The politics of church leadership

Reflecting on the Student Tuition Fee vote got me thinking about the connections between political parties and different styles of church leadership.

The Lib Dems have found themselves an interesting position because they campaigned with lots of promise, enthusing people with a vision of what might be. Now in government they are finding the reality of making things happen and taking specific policy decisions much harder. The effect seems to be that those voters who were inspired and enthused to vote for them at the election now find themselves disillusioned by the reality. Some church leadership is like that, inspiring people with a great vision of the future, encouraging people to get on board with great transforming zeal only to end up letting people down when the reality fails to live up to the rhetoric.

Labour Party now looks like the party which sold the family silver to keep the show on the road, playing a good hand but leaving a mess after they left. (This is probably an unfair narrative encouraged by the Conservative party but bear with me). Likewise some churches are led by people whose plans and programmes are simply unsustainable over time. There is a burst of activist life where some good things happen but where some of the cost and pain is submerged. However, sooner or later the activist gets frustrated and moves on leaving the tired and broken pieces behind.

The Conservative party seems at present to be made up of two factions. There are the purists, who are waiting their time but feel that this ‘conservative lite’ government isn’t really where it is at and long for something stronger and more principled. And then there are the pragmatists, the builders of coalition who are working to piece together a way forward, trying to pick their fights with care but maintain a sense of economic direction; but whose attempts and building a fictional appearance of peace and harmony may yet be undone by those who refuse to subsume their ideological purity, aspirational pretensions or transforming zeal into a game of happy families. Churches have leaders like these as well. There are those who work for purity, seeking to build the perfect church made up of perfect followers; a tendency which despite the obvious benefit of seeking to be more Godly tends towards separatism and withdrawal. And there are the pragmatists, those who work to build consensus without ruffling to many feathers along the way which, given the natural inertia of church life, means that what little change there is happens more slowly than changes in the surrounding culture leading to the image of irrelevance. Or worse, find themselves sitting atop a volcanic power keg like the cork in a well primed bottle.

OK so the political caricature is simplistic and misleading. But in church life as in politics there are moments when all four leadership styles have their place. Without periods of activism little actually gets done. Without a sense of vision there is no clear sense of purpose. Without the call to purity there is dilution of faith to the point there is nothing left and without pragmatism there is insufficient stability to enable change to be permanent. Wisdom is in knowing how to blend them so that each is able to contribute to the whole without being diluted.

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