Far outside the doors of church is probably not the best place to offer comment on church leadership. Having fallen into a rhythm of life that doesn’t include regular participation within a Christian community, I’m not certain that there’s much that I can offer to add to my thoughts from early 2012.
Forgive me for any words that wound. I know how easy it is to snipe from the sidelines without rolling up my sleeves and getting involved. I offer them simply as personal reflection on my own failings and temptations and as a result of my own experience and journey.
As I’ve become accustomed to teaching pupils at school about the church, and in more recent times about practices within the denominations which ordain, I think I’ve come to recognise and accept that for many, the need for one who ‘stands in the gap’ on their behalf is incredibly important. By this, I mean the human face representing the unseen, the one who breaks bread, the one who offers absolution, the one who counsels and comforts, the one in whom trust can be placed.
Belief requires of us leaps into the unknown – church leaders provide for us (at their best) guides and fellow pilgrims in this journey we’re all invited into.
We must, however, seek to resist any system in which power is a prize to be sought, authority a tool to be abused, and control is sought over the smallest of details. What any organisation needs to thrive is the kind of leader who knows when to get out of the way and to equip their people to fulfil their potential.
When I glimpse through church doors where a small number of people stand at the front acting out some kind of dramatic performance, I worry about the disempowering nature of what’s going on. I struggle to reconcile this with the picture the gospels paints of a leader who tells us that the first shall last and the last first.
I worry about church systems that turn congregations into consumers (a criticism thrown at me after my first post on church life), and values only the gifts of those who fit the bill. I know that many of those involved take seriously their responsibility in helping others to encounter God, but wonder whether at times it might be that the congregation end up trapped in some kind of voyeuristic loop, peeking into the leader’s personal spiritual experience, feeding off their charisma and encounter.
When those who lead congregations are willing to be vulnerable (that word again), to be human, to share their doubts as well as their certainties, when they’re willing to step aside to see others flourish, when they’re willing to sit in silence with those who suffer rather than offering trite words of comfort…then perhaps that’s when leadership really means something.
Those who can hold together diverse communities, acknowledging the importance of different voices are those who get it – those for whom values of inclusion, relationship and conversation are more important than doctrine, hierarchy and orthodoxy.
No church can be perfect, no leader either. I know this is truth. But those in leadership who help us to ask good questions are much more helpful than those who try to give us good answers, after all.