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Searching for Superman

3164668-superman.jpgIn 2013, Trinity College Bristol were looking for a new Principal, and for some reason several people drew this to my attention. So I looked at the ad, and this is what I found they were looking for:

  • a person of integrity, humility and wisdom
  • a leader of leaders, who thrives on the sharing and multiplying of leadership
  • likely to be a gifted speaker and teacher with a recognised public ministry
  • a team player, who is confident and able to lead amidst the complexity of academic structures
  • a theologian and practitioner, able to engage in theological debate
  • a person of informed evangelical faith with confidence in the Scriptures
  • able to relate to and support charismatic spirituality
  • passionate for God’s mission to society
  • a networked Anglican who can command respect amongst the wider Church
  • in touch with the culture of younger emerging Christian leaders

In many ways this is an exciting and challenging profile, though it is not untypical of other recent ads for similar posts. If I showed you the list, and asked you which college this was for, I suspect you could not narrow it down to fewer than five or six.

But two things struck me about it. Firstly, it is asking for a very wide mix of qualities, characteristics and experience. But more significant than that, a number of the qualities are pretty much diametrically opposed. A strong, dynamic leader…but a team player. Someone who is well embedded in the networks in the C of E…but who is also in touch with yoof. Someone who is an academic…but is also engaged in pastoral ministry. When I put this to someone close to the process, the person replied:

Ah, the multi-coloured magical unicorn brief.

This is what all colleges look for in a new principal!


When I worked at St John’s, I used to enjoy walking past the portrait of T W Gilbert who was principal of the college between the First and Second World War. In the portrait Gilbert looks serious, though friendly. Under the picture is a pen portrait of what he achieved during his term of office, and it includes this:

He implemented regular chapel services at 7.30 am and 9 pm (with the exception of Thursdays when evening prayer was said at 5.30 pm), tightened college discipline, and installed electric lighting.

I loved that as a statement of the range of responsibilities: liturgy; pastoral care; and electric lighting! But in those days, that was possible. Nowadays the world is a lot more complex, so this stretching across all the variety of roles is hardly feasible. To lead an institution now it seems that you need to be sensitive pastor, fearless pioneer, profound theologian, experienced minister, efficient administrator and visionary financier. Look around you carefully: such a person does not exist!

This sense of over-specification can be found in other leadership positions in the Church. I understand that the specification to be a bishop now includes a long list of boxes to be ticked. Why does this arise? In part it comes from a sense of institutional anxiety. Dioceses are facing serious financial challenges, and although a number have turned a corner in terms of church attendance, nationally the Church still faces serious numerical decline. The obvious way to address this is to appoint an omni-competent leader. But within that there is also a strong sense of risk aversion. Think of all the things that could go wrong under new leadership! How can we avoid this? By appointing someone who could avert every kind of disaster. This is why, in committees, it is very difficult to agree on a smaller number of essential attributes that are really needed. I recently heard of a post where the agreed list ran to 78 bullet points—seriously! The really odd thing here is that, compared with secular roles that many hold in the congregation I am in, these are not ‘big’ jobs in terms of personnel or financial responsibility. Are we succumbing to the contemporary fondness for celebrity leadership? The right person can make a huge difference, but we seem to be putting too much faith in the individual—though of course the person must be collaborative, which in practice seems to mean being able to do everything themselves, but without offending anyone!


I think this leads to two dangers in such processes. Either you cannot find someone who fulfils the brief. This happened the last time Wycliffe Hall tried to appoint a principal, and the previous time wasn’t much better—I understand that the final shortlist was only two, and the outcome was in the end less than happy. But the other danger is that you appoint someone who can do a bit of all of these things, but none of them well. In a context where we need leaders to make bold decisions, to innovate and to take risks, this doesn’t sound like a good appointment strategy.

light_shining_through_treePerhaps the most striking thing about this tendency is to note a historic contrast. Great leaders of the past have not been able to do all the different things that are demanded of contemporary leadership. Instead, they have been highly gifted in one or two areas, but the best have been sufficiently self aware that they know what they are not good at, and so have built a supportive team around them who has filled in for the weaknesses. The best of leaders are those who have not only known growth and flourishing, but who have also known pruning, so that the canopy of their leadership allows in light for others to grow and flourish, rather than leave those around them in the shade.

I continue to believe that excellence in theological education is of vital importance, so I am glad that Trinity appear to have found the right person for this. But any institution will, in the end, need to settle on someone who can do only some of these things listed, but who has the awareness to build a great team around them to work with.


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13 Responses to Searching for Superman

  1. Jean Walker November 10, 2013 at 12:39 pm #

    Perhaps we have to take these lists of desirable qualities in job adverts with a pinch of realism. I did not apply for a job I would have liked because although well qualified, I did not have the Teaching qualification listed. In the event the person appointed had neither a teaching qualification nor my professional experience!

