“We will not raise up cadres of godly leaders unless we create communities of whole-life disciples.”
The Church of England task group on lay leadership set out in its report and plan to General Synod this week what needs to be done to release and support the 98 per cent of the Church of England that are not ordained. In the language of the Church of England, this is about investing and empowering the laity and not just the clergy.
The report, Setting God’s People Free, notes that this is not a new need, but one that despite previous reports and conclusions dating back to the end of the Second World War, has not led to a meaningful change in the culture and practice of the church.
An essential task
If the only vision for leadership is one that leads to church leadership, and in the context of the Church of England, ordained ministry, then the Church is missing out on a huge potential. The task is one that as the Evangelical Alliance has developed its vision for public leadership, we have increasingly become convinced is urgent and essential.
Christian leadership should not just be about leading churches, but contributing leadership to society. If we look at the world around us it is easy to see the need for leadership, whether on a national scale, in our work places, or in our neighbourhoods. And it’s leadership that is needed, Christians frequently (and correctly) talk about servant leadership, but sometimes the leadership aspect slips out of view. Setting God’s People Free notes the incredible contribution that Christians make to communities through their social engagement and collective charitable action. But this action requires leadership, and if it’s to do more than treat the symptoms, but rather tackle the cause, leadership requires we take on responsibility, exercise authority and become people of influence.
Is this a theological or cultural problem?
Our theology influences our action, and if our actions are not matching what we think needs to happen then we need to look at whether the theology we’re grounded in is missing a step somewhere. We recognise as important the role of all believers, we understand that contributing to society is an important outworking of our faith, and that we have an opportunity to help the world see a little bit of God’s perfect plan for creation through our words and work.
But we often slip into a clericism that implicitly prioritises church-based leadership. As the report notes: “One reason why the contribution and role of the laity is misunderstood and under-valued may be the absence of any systematic theological framework for thinking about lay engagement and leadership. People are not equipped with the vocabulary or enabled to connect with the resources of the Christian faith in order to make theological sense of their own aspirations to leadership, influence and service.”
Our habits and practices perhaps need to change more than our theological grounding because often we know where we want to get to, but we recognise we’re not getting there. While there are steps to take to improve our theological understanding and how it is articulated the primary challenge is in changing the culture of the church. Setting God’s People Free helpfully identifies a series of ‘1 degree shifts’ that will contribute over the long term to a change of culture.
A caution against conflicting goals
There is a great deal to commend in the report and I hope it leads to substantive action to release people to leadership, but I think there is also a risk of confusion in how lay leadership is talked about. The report separates different strands of lay leadership – they identify four, but I think the important distinction is between lay people leading within the Church, and those leading outside of it – but then goes on to suggest a single plan of action to address the current gap.
If as churches our aim is to get people who are not ordained – or in other church settings in paid church leadership – into leadership roles within the Church, then that will limit the extent to which they are able to take leadership outside of the Church. Both are valuable and important goals, but the report doesn’t recognise that they could easily be competing goals. Likewise, if we want to release people into leadership in their worlds and have a direct impact on society through their leadership we have to count the cost of their lack of capacity when it comes to church-based roles.
My interest is perhaps obviously primarily on how the Church can equip, support and release people into public leadership and my concern with this report and the accompanying plan of action is that the ‘easy option’ will be to work on developing lay leaders within the Church.
An opportunity for impact
Public leadership is an opportunity for the Church to have an impact in society, but it’s achieved over the long term and through countless individuals contributing in their places. In the same way that churches need the leadership of many people to make them fruitful, so too does our society. Leadership isn’t a zero sum game, we don’t lose out if more people step up and take on responsibility, we don’t have less to say if more people speak up for good and for God.
It’s my hope that the Church of England and every other church is captured by a vision of what God’s kingdom could look like, and what they can do to bring that about. Where we see weaknesses or vacuums of leadership, we should be prompted to step in. When we see problems that no one is solving we should commit ourselves to working towards resolving them. When we see leaders budding with enthusiasm and passion we should see where they want to go and do what we can to help them lead as ambassadors for God.
If you want to find out more about Public Leadership or invite one of the Evangelical Alliance’s Public Leadership team to speak at your church please email firstname.lastname@example.org