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Letting Go of “Leadership”: Dr Wendy Dackson


A number of years ago, I was very close to a young married couple with a small child whom I knew from my church.  I thoroughly enjoyed their company, and we spent practically every waking hour of the weekends together.  We would make plans to go to museums, the zoo, air shows, shopping, and everything else that three adults and a toddler can do.  It was a lot of fun—for about a year.  I was finding that, as fond of them as I truly was, I also dreaded the Thursday night conversation after choir practice of ‘what are we doing on Saturday?’  I sometimes wanted a Saturday to do things that single women in their thirties might want to do (including just slobbing out with a book or cleaning my apartment).

In the course of a conversation with another single friend in her late forties, this concern came up, and she gave me an image that I found helpful.  She said that a jar needs a lid, but sometimes, in the course of time, the rim and the lid can get clogged with stuff that makes it difficult to put them together correctly.  You need to separate the jar from the lid, clean the screw-threads, let it air dry, and only then can they go together again as they were meant to do.  This metaphor helped me understand that as important as my time with this family was, I also needed to separate from them on occasion, and by doing that it would help rather than hinder the positive relationship I had with my married-with-children friends.

I’m experiencing the same uncomfortable, clogged-up relationship lately with the word ‘leadership’, especially when it applies to the church.  It was triggered yesterday, when this (admittedly very good) blog post was shared on two separate Facebook pages.  I am in agreement with what Nieuwhof says about pastors being responsible for small groups of people (usually ‘local churches’), and that there is a need for people who can think beyond the local.  I’d add that it needs to extend beyond just launching a bunch of new communities, but to do some serious work on the inter-relatedness and distinctiveness of various types of communities (such as my interest in the differences of dioceses throughout the Anglican Communion, or the question of identity for Anglicans whose first language is not English, such as the Francophone Network of the Anglican Communion).  It needs not just to seek opportunities for bringing new people in, but to create spaces for reflection which leads to more considered action.  And it needs not to be limited to the ordained.

My own Facebook status reflects my discomfort with the terminology of ‘leadership’ itself, more than any disagreement with Nieuwhof.  I wrote:

The Church does not need any more ‘leaders’, and should stop training ‘leaders’. Because ‘leader’ implies ‘followers’, and that means ‘leaders’ are by nature backward-looking to see who is behind them. What the Church needs are people who are passionate about doing what needs to be done, and are ready to welcome people to join *alongside* them, so that together they will get all the things that need to be done, DONE.

I did not quite anticipate having as lively a discussion as my admittedly bad-mood status update sparked, and I did not realize how aggravated I have become, over the past few years, at the language of ‘leadership’.

The church, from where I sit (which is mostly on the outside these days) does not need one more ‘leader’.  We have all the Leader we need in the person of Jesus—and that is the only person who should, in the church, have ‘followers’.  Human leadership, even in the church, is a matter of looking backwards, to see who is behind, who is following, and how many of them.  The focus is on the success of the ‘leader’—how effectively s/he can get people to follow.  When you have to keep looking over your shoulder at who’s behind you, it diminishes your capacity to look at the road ahead. Furthermore, few people can authentically ‘follow’ more than one ‘leader’—there is little or no overlap, and therefore, it can only be measured or described in ways that are inappropriately competitive.

I got a bit of pushback, with one of the conversation partners calling it ‘servant leadership’.  Jesus might have displayed this, but I have yet to see it in any local church or higher institution.  The term has become a two-edged sword, and we should put it down immediately.  The edges are, I think, less whether we are talking about clergy/laity, but who is doing the talking about whom. If I say about myself ‘I am a servant leader’, at some level (intended or not), I am saying ‘I am doing you a great SERVICE, and thus your task is to follow me and do as I say.’ If I tell you ‘Yours is a servant leadership’, what I am likely saying (at least in part) is that your God-designated place in the grand scheme is to serve (me) and set an example that others will follow.

