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Leaders . . . or ministers of grace?

14 February 2014

Mike Starkey looks at the folk at the front

You Are the Messiah and I Should Know: Why leadership is a myth (and probably a heresy)
Justin Lewis-Anthony
Bloomsbury £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code CT798 )

The Emerging Leader: Stepping up in leadership
Peter Shaw and Colin Shaw
Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code CT798 )

JUSTIN LEWIS-ANTHONY likes to be provocative. His previous book, If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him, took its title from a Zen "koan" about the Buddha, in order to form a critique of inherited models of Anglican ministry. His new book borrows its title from Monty Python's Life of Brian, in order to criticise the drive towards importing secular models of leadership into the Church.

Lewis-Anthony is unhappy with the trend towards describing ministers as leaders, and with the identification of leadership as a key element in ministerial selection and training. But the book is no scattergun rant. Rather, it builds a tightly argued case on a specific issue: the unspoken assumptions that have shaped our image of the good leader, from Hollywood films.

The author makes a case for film's being the dominant creative medium of our culture. He then examines war films, sci-fi blockbusters, and westerns as sources of our archetypes of leadership. A pattern emerges: Hollywood idealises the lone, heroic figure who steps in when government, police, and judiciary have failed. A great man is needed to save the situation, using redemptive violence to restore harmony. Lewis-Anthony traces the roots of this mythical American Adam, or heroic individualist, to the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 19th century. This distinctively American myth was exported through the medium of film, and in turn shaped leadership theory. The thesis simply stated: when we say leadership, we really mean John Wayne or Batman. Whatever the merits of a heroic style of leadership in the commercial world, Lewis-Anthony sees it as hopelessly inappropriate for the Church.

The book's painstaking concern to substantiate its argument about the Hollywood roots of our leadership myths reveals its academic origins in Lewis-Anthony's Ph.D. thesis. This is both a strength and weakness.

It is a strength, because it makes a thorough and well-documented case that will need to be taken seriously in any future debates about leadership in the Church. Its weakness is that Lewis-Anthony's steady gaze towards Hollywood leaves the wider horizon unscanned. There is little engagement with recent writings on leadership, or acknowledgement of the diversity of leadership theory; little wrestling with the more thoughtful end of Christian writing on leadership; and no mention of the research that found the key factor in church health and growth to be good leadership. His exploration of Christian alternatives feels hastily tacked on at the end.

This book feels like a Part One. A Part Two would be welcome if it applied the thesis in the real world, and engaged with the more nuanced models of Christian leadership on offer - ones that look less like Captain America or the Lone Ranger.

Back in my university days a friend once asked if I knew what it cost to hire a DJ. My reply showed that we had something quite different in mind: he needed a dinner-jacket; I assumed that he wanted somebody to play records at a party. Similarly, authors and publishers need to be careful that their book titles don't risk misleading potential readers by their ambiguity.

"Emerging" or "emergent" has become a synonym for experimental worship and fresh expressions of church, on both sides of the Atlantic. Now that groups such as the CMS and the Church Army are developing specific training for emergent churches, new resources to help with this training clearly present an opportunity for Christian publishers. Cover endorsements by the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of Oxford confirm expectations that The Emerging Leader is a training manual for emergent church leaders.

It isn't. What Shaw and Shaw mean by an "emerging leader" is any young adult starting out on a career that involves some sort of leadership, or somebody moving into a new job with greater responsibilities. The book is a compendium of bite-sized pieces of wisdom, passed on to fresh-faced neophytes by two experienced leaders. Although it is published by a Christian publisher, it has no particular focus on church leadership. In fact, many parts of the book, including its references to being in a "team", would need a fair bit of translating before they were relevant to parish ministry.

That said, this book would be an excellent resource for its intended readership. It contains 33 chapters of about three pages long, each followed by a brief real-world scenario and questions for reflection. There is a healthy focus on the need for understanding one's context, the importance of listening before acting, and a leader's self-awareness and ability to laugh at himself or herself. A good book, then. Just don't expect it to help you evangelise Wiccans or plan next Sunday's cyberpunk eucharist.

The Revd Mike Starkey is a tutor for the Church Army and a freelance writer.

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