Sunday, 14 December 2014

The Next Generation of Church Leaders: thoughts on the Green Report

I left theological college more than 40 years ago. In my leaving interview, my tutor said: ‘Michael, it’s possible that one day you might be invited to become a bishop or a dean – who knows what God might call you to? (Pause for wry smile.) But if you are approached, think carefully about which of those two paths would best fit your personality and gifts.’ When I was asked to become a cathedral dean I willingly said yes, first at Sheffield and then here at Durham. That makes me ‘duodeanal’ (cue groan). I have loved this role and would unhesitatingly say that being a dean is one of the best jobs in the Church of England.

Looking back on how I arrived here in the providence of God, I am amazed that nothing was ever done to help me think about taking on this role. Of course, my ministry before this taught me a huge amount about leadership in the church, especially being a parish priest. Then I joined the cathedral chapter at Coventry, observed my boss the provost (as he then was) at close quarters, tried to learn from his example. But most of what I now know about senior office I acquired ‘on the job’, often the hard way. I have made many mistakes, but I hope I have learned from some of them. That of course is how we tend to learn the important things of life. Experience is a great teacher.
But I can’t help feeling there was something haphazard about a system that did almost nothing to prepare my generation of church leaders. Two of my children have done the excellent ‘Future Leaders’ programme that trains teachers for senior roles in education. The selection and appointment process for deans was always thorough, but it didn't involve much 'discernment' as we now call it. There was no ‘accompaniment’, no testing of my motives, no exploration of my path in ministry. I said to bishops years ago that this should be taken with the kind of seriousness that is the norm for candidates who offer for ordination as deacons and priests. I think this is especially important for bishops because the episcopacy is the odd one out when it comes to preparing people for the three orders of ministry.
The Green Report Talent Management for Future leaders and Leadership Development for Bishops and Deans seeks to change this. At last, the Church will identify men and women from among whom the bishops and deans of the future will mostly be drawn. This ‘talent pool’ of up to 150 'high potential' candidates across the nation will be nurtured for a future leadership role in the church. There is to be a more rigorous approach to the professional development and in-service training of senior post holders. As somebody who has helped with the induction of new deans for the past few years, I welcome this thinking in principle, and have said so in broad discussions I have participated in. No-one will argue with the three components of church leadership that are identified in the report: reshaping ministry, leading the church into growth, and contributing to the common good. And no-one will argue with the importance attached to achieving excellence in both the leadership and management of the church.

My reservations are to do with what theological and spiritual wisdom underlies this thinking. Some of these are echoed in a perceptive critique from a fellow dean, Martyn Percy, in this week’s Church Times.

