A friend of mine, a fellow curate in my diocese, is asking some great questions of the current obsession among evangelicals in particular, and evangelical-led mission theory/practice/agenda within the wider Church of England, with leadership and clergy as church leaders. My friend Michael recognises that leadership is important; but also that it is not the central issue for priesthood (this conversation is set in the context of a church tradition that sets aside priests to serve the wider priesthood of all believers); and that, ironically, the fixation with leadership – overwhelmingly drawn from business models, from which, arguably, we do have things to learn – has prevented theological reflection on what leadership looks like.
Michael points out that there are many different types of leaders and leadership in the Bible, which we tend to amalgamate in a way that the biblical record does not. For example, leadership in the Old Testament includes prophets, priests, and kings. Prophets and priests occasionally but rarely overlap in one person; more often, they work alongside one another in different capacities (e.g. Moses and Aaron), or are even opposed to one another. With the exception of the mysterious Melchizedek, priests and kings are quite deliberately differentiated roles given to separate people. In the New Testament, there are several differentiated roles which could be described as exercising leadership while at the same time submitting to others – that is, both following another’s lead (in certain areas?) and taking a lead of others (in certain areas?) – including deacons, elders, and overseers (from which our tradition has developed a three-fold set-apart ministry of deacons, priests, and bishops); apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers (Ephesians 4 refers to us all, not just leaders; but that all includes leaders); and the head of the extended family (oikos).
In our tradition, we set certain people aside for particular priestly roles, which include pronouncing a formal blessing over God’s people, and presiding at Holy Communion (though I would suggest that neither blessing those who live around us nor sharing in the breaking of bread with fellow believers are ‘restricted’ activities). Though other Christian traditions question the validity of this model, its rightness or wrongness is not the issue here. Rather, the issue is: does it, and should it, automatically follow that the priest is the leader of the local congregation? Should the vicar be ‘king’ as well as ‘priest’? Should they be head of the oikos; or – not least as the oikos is a family-business model – might that role more appropriately be filled by another member, or members, of the congregation?
Here is another question: is leadership, however releasing and equipping of others ‘below’ you, however great the opportunities to rise up the ladder, hierarchical? In both institutional church and contemporary business models, the answer is yes. Or, is leadership flattened and multi-directional?
It seems to me that the various biblical ‘types’ of leader implies a flattened and multi-directional understanding: where the prophet can challenge the king, and the pioneering work of the evangelist is consolidated by the work of the pastor.
It seems to me that a local church does need leadership, in order that it grows together rather than apart. My observation tells me that as a tradition we don’t really understand shared ministry very well; and that without clearly-defined roles exercised boldly and in mutual submission to one another, over time individual members start to behave like, well, individuals, rather than as parts of one body...Moreover, we need trans-local leadership, ‘oversight’ not (only) in the formal sense of Anglican bishops but in the informal sense of experienced consultants (clergy and laity) who can come alongside, not telling a congregation what to do but helping them process how they might better join-in in the mission of God in their neighbourhood.