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Vocations: Can leadership be taught?

12 March 2021

How do theological colleges tackle issues of authority, asks Pat Ashworth

Ripon College, Cuddesdon

Students on the Cuddesdon, Gloucester and Hereford Pathway, in one of their regular evening teaching sessions pre-Covid

Students on the Cuddesdon, Gloucester and Hereford Pathway, in one of their regular evening teaching sessions pre-Covid

THERE seems to be a remarkable consensus among theological-college principals about what leadership should be. The language is of enablement and self-knowledge, typified by the Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, the Rt Revd Humphrey Southern, when he says: “A good leader would be somebody who knows themselves, knows their preferred style, and knows their weaknesses and the things they need to work harder on.”

He reflects that, were he to offer leadership in a burning building, he would adopt a different style — “very directive and bossy” — from the one that he would adopt if he were trying to persuade a PCC to change its charity-giving policy.

His college, in common with many others, is moving to an approach that integrates leadership right through the curriculum. He finds structure for the principle in the theology of Holy Orders, seeing ministry that is simultaneously diaconal, priestly, and episcopal in terms of “a series of lenses through which to view the ministry of the Church as a whole, and therefore the leadership styles within it.

“It’s a teaching frame rather than an absolute way of understanding things; but it gives something more holistic than anything, which is one simple view of what leadership should be.”

The Warden of Cranmer Hall, Durham, where leadership is taught across the curriculum, is the Revd Dr Philip Plyming. “Leadership is offered to build people up, not control them,” he says.

“[Bishop] Steve Croft taught us, when I was at Cranmer, that to describe yourself as a leader was quite a narrowing term, because it conjured up a particular personality trait. He would never say, ‘I am the leader,’ but, ‘I have a leadership role.’

“What we are trying to do is to give [students] an understanding that ordained ministry absolutely involves leadership — but it is more than that. It involves pastoral care; it involves preaching and worship; it involves evangelism and mission. We try to help ordinands appreciate that leadership needs to be embraced as central to their call, but ordained ministry is not simply: ‘I’m a church leader.’

“I don’t think you can spot a natural leader, but you can identify and discern leadership gifts. I’m looking for someone who cares for other people more than for themselves.”


FEW think that there are “natural leaders”. The Principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge, the Revd Dr Michael Volland, reflects: “There are those with a particular charisma who find it easy to gather others, and who have the confidence to step out and inspire others to follow them. Those who have these traits may be tempted to think of themselves as something of a ‘hero leader’.

“We tend to discourage this in those we are helping to form at Ridley. This approach to leadership is not what we see modelled in Jesus. It encourages a culture of dependency, doesn’t draw out the gifts of the whole people of God, and can produce leaders who are unable to listen to criticism and cannot contemplate failure.

Ash Mills PhotographyJulia Mourant, tutor in spiritual formation and biblical studies at Sarum College, leading a class before the Covid pandemic

“The Church needs loving, wise, and humble leaders who depend on God in prayer and have the courage to lead alongside those they are called to serve. The right qualities for leadership can be taught and practised. This will look different in a variety of situations, and the Kingdom impact will be marked by fruitfulness which will be measured in a wide variety of ways — visible and invisible.”

The Rt Revd Mark Sowerby is the Principal of the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield, where the subject of leadership is tackled in several ways and contexts — in the classroom, within college life, and outside the college environment. Much depends, he says, on the combination of self-confidence and self-awareness of individuals: “Some can appear very strong in their preferred leadership style, but struggle where an alternative is called for.

“Leadership, in a variety of styles, is certainly required of clergy exercising the ministry of parish priest. I am wary, however, of seeing clergy simply as ‘church leaders’. Their role is representative and sacramental; sometimes, it will involve leadership, but sometimes other things must be to the fore.”

All speak of collaboration and of the importance of lay leadership. Dr Plyming says, “One of the key jobs we are ordaining our ordained leaders to do is to develop and enable lay leadership. They’ve got to offer their leadership in a way that raises other people up.”

The college has formed a partnership with the Everyday Faith initiative, which has grown out of the Church’s initiative Setting God’s People Free, where the key is that “leadership can function at all sorts of levels in the Church,” he says.


THERE was a consensus among those interviewed about the training of men and women together. “Do men and women lead so differently that they have to be trained differently? In any straightforward essentialist sense, no,” the Principal of the Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education, Professor Clive Marsh, says.

