Good Christian leadership—what it is and why it matters

Ian Parkinson works for CPAS teaching leadership to those training for ministry in the Church of England, and has just written a wide-ranging book on Understanding Christian Leadership. I was able to interview him about the book.

Paul: Ian, thanks so much for sending me a copy of your book—I really enjoyed it. You cover so much interesting ground, I would love to ask you a hundred questions! But can I simply start by asking: where did your fascination with leadership come from? And what made you write this book?

Parkinson: I am so glad that you enjoyed the book.

I suppose that my own interest in leadership was stimulated primarily by my experience of church leadership, both my own and that of others. Whether we like it or not, experience suggests that the capacity of a church, or any other organisation for that matter, to thrive is significantly affected by the qualities, character and competence of its leadership. Having seen at first hand the impact of leadership, both for good and bad, on churches, sports teams, and workplaces, when I became a church leader I resolved to do my best to grow my own leadership competencies as far as I was able in order to serve those entrusted to me as best as I was able. To that end I tried to learn from those around me who seemed to be showing positive leadership behaviours, and began to read fairly widely about leadership in general and Christian leadership in particular.

Understanding Christian Leadership is very much the fruit of that reading and reflection. I am convinced that effective leadership is fuelled by consistent reflection on our leadership practice, informed by key biblical and theological motifs and by the best of secular leadership wisdom. Good leaders are not simply pragmatic, slavishly and uncritically repeating the practice of others, but are reflective, understanding why particular behaviours are appropriate and capable of improvising on the basis of their understanding. I wanted to give people a resource which might foster such reflection and stimulate within them an appetite for further exploration into the nature of Christian leadership.

The other stimulus for writing this book was even more practical. My current work involves me in teaching leadership modules in a large number of TEIs (theological training institutions) around the country to those training for authorised ministry in the Church of England. In putting together reading lists for these various modules I could not find a book which could serve as a set text and which covered all the different bases required by such modules. So it was partly out of desperation that this book came to be written!

Paul: You start off by noting the very mixed views on leadership (and return to this several times), with some thinking it is the panacea for all ills, and others deeply resenting the focus on leadership, especially within the Christian church. Why do you think the subject of leadership divides people so much?

Parkinson: Without wishing to minimise some of the serious intellectual or theological reservations around leadership which are expressed in a number of quarters (and I devote an entire chapter in the book to engaging with these), most reservations are often tied up with negative personal experiences of leadership. If our experience of leadership has been of leadership which is ineffective, disempowering or abusive, then we will tend to be suspicious of leadership generally and dubious as to it having the capacity to be different. Some business leadership practice can seem to commodify or instrumentalise people, subordinating their personal well being to the wider aims and interests of the employer or other stakeholders.

It’s not difficult to see, therefore, why some dismiss leadership as a secular practice and as something entirely alien to the culture of the Christian church. My own contention is that there is a distinctively Christian understanding of leadership which is present from the very beginning of our own tradition and which is both moral and helpful. The antidote to bad leadership is not the rejection of leadership (a profoundly dangerous thing) but rather godly leadership. Although the resources for this will be found principally within our own tradition we will also discover that there is a huge amount of leadership wisdom to be found in other, ‘secular’ sources which will be profoundly useful to us.

Paul: On p 38 you recount George Orwell’s story of the officer in Burma who has to shoot an elephant—not because he wants to, but because the people expect it so he feels he has no choice. Where do you see this kind of ‘empty’ leadership happening in both church and world? What is the antidote?

Parkinson: Orwell’s story illustrates the power of followers to shape leadership action. This is a particular temptation for political leaders who are often more concerned to shape policy around what followers want (and thus what might get them elected) rather than around some higher moral purpose. On the world stage this is profoundly evidenced by those who have come to power effectively by tapping into baser and more nationalistic instincts, or by currying favour with powerful interest groups. The question has to be asked are such people really offering leadership or are they really demonstrating followership? One of the tragic consequences of this phenomenon is that when faced with a crisis such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, such pseudo-leaders lack the capacity to take initiative which might enable positive solutions to be found. It is in precisely those nations where populist leaders have come to power that the human cost of this pandemic seems to be most acute.

Whilst church leaders are not elected in quite the same way, many still find that the temptation to be popular or to be liked hinders them from leading courageously. Authentic leadership is about enabling those for whom we have responsibility to face up to the challenges of God’s purposes and to work collaboratively with others to discern God’s direction for us and to pursue that course no matter what the cost.

