Crucible : The Journal of Christian Social Ethics April 2016
What kind of Leadership?
The four articles that follow in this edition of Crucible all take leadership as a starting point to reflect upon the nature of the Church and its exercise of power and authority in changing and complex times. This area of discourse is hugely contested. Each of us will have a range of experiences of the way others exercise of leadership which may or may not feed into how we ourselves aspire to lead.
In the unchartered waters in which the Church finds itself a key responsibility of any leader is to be one who questions; a person who asks questions – of God, the Church and of the wider community.
Any leader at this time, but perhaps especially in the Church will be aware of the effects of a rapid pace of change. These are times of transition when the gift of wisdom is required to discern what should be taken into the future and what ought to be left behind. It may be that we have to let go of the shape of the Church as it was or is and allow it to be re-configured around the new realities God is presenting to us, rather than the realities to which we tried to be faithful in a previous age. There is both a sense of excitement and stress for many leaders, seeking to appropriately re-imagine the Church for tomorrow while still ministering in the ever-demanding Church of today.
A clergy leader is a liminal figure, living in the borderland between the church and the world, the present and the future, inherited church and emerging church. Speaking at a conference on church growth, Eddie Gibbs, an Anglican priest and teacher at Fuller theological seminary summed the situation up like this:
‘We now have a generation of leaders who do not know how to lead within a con text of rapid and chaotic change. We were trained to map read on well-marked roads, not navigate on stormy seas. I believe the changes are significant and irreversible – while tomorrow continues to arrive ahead of schedule, yesterday can never be revisited.’ (July 2001 my notes)
Reflecting on these articles there is one key element to a shared commitment to good leadership that I think is worth drawing out and reflecting upon. It is obvious but no less important despite significant difficulties in practicing this virtue. We need, perhaps, above all a leadership that can listen. This will take time. This is a radical commitment to context, communities and individuals.
In 1982 I spent a year as a nursing auxiliary at St Christopher’s Hospice in Sydenham, Kent, fortunate enough to work alongside Dame Cicely Saunders who was the medical director and an inspiration to many others in what is now the world-wide Hospice Movement. She was a leader of rare skill and in a letter sent to me before my ordination reminded me of the key relationship between leadership and listening. She wrote: ‘If someone is in a climate of listening, he or she will say things they wouldn’t have said before’.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, to listen is ‘to hear attentively, to give ear, to make an effort to hear something’. This is a gift that frees itself from frenetic activity, obsessive and controlling master plans and strategic approaches to growth and success. Cicely showed me how listening requires constant practice and indeed communicates mystery and truth at a deeper level than words.
We should also note that it is significant that our English word for ‘obedience’ is derived from two Latin words -ob and audire- which mean to ‘listen keenly’. As Bill Kirkpatrick observes in his book The Creativity of Listening, listening has three meanings: The first is to hear; the second is like the meaning of the French ‘connaitre’ – to understand; and the third is the command to pay attention. In the religious life, obedience is listening.
If it is true therefore that we are living at a time when the church is being pushed to the edges there is a danger that all leaders need to be aware of: that of being so preoccupied with survival, its people are unable to step outside of themselves and their own concerns to rethink, or re describe a larger reality. Self obsession does not usually produce energy courage or freedom. If these are exile times then let us be aware of the unhealthy mixture of fear and nostalgia because that will sap us of energy to re imagine a robust and different future. Leadership must call people to yearn to live dangerously and tenaciously in a world where faith is misunderstood or pushed to the edges.
Leadership therefore must listen and nurture a way of life that is devoted to the practiced art of listening. . This is why Benedict says: ‘Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart’. In the immediate context in which he is speaking, Benedict is referring to the words of the Lord as they are expressed in the Rule, and for the benefit of and ministry of a particular community. Listening leadership can teach us that we can listen for the sounds of God anywhere and everywhere – there is nowhere God is not, and no one or no means by which he cannot speak. Once that barrier is recognised, and down, more listening is bound to be possible.
Thomas Merton may well offer a word in season as through his writings he demonstrates a radical commitment to a kind of ‘seeing’ and listening that underpins all effective leadership, not simply because of what is ‘seen’, but the way it is seen.
We hope that this edition will stimulate further thought and action about what kind of leadership might be exercised in these changing, challenging and creative times.