The tone of the report is heavily influenced by the language and assumptions of leadership and management theory. And this, precisely at a time when writers on systems and organisations are recognising that no one-size-fits-all model can be imposed on institutions that are as diverse as individuals, with their own histories, characteristics, eccentricities and if you like, ‘personality’ types.  So while there is a lot to learn from the public, private and voluntary sectors (and I am the first to admit my debt to secular leadership training), the experience of one organisation is never entirely transferable. When it comes to the church with its long and often quirky history it’s especially important to be wary of organisational ‘solutions’ that are imported from somewhere else. I doubt if an MBA can be a serious answer to the church’s search for the best possible leadership and management.
I am worried about the erosion of the traditional Christian way of speaking about vocation and the spiritual path. Words like formation, awareness, discernment and above all wisdom feature prominently in the classic writers on Christian ministry. These profound concepts, carrying as they do such deep spiritual and pastoral resonances cannot be collapsed into some generic textbook notion of ‘leadership’. I want to make it clear straight away that I don't regard any of these classical concepts as 'soft' or lacking in rigour. On the contrary: they are more exacting than any of the leadership or management criteria listed in organisational check-lists, because they go to the heart of how someone inhabits their role. I asked in a recent forum why this rich tradition was so little referenced in the report. Deans in cathedrals like mine are the direct successors of Benedictine priors, so how could the Rule of St Benedict, one of the best manuals on spiritual leadership ever written, be passed over without notice? Or Gregory the Great's  Pastoral Rule, for centuries presented to new bishops at their ordination?
I can’t speak about bishops. But I know a bit about deaning after 20 years in this role. As a dean I am many things. I preside over a part of the nation’s heritage, a medium-sized enterprise with a multi-million pound turnover, a retail outlet and catering facility, a leisure destination, a public park, a music-and-arts centre, a place of education and a sizeable piece of estate. I need, and the Chapter needs, to draw constantly on a huge amount of expertise and skill on the part of those whose day-job it is to lead and manage the various departments of the cathedral’s life. We couldn't do it without one hundred per cent collaboration and a great deal of trust in one another. I am proud of my staff who do what they do so professionally and so well.
But I need to be completely clear about what lies at the centre of my calling as a priest in this senior church role. It is to be the Head of a Religious Foundation, that is to say, a spiritual leader like the abbots and priors before me. The most important thing I do is to be in my stall twice each day to pray with this community of faith. This is where the distinctive vocational task of a dean has its source and end, and where leadership as configured in a Christian way is modelled. From there springs the dean's role as an interpreter: speaking for the cathedral in society, and for society in the cathedral. This mean helping the wider community understand what at its heart a cathedral is meant to be because of what its gospel means. And it entails helping the cathedral to grasp what it is to be a faith community in our contemporary, complex culture with its ever-loosening ties to organised religion. This is much more than being a good corporate CEO who runs a tight and efficient ship. It's a theological and vocational task, and it is at this fundamental level that nurture, accompaniment, formation and training must be focused. We could say that it is the human and spiritual ‘ecology’ within which the role of a dean and every senior church leader is lived out. 
Like the environment, we need to ‘green’ the spiritual ecology of the church if it is going to be sustainable and flourish, and not be eroded by an Athenian love-affair with whatever is the current organisational doctrine. The Green Report points in important directions and I have welcomed this new focus on leadership in the church. But it is work in progress, not the finished product. More debate is needed, particularly on how the Christian spiritual tradition can impart a deeper wisdom texture to the thinking of the working group. For example, good spiritual accompaniment will be as important as professional mentoring (which is also vital). Like some other matters in the report, it's not a case of either-or but both-and. This is something those who have been bishops and deans for a while could offer.
I'm suggesting that In the ecology of God's people, the Green report could benefit from becoming a bit more ‘green’. All of us who are currently bishops and deans will I'm sure want to contribute to that task for the good of the whole church.


  1. This is so right (and perceptive). Thank you.

  2. I do hope that the powers that be take seriously the words you have written about the Green Report. If this comes into being then it would be hard to imagine someone like The well beloved Michael Ramsey ever being considered for consecration and what a great loss that would have been to Durham and the wider Church. Indeed what a loss it would have been to Christendom!

  3. Thank you, Michael. This is put with characteristic gravity and insight - and a deeply rooted instinct for the Church. If only they had read your 'Wisdom and Ministry' before embarking on this short-sighted panacea...

  4. Thank you, Michael, for this very helpful reflection.

    I've nothing against people being adequately trained for their roles but it is the report's assumptions around discernment, vocation and church leadership that bother me. I can't help feeling the Green Report is the wrong answer to the wrong question. I guess the question they have answered is 'How do we improve the quality of senior church leaders in order to promote church growth?' while, on the ground, it's the parish system, held together in many places by volunteers both lay and ordained, which seems to be more urgently in need of attention.

  5. Thank you, Michael. Any 'training' suggests there is an established good way to do something, but many of us (and surely people in senior positions particularly) find ourselves in situations that are new, unusual, or quite beyond the imagination of anyone who gave us training, and it is there that things like wisdom become so precious.

  6. Thank you, Michael. The wisdom I would expect from my former group tutor. We are served well by the likes of you and Martyn Percy.

  7. Acts 6 begins with the Apostles making a management decision (!), an organisational re-structure, if you will. There was a need to separate senior leaders and those with the Holy Spirit's gift for administrating practical care and oversight to the fledgling church.

    I agree that some in the church are called to focus more on "spiritual" matters, but in such a large organisation where looking after church resources of people, property and money is involved then training in these areas has to be improved if senior church leaders are to make wise and well informed decisions. Not everyone is a good money manager, or a people manager and however good one's public ministry may be, there is a desperate need for churches to be well organised and administered.

    I think the Green report is an inevitable step in ensuring that in these difficult economic times we deal with our precious resources well. This does not detract from the gospel message and the imperative we all have to get it out there. But there is a need for a different kind of church leader that will know the condition of its flock and act accordingly.