In the first instance (“I see myself as a servant leader”), it is what sociolinguist Deborah Tannen calls (in her book, The Argument Culture) ‘getting the lower hand’–it obligates someone to you because you are (falsely) putting yourself in a one-down position in relation to them. By doing this, you take control of the relationship, while falsely asserting that the other person is really in the driving seat.

In the second instance, by praising someone else’s ‘servant leadership’, we get a double-win: we say something ‘nice’, while keeping that person firmly in his/her place.

All of this is problematic, whether we are, in Nieuwhof’s terms, ‘pastors’ or ‘entrepreneurs’.  “Leadership” , using my friend’s metaphor, is a jar that is so full of junk that it needs to be unscrewed, cleaned out, let to air for a good long time—and only then can we put it back together and use it well.

What would I rather see?  First, I do not think we need a new terminology for the same old problem.  Calling something by the more modern name of ‘tuberculosis’ when our ancestors used to call it ‘consumption’ does not change what the problem really is.  We need a remedy, not a new name.

Secondly, although we may not need more pastors, we probably don’t need fewer, either.  There will always be a need for people who are very good at caring for the local church, identifying the needs of the ‘little flocks’ and making sure those needs are met.  After all, it is most likely that people who flourish in the local church are the ones who can emerge as the entrepreneurs that Nieuwhof wants to see more of.

I agree, however, that we need more than pastors.  Entrepreneurs is perhaps one category that we do need, but we need more than that, too.  We need people who are committed to a complementary endeavor to entrepreneurial action—we also need people who are passionate about reflection on experience, because completing the action/reflection cycle is more effective than either action or reflection alone.

I don’t have a ‘catchy’ term for this.  The best I can do is to say that the church, in my experience and observation, needs quite a few passionate accountable visionaries.  There may be some overlap into the categories of pastor and entrepreneur, but it is an area that needs to be developed—and it may need more well-qualified lay practitioners than ordained ones.  The passionate accountable visionary is a person who sees a bigger picture than local congregations, is concerned with quality of Christian life together (not just in the congregation, but across wide areas of the Communion of Saints), and makes imaginative connections between realities and aspirations.  A passionate accountable visionary has is grounded in theology as well as practical knowledge, and is capable of making a theological analysis of what s/he observes and experiences.

The ‘passionate’ and ‘visionary’ elements are fairly obvious—it’s the ‘accountable’ that needs to be teased out a bit more.  This person is resourced  by the church:  laborers deserve their pay, and if someone has equipped himself for this kind of work, the church must be prepared to compensate him for performing it, whether he is lay or ordained.  It is a dedicated life of study and sharing, which is far beyond what can be sustained in off-hours from a full-time job. It needs frequent contact with other visionaries, for stimulus and for sharing across communities.

Those who wish to support the passionate visionary’s work are not followers, so much as  backers, very much in the sense that this word is used in a business context—they invest in a person’s passion and knowledge, expecting a return for their churches, whether local churches or a wider association.  They have a right, even a responsibility, to ask for regular communications from whoever they support, and any backer could support a number of visionary thinkers.

This, obviously is very different from the leader/follower model:  a visionary might be supported by a number of people, who in turn support others (and ideally, there could be a great amount of overlap between the ‘support system’ of passionate visionaries).  The passionate accountable visionary is in ‘front’, not to attract attention or to ‘lead’, but to see what is needed for the future of the church.  The ‘backers’ are behind—not to follow, but to encourage, and to create energy, and to maintain accountability.

The effect would be much like an ecclesiastical version of Dragon’s Den or Shark Tankthe return on investment not measured in monetary terms, but the advancement of the gracious reign of God.


