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Leading a Church to Maturity in Love, by David R. Tomlinson

12 July 2019

Philip Welsh finds this author’s ministerial counsels daunting

YEARS ago, the journal Theology had a piece criticising church reports for starting with a biblical section, so that the theology could then be left behind. There is something of this in Leading a Church to Maturity in Love. David Tomlinson begins with a synopsis of Old Testament history, complete with the dates of successive kings; looks at the Passion of Christ, with a Girardian emphasis on the release of tension through violence; and points towards “the idea of Church in opposition to identities built on exclusion, violence and victimisation”.

This is largely put aside as he then goes on to consider the value of systems thinking (about which the author is something of an evangelist), the importance of vision, servant leadership, personal growth, communications, difficult people, team building, conflict, mediation, and collaboration.

There is a good deal of useful advice, and some helpful criticism of clichéd thinking: “the drive for reconciliation cannot be an absolute principle. . . there is far too much store set by the benefits of collaboration.” Much of the time, however, the writing breathes the pure air of the organisational seminar or counselling manual rather than the whiff of the parish pump, and is fond of insisting, “you should . . . you need . . . you must . . .”.

Reinforced with tips from the coaches of British Lions and cycling’s Team Sky, Tomlinson sets the bar high: “Your identity is invested in the success of the church. You consistently produce superb results, demonstrate unshakeable commitment and set the standards for everybody else. You meticulously scrutinise their own performance and hold themselves [sic] responsible for any failures.”

The leader is an improbably complete individual, “self-differentiated, a clearly delineated person, with no blurred edges, and no shadowy outlines”, and sounds alarmingly self-controlled: “you are not likely to be swayed by the emotional climate around you. You will not be affected by praise or criticism. You will exercise self-control whatever the pressure.”

It doesn’t sound as if this Vicar will be much fun, although, “to counteract this prevailing mood, you can decide to be playful.”

The book’s emphasis on maturity means that, “In a community where everyone has a good self-understanding and a clear sense of their core values, healthy reciprocal relationships in which everyone expects respect and treats others with respect are the norm.” This seems a long way from the company of the walking wounded who make up much of the Church, the clergy, and the Kingdom.

The author tends towards an embattled vocabulary, in which “you need to be on your guard . . . and a steely determination maintained.” This intensity is sustained when the book eventually returns to theology as it considers forgiveness and “the way of white-hot, purging love . . . the relentless [a favourite word] search for truth . . . and our insatiable desire for God.”

Leading a Church to Maturity in Love has the feel of training material originally aimed at a different constituency which has been theologically topped and tailed. A more laid-back approach is suggested by one of the book’s more engaging misprints, “as God asks pointedly, ‘Where is your bother, Abel?’”

The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the diocese of London.

Leading a Church to Maturity in Love: A theological and practical guide to church leadership
David R. Tomlinson
Sacristy Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

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