Paul: I really enjoyed your careful exploration of models and examples of leadership throughout Scripture. What is the significance of the similarities and differences in the approach to leadership we find in Scripture compared with its surrounding culture?

Parkinson: One of the things I find most fascinating is the range of words chosen by the first Christians to describe those exercising leadership function (and the NT writers were far more concerned with leadership function than with giving particular titles to those who exercised leadership). What comes across most clearly is their aversion to words which connoted status or privilege. For the Christian, leadership is something which is a delegated responsibility; we serve the interests and purposes of another as His stewards and servants and are unconcerned about our own personal standing. This represents a profound departure from inherited contemporary (and present day!) secular ideas about leadership.

The other thing I find fascinating is the fact that most of the words they used were of secular rather than sacred provenance. It probably indicates their conviction that they were not involved in the foundation of a new ‘spiritual’ movement but rather that they were the first fruits of the new humanity. So, words used of Graeco-Roman public officials whose concern is for the well-being and security of the community are borrowed to describe the function of Christian leaders.

Paul: Partly drawing on Robert Banks, you make a powerful case for Christian leadership being collaborative, rather than ‘monarchical’, and rejecting the notion of a ‘caste’ of leadership. How might the Church of England take these things seriously—is it capable of reforming its approach to leadership in these ways?

Parkinson: Unless the C of E does radically rethink its approach to leadership (and I would argue bring it more into line with some of the earliest Christian traditions to do with leadership) then it will simply continue to decline. My own conviction is that the biggest stranglehold on the life of the church today and the most serious hindrance to growth and even the viability of some churches is clericalism in a variety of different guises. We are in thrall to some dubious theologies of ministry, leadership and ordination, many of which have more to do with the cultural and spiritual challenges of past eras (and especially the second and third and nineteenth centuries).

Ultimately this is an issue of ecclesiology rather than simply of ministry and leadership. We seem to cling to the erroneous assumption that what comes first is not the Church but the ministry. The apostolic Church had this order the other way round. Perhaps one issue is that clergy are reluctant to contemplate the fact that they might not be indispensable. My own conviction as a church leader was always that my first priority was to do myself out of a job by raising up and releasing others who might be more effective than me. Unless and until this mindset is owned more widely across the Church then I suspect that we will see little change.

Paul: You rightly focus on the importance of dispersed leadership, collaboration and servant leadership—but in many contexts these can lead to a rejection of the use of power and leadership as offering direction. How do we hold these tensions together—where might we look for theological inspiration here?

Parkinson: In the words of the apocryphal Sunday school member, ‘The answer is always Jesus, isn’t it?’. He truly is our model in terms of what it means to use power wisely and in a way which does not crush or disempower others but empowers them. Leadership does involve the use of power. If we choose to reject its use, be sure that others will seize power inappropriately and in a potentially harmful and destructive way. One of the key responsibilities of leadership is to use power in such a way as to provide a secure environment in which all can exercise gifts and responsibilities safely and without hindrance. Simon Walker in his brilliant The Undefended Leader offers stunning insights into the ecology of power and into the ways in which power is deployed differently through various leadership styles.

I am very taken with the idea that leaders need to adopt different leadership styles, and thus different deployments of power, according to the changing situations they face within their churches or organisations. A pioneering situation may well require quite directive, pacesetting leadership with strong use of power for a season. Not to do so may well mean that things never quite get off the ground. However, this is not a sustainable style of leadership and will need to give way to a more affiliative, visionary or coaching style as a more settled state emerges. As a leader prepares to hand on responsibility to a successor, then a more passive, self-emptying style of leadership may well be required. This still involves the use of power, but a power which is directly concerned with achieving goals in a non directive manner. Going back to Jesus, we see his own leadership style changing markedly as his ministry progresses and as he moves towards his goal of releasing and empowering others to pick up the baton from him.

Paul: You frequently mention some recent initiatives in the Church of England, such as the FAOC report on Senior Church Leadership, and the importance of ‘Setting God’s People Free’. Where do you see most hope in the Church of England—and what are the biggest challenges we face in the area of leadership?

Parkinson: I do rejoice in a number of influential pieces of work which have been produced in recent years all of which point us towards a more authentically biblical understanding of leadership and ministry. These at least have the capacity to facilitate the reshaping of the narrative around the exercise of leadership. However, history suggests that ‘top-down’ approaches have limited effectiveness in effecting change. So, my hope is kindled by the emergence of younger leaders who understand the missional nature of the Church, the vocation of all God’s people to this work of mission, and who are able to imagine their own leadership against such a backdrop.