Editor’s note:

This post is being published simultaneously on the blog of the Revd Ken Howard, a fellow admirer of Dr Wendy Dackson’s work. This is a great blog, which I think readers of Lay Anglicana would also enjoy. Ken’s Wikipedia page is here. He is:

“an author, an ordained minister of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Washington, and a thought leader in church planting and post-partisan Christian unity. Howard is the founding vicar and first rector of Saint Nicholas Church.[1] He led Saint Nicholas through its 1388% growth from 1995 to present,[2][3] including purchasing and breaking ground on its own property and constructing the church building itself.[4] He gives talks and presentations nationwide on topics from his book Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them, as well as consulting on conflict resolution, vision, and direction for congregations and dioceses, through the Paradoxy Center for Incarnational Christianity at St. Nicholas Church.[5]A Christian of Jewish origins, Howard has been an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church since 1993, focusing on church planting, congregational vitality, and conflict transformation. Prior to ordination Howard was a consultant in team-building, organizational development, and strategic planning. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Virginia Theological Seminary, with honors in Church History for his research into the Jewish origins of early Christianity, published in Jewish Christianity in the Early Church.[6] In 2010, Howard authored the book Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them, the premise of which is to help congregations “transcend dead-end divisions and transform conflict into healthy diversity united by the love of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit”

Responding to Lilliane Daniel (Part Two): Wendy Dackson



Before I begin responding to particular excerpts from When Spiritual But Not Religious is Not Enough, I should make a few disclosures.  First, for me, the book had the feeling of something written by an extremely frustrated, burnt-out minister.  And, more than most lay people, I get burnt-out ministers.  I earned a Master’s in a denominational seminary where I was the only intentionally lay vocation student; and then I earned a doctorate in a large Catholic university with an ecumenical theology department in which most of the students were ordained in various Christian traditions.  I spent two years in England doing research on clergy roles and identities.  During that time, I listened to probably a hundred ordained ministers, from those whose congregations were flourishing to those whose churches were at risk of losing buildings or not having soon-retiring clergy replaced.  I listened to people in farming communities where drought followed flood followed foot-and-mouth disease; I interviewed women who were the first female clergy in their settings and the challenges they faced from congregation and from less-than-welcoming ordained men.  I spent another two years trainig local ministers.  My airplane conversations, when people have learned what I did for a living, were a lot like the ones clergy experience.  Short of being married to an ordained person, I possibly understand them as well as any lay person can expect to do.


Secondly, I do not currently attend church or consider myself to be a member of any congregation.  My experience of working for church institutions burned me out, drained all I had emotionally and spiritually (as well as contributing to a major episode of depressive illness).  I worked on staff of an historically significant Church of England diocese, and was bullied so badly by my (ordained) line manager and colleagues that I describe my current condition as “sacramental bulimia”.  Yes, I literally vomit a bit in my own mouth if I receive communion; that’s how much I do not trust most ordained people. The clerical collar is not a badge of honor in my mind–you do have to prove your trustworthiness to me.


However, I am not SBNR.  I am non-parochial laity.  I still consider myself an American Episcopalian, and a member of the wider Anglican Communion.  If and when I return to institutional religion, this will almost certainly be where I will land. I did not grow up in this tradition, but I consciously chose it, and allowed it to form and shape my spiritual journey.  I pray the Daily Office.  I read theology widely and deeply. I try to live a life of generosity and respect for others, and to serve in what ways I can those whose needs I can meet.  I don’t always manage it, and I don’t expect anyone else—lay or ordained, religious or not—to manage it either.  There are days that I feel I’ve taken another step on the road to holiness if I can manage not to drop the F-bomb, and not to refer to people who annoy me by identifying them with below-the-waist body parts.


I think institutional religion is important.  When two or three gather in Jesus’ name, trouble happens if there aren’t standards and structures of accountability to make sure that the aims of God’s peaceful reign are furthered, and the least amount of damage is done, by or to us beautiful, fragile, fallible human beings.


All that being said, I would like to have a bit of an imaginary conversation with Lillian Daniel concerning some of what she has said in When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough.  I will put quotes from the book in boldface, and my responses will follow in regular type. There is no way to do this as an outline of the argument of the book (as there is none), so I am just taking things as they arise on the Kindle.


Have you ever noticed that these spiritual but not religious adults, so averse to hearing about God in church, where adults have actually spent some time thinking about these things, never tire hearing about it from their own children?


