Strong leadership

By Andrew Gador-Whyte

In discussing leadership in the Uniting Church, the Major Strategic Review has made much of the language of sustainability, strength and effectiveness. But I think a corrective is needed so as not to make weakness in the Christian life something to be avoided. Where the Church in a range of ways seems to be finding itself in a weak position, Christians will increasingly be in need of the kind of leadership that is a face and a voice of their weakness. That is, so that their weakness can be more fully given over to God and placed at the service of a deeper solidarity with a suffering world.

How does church leadership become capable of bearing our weakness, of being an example of an honesty about ourselves made possible by the recognition of our utter dependency on one who loves us without reserve? I think this is a question both of intentional formation of leaders, as well as of structures that lay the groundwork for a pastoral, authoritative presence of the wider Church to local ministers and congregations.

We have many presbytery ministers and lay leaders exercising clear pastoral gifts. But I believe we also need structures that bring together pastoral oversight with teaching authority and, crucially, the sacramental ministry of the Church, in order that the Church may be visible to its own members as a pastoral institution (with its liturgy and teachings being at the heart of its pastoral nature). And that is in the hope that the truth the Church proclaims about Jesus Christ might be seen fleshed out very personally in making Jesus Christ present to the world.

I believe that the pursuit of the good of a pastoral ordering and a pastoral, consensual unity makes persuasive the logic of an intentional formation of Church leaders who hold together ministry at the Lord’s table with personal institutional oversight (and all the interaction with the wider society, for example in schools, that goes along with it). It is difficult for this pastoral presence to be carried by a council, notwithstanding the importance of lay ministry and of corporate decision-making to many aspects of the Church’s life.

Leadership carries a good deal of ambiguity for Christians. Since we first gathered at the foot of the cross on Good Friday, the Church has had to keep beginning to learn what it is to live faithfully with humans in authority who are all still spending part of their lives trying to become Caesar. But Christian hope makes it possible to claim boldly, that in spite of this tendency, pastoral leadership is possible in the lives of real and ordinary people. God is capable of making out of human leadership a human life lived evangelically.

When God gives a relatively humdrum gift, such as pastoral oversight, it is his offer to a human community to share very concretely in his work of making people human. For the gift of pastoral oversight to be fleshed out more fully in what is, at least in one sense, a human institution, we need structures that lay the groundwork for the formation of people in pastoral and personal leadership over many years. We need our ordinary structures to place people in a theoretical pastoral relationship (as groundwork of a real pastoral relationship). We need structures that make our organisational leaders liturgically bearers of our weakness.

In a sense, we need organisational leaders who are at least acting Christ (under God’s gracious command) though they are not yet the thing they are learning – not yet in a truly all-encompassing manner in Christ. We need some to be visibly entrusted with pastoral authority as individuals, so that its unavoidably personal dimension cannot be missed. Both the recognisably communal and the recognisably personal dimensions to the Church demand nurturing, if the Church is to be a visible community.

I do not mean to minimise the importance of laypeople’s ministry nor of democratic processes. Nonetheless, I do think it is inevitable we will need to rethink our traditions’ historical opposition to episcopacy. We need to risk giving personal authority to teach and care for the Church on an organisational level to particular women and men steeped in the daily realities of giving out Holy Communion to a group of people they are learning to love.

Clearly our future is likely going to mean increasingly facing our weakness. In various ways we will probably be confronted with being small, less active, less unanimous, less able to make our message heard against a nihilism that increasingly stakes a claim to the high moral ground.

But weakness is nothing new to Christian life. Our baptism itself is an indelible mark of our utter dependency on God, the true God whose power, as Jesus shatteringly reveals in the utter dereliction of the cross, is made perfect in weakness.

So, in the years ahead, the Church may recognise more sharply our need of our leaders to be a recognisable pastoral presence gathering up honestly our weakness before God. We will increasingly need them to make us audible to one another.

And we will need them above all to continue teaching us that Christians have no need to fear, because God can be trusted not to abandon his Church.

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