not exhausted, by bishops, priests, and deacons. It is our conviction that the church’s visible leadership is crucially important for its effectiveness and vitality in fulfilling its apostolic mission. The strength and health of church leaders not only reflects parallel situations in other organizations--what organizational theorists call the Pygmalion effect of leaders’ expectations and behavior, or the priority of the leader’s own change of mind and heart--but it is what each of us instinctively recognizes when we are sitting in the church pew, either positively, when it is present, or negatively, when it is absent. The renewal and growth of the church is severely impeded, and at times impossible, without the renewal of the church’s ordained leadership.

In order to make a new and fresh contribution to the church’s theology of leadership, we adopted several criteria in selecting the authors for this volume. First, we have looked beyond the “usual suspects” who have written on Anglican leadership and ecclesiology, to present instead new and less familiar voices. This choice enables the church to hear something of how a new generation of leaders might address the questions raised by documents like The Search for Coherence. Second, we purposefully invited authors who we thought could truly reflect theologically on the nature of leadership. There are many wise and experienced thinkers from the fields of ministerial studies, congregational development, and leadership education who have much to say on what it takes to lead an organization effectively. We were seeking, however, a different kind of reflection: one based on the identity of the church as God’s representation of Christ in the world. Third, we hoped to have authors who would represent a variety of disciplinary and intellectual perspectives. Hence, the authors include a parish rector, a seminary professor of patristics, the pastor of an emerging congregation, a pastoral associate, the chair of a university department of religion and professor of New Testament, and a seminary dean and professor of theology. Several of the authors, moreover, have participated in the Gathering of Leaders, an informal, grass-roots leadership initiative in the Episcopal Church that includes people from every order of ministry, each of whom has at least fifteen years left in their formal ministerial duties. Each of the authors here represents in his or her own way a firm grounding in the Christian theological tradition, yet at the same time is personally faced with the challenges of institutional leadership in different settings. By presenting a generationally fresh, intellectually varied, and theologically grounded set of reflections, we hope that this volume may inspire fruitful conversation and action toward the strengthening of the church’s leadership in the years to come.

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