  2. Alan Jenner November 10, 2013 at 9:02 pm #

    Yup. This also applies when choosing people to represent us in government. The list of qualities required would hardly be found in the archangel Gabriel. Being trusting people we choose those who tell us that they can deliver the goods and overlook those like Jean (on previous post)who can do better but have a more realistic view of their capabilities.

  3. Ian Paul November 10, 2013 at 9:39 pm #

    Thanks for raising this point. I wonder if the over-specification was expressed in terms of discrimination, then people might think harder about it.

    When advertising for something like the principal of an institution, I wonder why the advert doesn’t just say ‘We are looking for a new principal’. Surely any eligible candidate would already have an idea of what would be involved?

  4. John Leach November 11, 2013 at 6:47 pm #

    Brilliant article, and equally true for those of us looking for more mundane jobs. When will parishes realise that they can ask for either a brilliant teacher, or a devoted pastor etc etc but not all at the same time. This shows lack of thought and vision, and lack of courage to say, for example, we’ll manage without the vicar visiting all the time if we get quality teaching and training? When do parish profiles ever say ‘Actually we’re not that bothered if our next vicar is rubbish at …’?
    By the way, I’m a great teacher! Gis a job!

  5. Ian Paul November 11, 2013 at 7:03 pm #

    John, that is so funny and true! Thanks…

  6. Emlyn Williams November 12, 2013 at 11:43 pm #

    Alan beat me to the Archangel Gabriel comment. The trouble is, as far as I know there is only one Gabriel and he’s already spoken for!

  7. Paul Barlow November 16, 2013 at 5:36 pm #

    I have just looked at the role description for the post of incumbent in the parish I left 2 years ago. It has 28 bullet points grouped under 8 headings. They are advertising for the third time after failing to appoint twice. I also have a friend who’s a CofE curate, who is discouraged from applying for incumbency because of the demands and expectations. This doesn’t seem a healthy state of affairs.

  8. Ian Paul November 17, 2013 at 12:39 pm #

    Corrected the typos for you!

  9. maggie barfield December 2, 2013 at 9:08 am #

    It’s not only a college- or church-leader thing: have a look at the job descriptions for youth workers who have to be discipling the young people in the church, engaged in detached youth work, linked with numerous schools across all age ranges, take groups to Soul Survivor and Taize and – in their spare time – lob in a bit of children’s and families work, run a parenting course and take the lead in national initiatives (part-time, with full youth work qualifications).

    The cynic in me wonders how much this is to do with finances, rather than the role itself. “We really need 5 people but we can only afford one so we’ll give one person five sets of work.”

    But the dreamer in me senses that these tightly-honed person specs are losing out on amazing opportunities. Tying the candidates in so much red-tape before they even start constrains them to a corporate idea of what the role should be delivering. What scope does that leave for individual flair, personality, gifts, difference, vision?

    I’m not advocating anarchy and I’m in favour of accountability but, as a natural follower, I long for my leader(s) to be worth following.

  10. James Goodman December 2, 2013 at 12:37 pm #

    This sounds like person specifications designed by committee – that must include everyone’s ‘must-haves’. As well as being against the biblical ‘one body, many parts’ idea, it may also raise unrealistic expectations if the staff/congregation expect excellence across all areas. As mentioned in other comments regarding encumbents/youth workets – there may also be a tendency to then vest all the responsibility for that ministry in the professional (e.g. ‘we have a paid youth worker whose job it is to…’)

    Wasn’t Frankenstein’s monster a single individual created out of many different parts?

  11. Ian Paul December 2, 2013 at 6:20 pm #

    Maggie, ‘I long for my leaders to be worth following’. Thanks. That seems to me to be rather important.

    James, please note I am not being critical of Trinity, Bristol (where I have some friends on staff) or of their particular process. As a number of comments have pointed out (here and on Facebook) this is symptomatic of the church as a whole…

  12. James Goodman December 2, 2013 at 9:51 pm #

    Ian – fair point. I was intending to comment generally rather than specifically; apols if it didn’t come over. The same phenomenon also exists in my own (HE) workplace, and I have been guilty of perpetrating it myself!

  13. Rod Symmons January 31, 2014 at 10:58 am #

    Ian – sorry to come to this discussion late, but so pleased to see this post. Fortunately for Trinity they settled for a person who fulfills the most important parts of this brief and will empower others to fulfill any other bits that matter, but the design of a ridiculous person spec is indeed symptomatic of many areas of contemporary church life. Unfortunately it does not just apply to recruitment – people genuinely expect the ‘leader’ to perform effectively in a range of ways that are just not deliverable by any one individual.

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