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Searching for Super(wo)man…?

3164668-superman.jpgThree years ago, 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. With Mark Tanner becoming the Bishop of Berwick, Cranmer Hall in Durham are now recruiting—though I haven’t yet look at the profile for this. (And we are not planning to move!)

But two things struck me about the list. 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! A spoof advertisement for a new vicar proclaimed: ‘We are looking for a dynamic young leader who will manage change effectively and work with the older members, leaving everything exactly the same.’


When I worked in a theological college, 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!

mulher-maravilha2This 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. (Since then Mike Lloyd took up the post, and the Hall is both happy and thriving.) 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 clearly found the right person for this in the person of Emma Ineson, that Wycliffe Hall managed the same—and my hope and prayer is that the same will be true for Cranmer Hall. 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 Super(wo)man…?

  1. Rachel October 17, 2016 at 8:11 am #

    Fair point Ian…… as a current Cranmer student I was intrigued to be asked by Mark Tanner on Friday to identify what I am praying for in a new Warden. …..actually hard to narrow it down but in the end a personality shaped by the fruit of the Holy Spirit seemed most important to me. Skill & team work are crucial but grace and character are my winners.

  2. Rachel October 17, 2016 at 8:14 am #

    Oops clicked too soon – Grace and truth as marks of character ( a G & T Christian to quote Michael Baughen) is what I am praying for.

  3. David Matthews October 17, 2016 at 8:41 am #

    Very good article, Ian. Our church had a new priest a few years ago who has some excellent qualities but, in a very short time, showed that he lacked in other areas. As a consequence, all the lay minister’s are now serving in other churches and church membership has dropped considerably. But, sadly, the worst outcome has been the apparent inability of the new vicar to be a team leader. However, many of us who have moved into other churches continue to pray that this man will, under God’s gracious guidance, be able to learn from and overcome his weaknesses. This, surely, has to be the way forward when someone appointed to be a super (wo)man doesn’t come up to expectations. Personally, I feel that I should have stayed, even though my ministry was curtailed like that of my LLM brothers and sisters. None of us is perfect and so, I’ve now realised, too late, that I probably would have been a better Christ follower by maintaining support rather than leaving in a pique.

    • Martin Reynolds October 17, 2016 at 6:24 pm #

      How gracious.
      Might I encourage you to return with that wonderful spirit?
      You might help him so …..

  4. Peter Ould October 17, 2016 at 9:21 am #

    Bingo,

    Leadership is about understanding your strengths and weaknesses and plugging the gaps with appointments in your team. A leader needs to lead – set direction and take those being led on that journey. He/she doesn’t need to have all the gifts and talents to handle every obstacle on that journey.

  5. John Leach October 17, 2016 at 9:58 am #

    In my work helping parishes in vacancy to write their profiles I always urge them in the person spec to put not just what they do want, but also what they don’t; ‘We have a great pastoral visiting team so we don’t expect our new vicar to spend hours visiting’, or ‘We already have someone who takes school assemblies well, so we don’t need that skill’. As an applier for posts I find it very liberating to know what I’m allowed not to do.

  6. Will Jones October 17, 2016 at 11:29 am #

    I agree with this. During the recent consultation on the appointment of our new vicar (now in post) the feedback amounted, as you would expect, to a wish-list of frequently inconsistent characteristics. I was part of the group drafting the profile and trying to turn this into a coherent role description. My working rule was that the purpose of the profile was primarily to attract the right kind of people to apply for the post, at which point we would then (all being well) appoint the best of those who applied. I was clear (though I’m not sure that others were) that we were not going to find someone who fitted this aspirational profile, but would be limited to the small pool of people who were actually inclined and available at the time to put in an application. I think sometimes the high spec role/job descriptions can serve to put off perfectly good candidates, and also blind the interview panel from seeing the quality of candidates who don’t tick enough of the nice-to-have boxes. No one can fulfil all the hopes people have of their overall leader. Perhaps the solution is, as you suggest, for leaders to be aware of their gaps and weaknesses and appoint good people around them. Or is that just another ideal characteristic?

  7. Tim Jackson October 17, 2016 at 11:37 am #

    A strong, dynamic leader…but a team player.
    You say this is impossible – but why not look outside the church and ask a few successful school leaders. A secondary school head has a much larger team to manage, much more money to deal with and lots of yoof too. If the school is a church school, then you add in the spiritual dimension too. It can be done.

    • Martin Reynolds October 17, 2016 at 6:43 pm #

      I agree Tim, leadership, even strong and dynamic leadership can and does sit comfortably with being a team player.
      Leadership that embraces others gifts, trusts and galvanises them to move forward is the dynamism that can easil flourish.
      The strength comes from partnership and confidence in self and coworkers.
      We are, after all, only there to facilitate the Spirit to live out in each person so they more fully be a faithful servant of Jesus.
      There is no need for competing egos.

  8. Daniel Lamont October 17, 2016 at 3:31 pm #

    An excellent article, Ian. If the College’s main function is the education and training of people, then surely ‘a theologian and practitioner able to engage in debate’ must be an essential criterion. Other objectives can often be an outcome of the combination of good academic work and face-to-face teaching.

  9. Don Benson October 17, 2016 at 5:59 pm #

    Yes, I think we need to step back from micro prescription and box ticking and look at the fundamental quality needed of a Christian leader. Way out in front surely has to be a burning love for Jesus Christ and a tireless energy in pursuing ways to make Him known in all circumstances, everywhere. This needn’t imply a bull-in-a-china-shop style of conducting leadership; more a gracious and honest use of whatever talents one possesses in pursuance of that primary vision. It also implies someone willing to let go of any grand view of their own self worth as compared to the urgency for declaring the Gospel effectively.

    People with this singleness of mind may, on occasions, be frustrating to work with, but one would expect their determined focus to attract other people with the gifts needed to fill in for what could never be expected of just one super (wo)man. I don’t know how many people there are out there with this kind of leadership potential but I’m pretty sure God equips enough people to do his work; perhaps we are too often consciously or subconsciously doing our best to ensure they don’t get the chance!

    It also has to be said that number 1 in an organisation may cause chaos unless he or she has a good number 2,3 & 4 keeping things in order – we all know this applies in every situation. I think the decline in congregational numbers can often mean that there is no longer a large enough pool from which to find these really important people (the organisers and technically competent people) – declining numbers bring exponentially increasing problems.

    • Tim Jackson October 18, 2016 at 10:49 am #

      St Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy 2 (I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness) becomes all the more important once we see the problems that can emerge from poor leadership, the changes and improvements a good leader can make and we realise the expectations that we place on our leaders.

  10. Peter Kay October 17, 2016 at 6:14 pm #

    Thank you so much for this, Ian.

    Another dimension is how these type of adverts have an indirect gender bias. I believe that studies back up something we instinctively know – that men are more likely to look at these ‘impossible’ job descriptions and say – ‘what the heck, I’ll apply’. Women are more likely to be put off.

    That said, Trinity have made a superb appointment with Emma.

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