I don’t particularly care to hear about God from small children, either.  In fact, I am not big on kids (don’t get me wrong, I would never harm a child; it would involve contact with one).  But I find the assumption that only people who are currently attending a church have “actually spent some time thinking about these things”, to be condescending and offensive. I am no expert on SBNR–after all, I haven’t written a book that has (un)critical acclaim–but I do know quite a large number of people who self-describe as such.  And I tend to have my most interesting theological conversations with them  It isn’t all puppies and rainbows and chain emails.


If they went to Sunday school (these children) could ask about bats and scorpions in heaven.  They could ask about cancer when a grandparent gets sick.  They would have a place, a spiritual community, in which to go deeper.


There is a wonderful BBC sitcom called Outnumbered.  In the first series, there was an episode entitled ‘The Wedding’, and I highly recommend it for clergy training.  The lightly-if-at-all churched children are at the mimageseal after the ceremony, asking the young, hip, Afro-Carribean Church of England priest some of the very same questions as raised above. And the priest cannot give satisfactory answers to primary school children (see illustration above). What would they be gaining by going to Sunday school?


At some point, if you think about it at all, that person with the self-made religion will use his God-given brain and the wisdom of hard experiences and start to ask angry and provocative questions about this spirituality of the status quo.


One would hope so. But it does not logically follow that they will become conventionally religious. It is just as logical that a person who becomes angry when God as s/he understands that designation does not measure up to those standards, will abandon the entire notion of God.


The church has done some embarrassing things in its day, and I personally do not want to be associated with a lot of it.


Fair enough, neither do I, and neither do the SBNR.  The difference, however, is you have chosen to follow a calling to ordained ministry, and like it or not, as soon as you let it be known that you make your living as a representative of the church, you become its symbol.  For some people, that will not be a good thing. It may be inconvenient and uncomfortable for you occasionally, you may be bored by your seatmate on an airplane.  It is nothing compared to the police officers of the 1960s and 70s who were routinely called “pigs” and were the targets of physical violence, because they chose a vocation to public service.  It is even less than what Vietnam war draftees, who did not choose military service, endured when they returned from their tours of duty.


And here, I think we come to the crux of the problem that the spiritual but not religious people have with the church.  If we could just kick out all the human beings, we might really be able to do this thing and meet their high standards.


Yes, some SBNR may actually find that there is arrogance and hypocrisy in the churches, and they may not want to be associated with that (who does, except the arrogant and hypocritical?).  But have you ever thought that people might want something the church doesn’t offer, and it has to do with what they believe?  Do you really want people who do not believe in God, but are nonetheless looking for a wider spiritual connection, in your church?  Is there only one kind of SBNR?  It would seem so from what you have written.


We make friends with nonbelievers who claim that we are crazy.  And then in these moments of utter crisis, we find ourselves called into the eye of the tornado.  And suddenly we realize that we have become, for them, the church.


It is lovely to be privileged to be the church for people in crisis, to be the face of a loving God at the moment of birth or death or marriage.  But as a public minister, you are the face of the church for people who are angry with it or have been deeply hurt by it.  You don’t get to pick and choose the circumstances when you are the face of the church.  You are always it, for good or for ill, when it suits you and when it doesn’t.


Rather than hammering the unchurched with the gospel from our mouths and heads, rather than arguing with them or badgering them, rather than capturing the moment like a pious pirate, the stand-in church is not called to be brilliant, not to be persuasive, not even to tell the entire story right then and there, but rather, the stand-in church is called to simply be.


It’s a nice sentiment with a lot of truth in it, I can’t disagree if it were a stand-alone remark.  But it is in the context of a book where an entire class of spiritualities are lumped together and ridiculed without a great deal of apparent understanding. I suppose you only mean you are happy to simply be the stand-in church when it feels good and isn’t boring to you.


Rachmaninoff-playing Anglicans, Bible-based Methodist magicians—it all just makes you feel inadequate.  And when that happens, it’s easy to get mocking and accusatory.