I am also encouraged by the growing number of newly ordained bishops who come to their roles having had personal experience of leading local churches to growth, something I have always felt to be an essential, though often overlooked, qualification for episcopacy. If we are to throw off the shackles of clericalism, then we need senior leaders who are courageous, adventurous and who understand that ministry must emerge to resource the needs of the church on the ground rather than vice versa.

Paul: In the Foreword by Justin Welby, he comments ‘My guess is that this is his life in a book’, and you include a number of real-life examples of leadership in practice. What did you learn most from those examples—and what did you learn in writing the book?

Parkinson: The leadership case studies were fascinating because although I knew each subject pretty well, in each case I learned even more from them as I interviewed them. What all of them turned out to have in common was a deep love for God and for those for whom they had responsibility. Each of them took seriously their leadership responsibility and each had taken steps to grow in their understanding of leadership. All of them were enthusiastic about continuing personal and spiritual growth and might well be described as committed lifelong learners. The fact that though their contexts and styles were all different yet their respective organisations had grown in health and vitality under their leadership reinforced to me the fact that good leadership does always make a positive difference. Interestingly, all of the people I interviewed wanted to ascribe the reasons for effectiveness away from themselves and towards other factors or people!

I am not sure that I learned a great deal that was wholly new in writing this book but the experience did serve to clarify my thinking on a number of things. I was particularly keen to engage critically and seriously with some of the principal philosophical and theological reservations expressed towards leadership and felt at the end that I had more reason for confidence in leadership as something which matters to God. I felt too that I had greater insight into the ways in which the NT writers describe and present the practices of leadership and into some of the background ideas which lie behind their thought. Perhaps the principal thing I learned was that leadership is a dynamic phenomenon, that there will always be more to learn and reflect on, and that, nine months on from completing the manuscript, there are new insights I have gained and which I rather wish I had been able to include in the book.

Paul: Thanks so much for your time—and thank you for the book. It covers so much, and includes so many fascinating resources, I hope it is widely read.

Ian Parkinson lives in Sheffield and, having spent more than thirty years in parish ministry, now works for CPAS teaching leadership to those training for authorised ministry in the Church of England. He and his wife Nadine have three adult children and four (nearly five) grandchildren. A former New Wine Regional Director for the North of England, he is the author of Reignite (Oxford, Monarch, 2015) and Enabling Succession (Cambridge, Grove, 2017).

The illustration at the top is from “Jesus Washes an Apostle’s Feet” by Laurie Olson Lisonbee.

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12 thoughts on “Good Christian leadership—what it is and why it matters”

  1. Very helpful.
    I particularly liked, “The question has to be asked are such people really offering leadership or are they really demonstrating followership?” – a great line.

    • (Being very naughty, but the timing is too apposite)…

      Wednesday: “Government defends fees for overseas NHS workers”
      Thursday: “NHS fees to be scrapped for overseas health staff and care workers”

      Leadership or followership?

  2. “He truly is our model in terms of what it means to use power wisely and in a way which does not crush or disempower others but empowers them. Leadership does involve the use of power.”

    Agreed. However, Jesus provided an unsettling parable, revealing servant leadership to be rooted in an enduring commitment to prioritise tending the needs of others before one’s own:

    And which of you, having a servant plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down to eat’?

    But will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for my supper, and gird yourself and serve me till I have eaten and drunk, and afterward you will eat and drink’? (Luke 17:7-10)

    The tasks described in this passage (plowing and tending sheep) are both arduous and (for the latter) potentially perilous, especially, when under attack by ruthless predators (cf. Acts 20:29; 1 Sam. 17:34 – 36)

    Also, tasks associated with authentic servanthood, while important, do not confer prestige. In fact, they are decidedly menial.

    If you want to discern what counts for true servanthood in the church, simply describe a particular task to others. Typically, people respond to a prestigious activity with excitement, Most will probably express interest in joining in..

    In contrast, a truly menial task will tend to provoke reactions of disregard and avoidance of extended discussion.

    To make His point about authentic servanthood, Christ articulated the unthinkable situation of servants returning from their menial tasks, only to have their master prepare supper for them, instead of the other way around.