“Does account have to be taken of the way that, in Church and society, different expectations come into play which shape particular understandings of how men and women are often assumed to lead — often to the detriment of all: women, men, Church, and society? Yes.”

Canon James Woodward, the Principal of Sarum College, says: “We make no distinction in the training, but we do look at how leaders are perceived, and gender may affect that. There is some way to go, around equality of perception. There is something in the DNA that still thinks a proper leader is a man, and we would want to resist that.”

Two new books explore that topic: Equal: What the Bible says about women, men and authority, by Katia Adams (David C. Cook), asserts that both women and men are equally called to serve and lead in the Church and in the world. Debbie Duncan’s book Gifted: Women in leadership (Monarch), explores the ongoing debate about women in Christian leadership, and what can be learned from female and male leaders from Bible times to the present day.


ST MELLITUS COLLEGE offers an MA in Christian leadership, which seeks to attract younger Christian graduates entering professional careers, theological graduates training for ministry, and experienced Christian graduates exercising leadership in public life. Elective modules are on Christian theology in many contexts, including science, culture, and medicine.

At Sarum College, in Salisbury, collaborative leadership is the main feature of life. Those at the Centre for Formation in Ministry will go into lay and ordained ministries, and are trained together.

St Padarn’s InstituteLeadership training for assistant curates at St Padarn’s Institute, 2019

“We need to be collaborative and release gifts in each other,” the Principal, Canon James Woodward, said. “Some of [our students] have very significant experience in leadership: we have businessmen and -women, teachers, a head teacher, a consultant paediatrician. They know about leadership because they are doing it.

“We are particularly keen to share the concept of it not being about being bossy and organising everybody: it is about serving others, and allowing them to show us what God looks like in a particular situation or spiritual need.”

At Sarum, as elsewhere, they draw on leadership specialists as well as their own tutors: the Revd Keith Elford, for example, author of Creating the Future for the Church, who runs a session on the nature of management in the Church; and the programme director for Setting God’s People Free, Nick Shepherd.

The Revd Dr Helen Dawes, the recently arrived Principal of Westcott House Theological College, Cambridge, says: “I do think there is something really valuable about identifying leadership as an enabling function. We can sometimes be aware of speaking about leadership in the Church as something necessarily directive. One of the lovely things about being in parish ministry is the opportunity you get to enable people to see themselves as leaders, when they have never imagined for a moment that that would be possible.”

Of collaboration, she says: “You need to enable people to make the connections between experience and theology and the bits of more focused teaching. We are teaching leadership and teamwork together in thinking about priestly ministry and priestly identity: leadership that goes with teamwork and is part of our identity as ministers.

“The Church is about being an agent of God revealing the Kingdom in local communities. That has to be a team effort. I really want us to model, as a college community, that within the stuff of the whole college — the student body, the partners, the families — we are a bit like a church community, and discerning in one another the gifts and skills that reveal the Kingdom.

“We want to set an example that will help our students when they go out into ministry to continue these habits, and for them to be obvious habits of relating within the church community.”


THE Revd Professor Jeremy Duff is the Principal of St Padarn’s Institute, the training arm of the Church in Wales, where leadership is in every part of the curriculum. He, too, speaks of modelling leadership by example. “There is always a balance between the explicit and implicit: running a healthy institution itself with good leadership being modelled, and being transparent and open and talked about,” he says.

“That does matter. There’s no point talking leadership in a classroom and then seeing dictatorship in the corridors. A lot of leadership is about spirituality and self-confidence in your identity and calling in Christ. A lot of leadership failures are to do with arrogance, self-defensiveness, difficulties as human beings. The formational attention to formation of character is very important.”

The Church in Wales is now structured in mission areas, a whole new way of working. “If you are trying to change professional practice, you don’t do it by going on a course; you do it by a year-long engagement where there is teaching and mentoring and taking back problems. It’s about changing yourself, and about confidence,” Professor Duff concludes.

The face of leadership is changing, Bishop Sowerby says. “Historically, we have placed clergy in pre-existent communities — parishes — and expected them to be influencers and shapers within those communities, as well as liturgical leaders of those who came to public worship.

“Today, in large, sometimes multi-parish benefices where relatively few people come into regular personal contact with their parish priest, we are expecting clergy to be builders of community — and often church community rather than parish community. The requirement to build or rebuild church community, suggests a different kind of leadership from that often exercised by clergy in the past.”

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