That explains a lot of the tone of the book–you are not adequate to the task of bringing the SBNR into the church, and therefore it becomes easy to lump them together, ignore any individual nuances or exceptions, and ridicule them.


“They.”  The telltale “they”.

Often the language of “they” is mixed with the diagnostic language that has become popular in ministry circles.  Sometimes the congregation is described as a patient or a dysfunctional organization.  The use of the pronoun “they” implies that the doctor, consultant, expert, or fixer is none other than the pastor.  “They” need fixing, and “i” am the one to come in, from the outside and do it.


“They” is a term that denies individually to the members of the group under discussion.  It may be objectionable for a pastor to do this to a congregation.  It is just as objectionable to do it to the SBNR, especially if you really wish they were a part of your church.


I am also tired of people who say that they are privately spiritual but not religious.  I am tired of people who have one bad experience with a church and paint the whole of Christianity with that brush. . .And I am tired of people who criticize churches like mine and go somewhere else.


This may be an entirely valid thing to feel, but is it helpful, in the context of a discussion of SBNR, to say you are tired of them?  Perhaps listening to their criticisms, seriously and sympathetically, might actually bring some of them in.  I would probably go somewhere else, too!


I feel like I live in a society where stupid and simple spirituality always trumps the depth of a complex faith.


I have encountered at least as much of the former inside the church, and the latter outside, than the reverse. And for those of us hungering for complexity, I am not convinced that you, personally, Lillian Daniel, are offering it.  Not from this book, anyway.



Perhaps I am really just tired of myself.  In criticizing others in their faith, I hardly live up to the best in my own faith.  Perhaps the people who irritate me the most are exposing my own false doctrines.  And this is why I can’t do this religion thing all by myself.  This is why I need a community.


Well, thank you.  This is the first spiritually honest and relatable thing I found in the book.  It is too bad it takes you a third of the text to get to it, and then it is buried by the rest of the book.


Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me.  There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself.  What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff or, heaven forbid, disagree with you.  Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.


There is much here that requires challenge and rebuttal.  First, and I hope most obviously, telling people that they do not interest you is hardly the way to entice them into relationship–and if you are tired of them not being part of your church, you probably do need to develop a relationship with them. If you are not interested in a topic, it is probably not a great idea to write about it, because (as this book bears witness) you will not do it well.  Additionally, there are times and seasons in life, even the lives of very devout people, when community becomes overwhelming and even at some level idolatrous.  Some people, whose lives and jobs outside the church are full of demands and challenges that you may not be able to imagine, are not up for a “provocative” spiritual experience, but need strength and comfort for the tasks God has given them.


So while I can’t stop these people from talking to me on the airplane, can I at least inform them that they are boring?


Wait a moment.  A supposedly smart woman like you can’t politely deflect unwanted conversations?  Or would you rather be rude to total strangers who, upon hearing you are a minister, choose (perhaps unwisely) to trust you with something about which they feel a bit vulnerable?


I can hope and believe in what is not before my eyes.  I don’t have to be logical, and most of all, I don’t have to prove it.  Not to you, not to anyone.


Yes, indeed, you can believe in whatever you like.  Unicorns, for all I care, and no, you don’t have to prove it to me or anyone else.  But why any intelligent adult would trust you would then be beyond me.  I expect better from educated people.


If there’s a target audience for a sermon it’s probably the guy who died on the cross for preaching his own.


Really.  You don’t hope that the people in your congregation (who are, by the way, paying your salary) actually derive some benefit from your preaching?  And what, by the way, do you expect Jesus to get from your words?


And now, back to just good old Wendy:


I am a snarky person.  I believe in a little shock and awe from the pulpit–after all, I am the woman who preached what quickly became the Great British Farts and Poo sermon on All Saints’ Sunday at All Saints’ church in Staplehurst, Kent, in 2009.  I believe in, and have benefited from, a bit of a challenge and wake-up call in church.  But I do not believe that it is possible to ridicule and dismiss people, and thereby win them over to your point of view.  And that is the main point on which I found When Spiritual but Not Religious is Not Enough to have failed.


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