    And, surely, the test of authentic servant leadership: is which of two contrasting replies mostly characterises the engagement of Christian ministers with those that they are leading:

    Is to give prioritise nourishing others before addressing their own needs, hopes and aspirations by saying: “Come along now and sit down to eat’?” (cf. Matt. 24:45-47)

    Or is it to direct others to prioritise activities that feed their their egos, ambitions and aspirations by saying: “Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’?” (cf. Matt. 24:48-50)

    If you want to gauge which of these characterises your ministry, then just compare the effort and time spent on activities that advance your professional recognition and public prestige with those that are either so menial or so discreetly conducted that they rarely, if ever, garner any public plaudits,

    What’s not servant leadership is the kind of ‘ministry’ that forms the all-too-familiar clique of insiders through whom the church pecking order is enforced, with everyone in thrall to the leaders’ predetermined pet projects, causes and initiatives.

    Compare that to Jesus and the apostles, whose ministries were characterised not only by constant adaptation to the needs of others, but also, in so doing, the acceptance of hardship, deprivation and peril.

    St. Paul describes these in 2 Cor. 11:26. We also know that in three self-funded missionary journeys, spreading the gospel though out Asia Minor, he travelled just under 7000 miles on his three self-funded mission.

    Apart from the dangers of such extensive itinerant preaching, perils came from the offence to society caused by the early Church nurturing believers to become independent from and eventually defy the corrupt and compromised religiosity and heathen traditions.

    Centuries later, St. Thomas More also defied corrupt and compromised religiosity and was executed for his principled refusal to take the Oath of Succession, as Henry VIII demanded.

    Similarly, John Wesley defied Anglican establishment’s strictly imposed parish boundaries to travel over 250,000 miles, during his ministry, up and down the country in furtherance of the gospel.

    In contrast with this zeal for spreading the gospel, the 2015 Experiences of Ministry survey showed that, on average. most clergy only spend about 10 per cent of each week in preaching, including preparation.

    In contrast, they spent 14 to 23 per cent of their time on administration and organisation.

    If, as the survey showed, clergy are spending most of their time on administrative tasks, then there really is no point to this lip-service paid to the priests’ ordained duty: “to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord; they are to teach and to admonish, to feed and provide for his family, to search for his children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations, and to guide them through its confusions, that they may be saved through Christ for ever. Formed by the word, they are to call their hearers to repentance and to declare in Christ’s name the absolution and forgiveness of their sins”?

    • ‘In contrast with this zeal for spreading the gospel, the 2015 Experiences of Ministry survey showed that, on average. most clergy only spend about 10 per cent of each week in preaching, including preparation.

      In contrast, they spent 14 to 23 per cent of their time on administration and organisation.’

      Does that not show how wrong the typical church set-up is – a one man/woman show? Also, spreading the gospel is not the same as preaching, which is usually to the already converted. Im not at all convinced that clergy should be spending a lot of their time preparing for a 15/20 min talk each Sunday. In reality it isnt very important, though it is the clergy themselves who think it is.

      • Agreed about how wrong the “typical church set-up is – one man/woman show”.

        Doubtless, clergy, who deliver that 15 to 20-minute talk, would hope (you might add, in vain) that the sermon will spawn several post-service discussions.

        They would probably also encourage lay leaders to take up the same sermon theme in mid-week house groups.

        Nevertheless, that all still boils down largely (as you state) to preaching to the already converted.

        In the following activity breakdown from the cited survey, what might be regarded as spreading the gospel is ‘intentional outreach’ and that only accounts for an average of ~4% of clergy time.

        This approach is tightly coupled to Back To Church/Season of Invitation initiatives.

        These, in turn, are completely reliant upon the ability of lay people to persuade their unconverted friends to attend church and thereby discover Christ (presumably, through hearing that 20-minute sermon)!

