Church leadership – what’s needed, what’s not (Part one)

Steve Hopkinsby Steve Hopkins

The connection between priesthood and leadership is vitally important because of our history of rectors and parishes. Also because of the fragility of many parishes today, they are just one bad leadership experience away from extinction. The essential connection matters because of the witness of the early church.

The apostolic church did not believe there are “priestly” types who should be our leaders, said Edward Schillebeeck (Ministry: Leadership in the Community of Jesus Christ, 1981). Rather, scripture suggests it is the leaders in the community who should preach, preside at the table and assist in the church’s ministry. The apostles didn’t enter a town, seek out priestly types and ordain them. Instead, they lived in a town, observed and got to know people, figured out who the natural leaders were and ordained them to continue the apostolic work. They weren’t waiting for people to show up and say, “God wants you to ordain me a priest. I know because God told me.”

This “locally-raised” option is more faithful to the apostolic tradition. Today in some Anglican situations when a congregation no longer has the resources to support a clergy stipend, the bishop—after training and preparation—ordains local, parish spiritual leaders as priests. I realize the practicalities of that approach are very challenging for us; I don’t want to minimize that fact at all. But this approach is more apostolic: identify gifted leaders in the community and authorize them to preach, preside and lead. It’s a far cry from our current approach: look for priestly types, authorize them and hope like hell they can lead.

Leadership in the church today is especially challenging as patterns and norms are shifting in our common life. It’s an exciting time as we become more mission-focused, more innovative and more courageous. But it’s also tough – not just because of the complexity of the roles our leaders must play, but because some of the essential skills required are so hard to learn.

After 30 plus years working with congregations in trouble, I have learned when clergy and lay leaders get into trouble and the church experiences a failure in leadership, it’s often due to one or more of four issues: failure of rapport, abdication of responsibility, lack of skill and lack of integrity. These issues—so critical to the well-being of the church and its mission—are really difficult to learn.

Failure of rapport

Rapport is the capacity to form and maintain relationships with others. It is the emotional intelligence required to create relationships of trust and intimacy and to sustain them over time, especially when we disagree, are hurt, angry or afraid. As a leader, I need to know what pushes my buttons, how my behaviour impacts others and how my ability to relate changes when I am not at my best. Churches are built on relationships and leaders need to know how to build and tend them.

Abdication of responsibility

The church experiences a failure when those in designated roles don’t see themselves as leaders—not simply as one with authority, but as one with responsibility to act.

Throwing one’s weight around as a leader is pretty sophomoric and generally unhelpful.

Appreciating when to intervene and knowing how is what really matters.

It’s not easy to be the “grown up” in the room when people are behaving badly or things are not going well—but someone needs to take responsibility when the community is vulnerable, bullied, anxious or angry. The church needs leaders willing to lead – for the well-being of the whole, the protection of common values and the advancement of the mission.

(Next month Steve concludes his two part series on church leadership by focusing on lack of skill and lack of integrity and suggesting it takes a whole church to nurture a leader. This article was excerpted from a sermon preached at the ordination of the Reverend Ann Turner in June 2017.)

The Venerable Steve Hopkins is currently on medical leave from his roles as Rector of St. Paul’s (Westdale) Hamilton and former Archdeacon for Ministry Leadership Development.