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Wanted: clergy who can lead collaboratively

28 July 2017

New research supports the idea that a priest’s personality and congregation size are linked, says Henry Ratter

”WHERE you have a good vicar, you will find growing churches,” the Archbishop of Canterbury said in a radio interview a few years ago (Comment, 10 January 2014). He later regretted making such a crude link between the personality of a priest and the size of his or her con­gregation.

But academic research that I have carried out, under the supervision of the Revd Dr Leslie Francis, Profes­sor of Religions and Education at the University of Warwick and Canon Theologian of Bangor Ca­­thed­ral, suggests that there is in­­deed a link. And, more worryingly, the study suggests that many mem­bers of the clergy have a personality profile that is not linked with growth.

This raises important questions for dioceses about the nature of their selection and recruitment processes, and the candidates who are being selected for ordination.

My study employed the Glow­inkowski Predisposition Indicator (GPI), an instrument used by many businesses to assess thinking style and engagement with professional work. It was the first time that GPI had been used with a cohort of clergy.

Two hundred clergy in one rural diocese were asked to take part, all of whom were in leading positions in their parishes, including incum­bents and those heading team minis­tries or multi-parish benefices. One hun­dred of these agreed to take part, representing a 50-per-cent response rate, which is considered high for these types of studies.

Clergy were asked to fill in two surveys: one assessed problem-solv­ing and implementation style, an­­other assessed how they dealt with feelings and self-control.


THE results were striking. The re­­sults of the first survey, about problem-solving and implementa­tion, found only six “strategists”: people who are capable of devel­oping solutions to complex prob­lems, and who are able to manage change effectively.

There were 27 “visionaries”: people who are predisposed to look at the bigger picture and who tend to generate radical new ideas (which they might not see through to practical implementa­tion). One third (33) were “planners”: people who enjoy “mak­ing things happen”, and enjoy de­­livering goals. The same number were “practitioners”, people who enjoy undertaking many tasks simultaneously, are focused on the here and now, and tend to be risk-averse.

The results of the second survey, assessing feelings and self-control, showed that 37 were self-contained and ill-at-ease, both with themselves and with their situations. This group may tend to find it harder than others to express their feelings and emotions openly, keeping a lid on things, which can lead to stress that makes a negative impact on their per­formance at work.

I then examined the annual parish-attendance statistics of the clergy who had completed the sur­vey and had been in their current posts for five years or more (they had agreed that this could be done). The reason for focusing on clergy who had been in post for at least five years was that the results were more likely to represent the impact that they were having.

The evidence showed that there were real differences in the profiles of clergy who led growing churches compared with clergy who led de­­clining churches. This was consist­ent with the results of Professor David Voas’s 2014 study From Anecdote to Evidence (Features, 7 February 2014). He reported a key finding that “Growth is a product of good leadership (lay and ordained) working with a willing set of church­­­goers in a favourable envir­on­­ment.”

My study found that clergy in growing churches displayed four particular personality character­istics: they were more “extraverted”, meaning that they were stimulated by company and able to converse with people that they did not know; more “radical”, meaning that they were prepared to take big steps in managing change; more “at ease with themselves”, meaning that they coped more effectively with what are often challenging situations; and, crucially, more “collectivist”, meaning that they were willing to collaborate and draw on the gifts of people in their congregations.

The latter personality character­istic is crucial, since the ability to empower others and to work collab­oratively is more likely to create the conditions that will support growth. In the business world, it is now widely accepted that collegiate styles of leadership, which draw on the skills and knowledge of employees, result in better business perform­ance than hierarchical models. “Ser­vant leadership” and “bottom-up” leadership are the buzz words.


THE findings suggest that the Church of England needs a more robust approach to selecting ordin­ands. Serious questions need to be asked about whether a sufficiently wide spectrum of applicants is being attracted to apply for ordination; or whether certain personality types (introverted, risk-averse, unwilling to collaborate) are being recom­mended for training over other per­sonality types (extraverted, willing to take risks, eager to collaborate). Do the processes used to determine who is selected for ordination train­ing contain inbuilt bias?

It is also crucial to remember that personality characteristics are not set in stone. Clergy can develop be­­haviour and skills that contribute to growth. The bottle-neck cleric, who is reluctant to make use of the gifts of his or her congregants, could learn how to lead with a lighter touch, and to make more use of the gifts of the congregants. The priest who is not at ease with himself or herself could find ways to address that. If GPI tests became a part of minis­terial development reviews, they would be able to identify areas of weakness and develop strengths.

This is not about importing secular management theory into the Church, nor about under­mining existing clergy. It is hoped that, by allowing clergy to de­­velop their strengths and learn to lead more collaboratively, and by selecting more people for ordin­ation with different personality types, they will be empowered to work to­­gether to deliver Christ’s com­mission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations. . . And surely I am with you always.”


Dr Henry Ratter is a former senior manager at ICI, who set up a consultancy after taking early retirement. To request an electronic copy of the doctoral thesis on which this article was based, contact ratterh@aol.com

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