        Anyhow, here’s the Experiences of Ministry activity breakdown. I’m not aware of any more recent surveys of clergy activity:
        Administration and organisation 17.92%
        Working with colleagues – 10.53%
        Preaching/Teaching incl. preparation – 9.36%
        Exercising pastoral ministry – 9.22%
        Participation in corporate/individual prayer – 8.63%
        Engaged in liturgical duties – 7.79%
        Leadership role in local community – 5.01%
        Working with children and/or young people – 4.72%
        Other – 4.65%
        Intentional outreach – 4.17%
        Conducting and preparing for occasional offices – 4.13%
        Engaging in your own CMD – 3.91%
        Travelling time to and from worship centres – 3.69%
        Use of social media – 1.87%
        Fund raising – 1.76%
        Enacting legal responsibilities – 1.57%
        Running nurture courses for new Christians and/or new members – 1.06%

  3. Having come to trust in Jesus as my Savior in 1972 in the Jesus People movement in California I was blessed to understand there was no difference in the priestly role between me and the recognized leaders. Sure the gifts differed but the same Spirit of God filled us all and gave us His love to empower us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. I remember a time when our group got quite large and it was time to appoint a couple deacons. They were chosen not by the leaders but by the body in a meeting where two names rose to the top for affirmation and recognition. The talk revolved around their serving hearts and willingness to listen and help however they could. One of them was described as willing to get down and fix a smelly plugged up toilet while the others were enjoying a communal meal. It was as if they were describing Brother Lawrence. When i returned to Canada I really wanted to serve God by serving His people in a church setting. However I was turned down and discouraged from that because I had been divorced. My wife took off with I man I was trying to help get back on his feet then she divorced me. This happened while I was in the Bible School I was enrolled in. In our meeting for the position of pastor, the denomination’s superintendent said to me ‘Stojan there’s a better chance for a reformed pedophile to become a pastor in our denomination than a divorcee’. I dont do rejection well, however the Lord kept me from bitterness which would have been my downfall. He has His own reasons for closing doors. In retrospect it was good that He did not answer my prayer to be a pastor. I already was one and didn’t know it!
    This became evident when I entered the business world and began to wield the trowel in one hand and the Word in the other in the marketplace of commerce.
    Somewhere along the way I heard that in the Hebrew the word Worship and Work shared the same root – Avodah. Adam’s work in the Garden was worship. We sing Wesley’s ‘ruined nature now restore’ and me thinks this includes the nature of our work. If pastors understood their work is their worship it might open up a fresh joy to their journey and their sorrows.

    • Hiya Stojan, wow you were in Ca in the 70s. Must have been quite an experience.

      So sorry how it turned out with regards to church – yet another that had to bear their fruit over the wall as it were.

  4. I can’t believe how slowly this debate is going. I remember being struck over 30 years ago reading the autobiography of the late David Watson. He’d invested huge amounts of pioneering energy into the church in York which left him exhausted and with severe asthma. The Dr insisted he take 3 months complete break and he and Anne went to spend the time by the sea. They returned anxious about what might have become of the work and how much would have been lost.

    He arrived and asked someone how it had been. He was stunned to receive the reply that it had been brilliant and the church was growing. They’d divided up his tasks between them and had all blossomed and matured. Lessons were learned and he adapted his leadership style accordingly.

    I think this vividly illustrates the point made above about the need for different styles of leadership at different stages of the church life.

    • Liz, to be fair whilst DW did a remarkable pioneering work of renewal and creativity at Le Belfrey, the release of leadership, especially with the model of eldership, became a source of pain to him and his wife Anne – not least when he was away on one trip and the elders booted out his wife from leadership without reference to him. The question remains whether DW was able to function as Church leader whilst so busy as an itinerant, and in bringing in a different leadership model to an Anglican Church, he actually sowed trouble.

      • Dear Simon, I find your conclusions a little sweeping. Surely all pioneer situations will require some trial and error. Teething problems don’t mean the new system is wrong per se. If he’d wanted to be able to have the right of veto it should have been put in the guidelines.

        I would contend that all delegation requires an element of risk (as does not delegating for that matter) and therefore needs adequate supervision which in this case it appears was lacking. However, know he would be absent frequently and for prolonged periods I think the solution wasn’t to just ditch his leadership system but to put in place a more reliable temporary chair of the elders with right of veto.

        Also, however painful the removal of his wife from office was I don’t think she should have had preferential treatment just because she was his wife.

  5. God revealed himself to Jacob who said, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I knew it not; how dreadful is this place. This is none other than the House of God and this is the gate of Heaven”. Christ revealed himself to Peter who said, “Depart from me for I am a sinful man O Lord”. God revealed himself to Isaiah who cried, “…for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts”. Christ revealed himself to John on Patmos and John fell at his feet as one dead.

    I suggest we all pray that God and Christ, in mercy and grace, will reveal themselves in the same way to all of us as both terrible and wonderful, especially to Pastors and Ministers, who have a particular responsibility to proclaim a gospel which is both terrible and wonderful.

    Phil Almond


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