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Neither wild prophets nor boring managers

10 July 2015

A Christian understanding of priestly leadership has much to offer the secular world, suggests Graham Tomlin

THE Green report on Talent Management for Future Leaders has raised something of a storm. Its defenders argue that something needs to be done to increase the ability of senior leaders to manage large churches, cathedrals, or dioceses — increasingly complex organisations in a fast-changing world. These days the average incumbent, dean, or bishop has to manage staff, keep an eye on the budget, and be a teacher, fund-raiser, pastor, visionary, and community organiser, while keeping sane into the bargain. But the Church can draw on various approaches, including a theology of priesthood, to reimagine a fresh vision of Christian leadership.

Critics of the report complain of what they see as a bland managerial mindset, which is destined to produce not visionary, prophetic clergy but boring middle managers. They point to the need for holiness rather than efficiency, purity not profit, for representatives of Christ rather than of “Church of England Inc.”. They fear the sacrifice of a rich Christian culture of saintliness on the altar of productivity and growth. This conflict reflects a deeper dispute that has been running for some time in the Church over the language we use for those in positions of responsibility.

Evangelicals are fond of speaking of “leadership” and of leadership training. They are nervous of the language of “priesthood”, as it can suggest some kind of necessary human mediator between the Christian and his or her God, either taking the place of Christ, or narrowing the priestly ministry of the Church to certain individuals. Catholics prefer the language of “Priesthood” and priestly formation. They steer clear of “leadership” language, because it threatens to smuggle in fundamentally secular understandings of the way Churches are organised.

The assumption is often that these two approaches are fundamentally incompatible. Critics of leadership language may fear that worldly norms are being smuggled into the Church, but perhaps re-imagining leadership in priestly terms might actually reverse the process, and Christian notions of leadership would infiltrate the world of business and politics.

ANY theological understanding of priesthood has to begin with the priesthood of Christ. In the letter to the Hebrews, Christ is the unique High Priest in a number of ways. First, he mediates between God and humanity, being “the exact imprint of God’s very being” and yet also “like us in every way”, sharing in flesh and blood. Second, he perfects human nature, “being made perfect through his suffering”, becoming a “high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled” — taking up human nature, and perfecting it, in the living of a complete, mature, total hu-man life. Third, he offers that complete human life as an act of sacrifice to the Father, in the ultimate act of worship — a perfect life, given and surrendered as an offering to God.

If this is what priesthood consists of — mediating, perfecting, and offering — it gives us the beginnings of a Christian vision of leadership.

Priestly leaders do not dominate: they mediate. By entering into the experience of others, they create and forge community by reconciling what would otherwise be at loggerheads, or separated. They make connections between unlikely people and institutions, and hold together communities that might other- wise break apart in disunity and division.

Priestly leaders do not placate, they perfect. Rather than aim to keep everyone happy, they are fiercely dedicated, not to the furtherance of their own careers, but to the nurture, growth and development of those in their care, and the institutions they are called to preserve and develop, even when that means making tough and unpopular decisions. They keep their eye on the goal, the big picture, the ultimate purpose of all things.

Finally, the purpose of their work is not self-glorification, but offering. They work hard, not out of some secular work ethic, but because they remember that the goal of their work as leaders is not ultimately the success of their organisation, the year-end profit margin, or even the number of people affected, but to serve a much greater and higher goal: the creation of something good, life-giving, and worth while — an offering worthy of God the Creator himself. Human work is noble activity, ultimately finding its purpose in worship — the sabbath offering of all that has been done and achieved; the work of human hands, to the glory not of the creature but of the Creator.


IT IS often said that people do not leave jobs: they leave bosses. Sometimes our image of a great leader is of someone with a strong sense of purpose, a big ego, and a dominating personality. In the world of leadership development, there is increasing evidence that such leaders actually damage rather than enhance organisations — it is even suggested that such leadership can cost businesses up to 20 per cent of their annual revenue.

To motivate and retain high-quality staff requires expert, sensitive and wise leadership, whether in a Church or a business. I once worked in an office for a manager whose primary goal was the advancement of his own career, ensuring that everyone around was aware of the force of his personality, and the size of his achievements. It was far from inspiring — in fact, it was a deeply unsatisfying experience. Similarly, I have known leaders whose main desire was simply to keep everyone happy. Such people do not tend to produce thriving organisations.

Priestly leaders, however, are those who have the personal security not to need to be the centre of attention. They are more than happy to see others receive praise, and the careers of members of their team advance; and are focused on something much bigger than the immediate problems of the workplace.

Priests bless. And priestly leaders are those whose one goal is the blessing and flourishing of those in their care.


The Revd Dr Graham Tomlin is the Bishop-designate of Kensington, and author of The Widening Circle: Priesthood as God’s way of blessing the world (SPCK).

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