Some Rough and Unordered Thoughts on Church Leadership

Hugh Latimer

More like this, please

Over the last few days, for a variety of reasons, I have had cause to think about the issue of leadership again, and the issue of church leadership more particularly. A number of conversations I have participated in have discussed issues related to leadership from a range of different angles including, but not limited to: the personality types of leaders, the nature of power, the meaning of leadership, the character of priestly leadership in particular, the questions surrounding women ‘in leadership’ in the church, and the issue of inclusive leadership. The following are an unsystematized series of thoughts and questions arising out of these conversations.


There seems to be a flattening out and homogenization of ‘leadership’ in many quarters, resulting in large measure from an overdependence upon imprecise terminology. Under the heading of ‘leadership’, a vast array of different roles, skills, and activities are conflated in a manner that produces an unhealthy inclarity in important debates and conversations.

The popular concept of ‘leadership’ is one that habitually lumps together such ‘leadership skills’ as the ability to understand and communicate ideas, especially in a compelling fashion, the capacity to mobilize and inspire others, the ability to organize projects, resources, and groups of people, the ability to give good counsel and spiritual guidance, the ability to bring people together when a group, and the skill of making prudent and wise judgments. Those who possess or exercise even some of these skills are regarded as persons who either are or should be made leaders.

People who are relatable and sympathetic in a manner that draws people to them and their points of view, charming or engaging people who can gather and unify a group around themselves through force of personal attraction or likeability, people who teach or communicate information to others in almost any role or capacity, people who are pioneering and visionary, people who are charismatic and dynamic, people who naturally convey a robust authority by the character of their presence, people who can mobilize others for outward-oriented action, and people who can overcome dissent and opposition are all characterized as ‘leaders’.

Corresponding to this expansive understanding of the constitutive elements and skills of leadership and the characteristic traits of leaders is an expansive understanding of the ways that people are exercising ‘leadership’. The university lecturer is a ‘leader’, the local councillor is a ‘leader’, the chief surgeon in a hospital is a ‘leader’, the manager of a business is a ‘leader’, the parent is a ‘leader’, the public intellectual is a ‘leader’, the advice columnist is a ‘leader’, the influential sports star is a ‘leader’, the supervisor in your office is a ‘leader’, the cutting edge artist is a ‘leader’, the judge is a ‘leader’, the prophet is a ‘leader’, the conductor of the orchestra is a ‘leader’.

There may be some benefits to stretching the concept of ‘leadership’ so widely. However, the dominance of such a framing yields problems when we are trying to focus upon particular offices and their requirements. When leadership has come to comprehend such a vast range of different things and the pastoral or priestly role is simplistically equated with ‘church leadership’, the protean character of ‘leadership’ can produce an equally ambiguous representation of the priestly office.

The vagueness of the concept has deeply unhelpful effects, especially when we are discussing matters such as ‘women in leadership’. The specific questions that ought to relate to the nature of the priesthood or pastorate can easily be neglected when the conversation is largely refracted through the distorting lens of a generic concept of ‘leadership’.

On one side of these debates this vagueness can lead to an unwarranted extension of biblical restrictions into unrelated activities and contexts. This haemorrhaging of an ill-defined concept has led to the exclusion of women from areas of ministry and activity within the world and the Church, areas where their gifts are much needed. On the other side of such debates, it can lead to a failure to reckon with the specific and variegated forms that ‘leadership’ needs to take within the life of the Church, and with the more particular character that it must take in the priesthood.


As surprisingly few people have devoted close attention to the question of what a priest or pastor actually is—even in the midst of extensive debates over women should be them—the character of the priesthood is likely to be determined (often unwittingly) primarily by prevailing models and metaphors of leadership in the wider culture, being conformed to their patterns.

When Scripture is appealed to, the appeal can take the character of a quest for isolated evidence in support of a position that was arrived at on other grounds, rather than a careful attempt to develop our understanding out of intensive engagement with the witness of the text itself.

An example of this is the way that scriptural images such as that of the ‘shepherd’ are appealed to, in a manner that largely ignores the way that these images function within the scriptures themselves. The images are abstracted from their scriptural context and reinterpreted in terms of their within our own cultural context. Our cultural image of the shepherd, quite in contrast to that of the Scripture, has little emphasis upon the shepherd as a figure employing and facing force and violence to protect and provide for a flock in the midst of numerous dangers. As a result, when many people talk about being ‘pastoral’ today, they think primarily about a visiting vicar drinking tea with their granny, saying a comforting word by a graveside, getting alongside someone as a ‘wounded healer’ in a counselling situation, or nurturing the church with a gentle homily. They are less likely to think about such ‘pastoral’ work as the forceful and unequivocal condemnation of error and its teachers, the exercise of church discipline, the protection of the members of a congregation from dangerous spiritual influences, and the driving out of those who would oppose the Church’s mission.

All of this has a huge effect upon the sort of people that we deem suitable for pastoral leadership.


The criteria of effective leadership are also all too frequently borrowed from the surrounding culture. Perhaps the greatest example of this is the equation of ‘growth’ with numerical increase.

The biblical measure of church growth is not primarily numbers but Christ, into whose form of life we are to mature (Ephesians 4:11-16). This doesn’t mean that we are to be completely ambivalent about numbers, but they are not primary. Also, not all growth is healthy: some growth is disordered and cancerous growth, where one part of the body grows without reference to the rest, or in a way that doesn’t edify or breaks down the order of the whole. Growth in some contexts may be resulting from a collapse in the church’s healthy ‘Christ-definition’.

While there are undoubtedly many things that we can learn from various models of leadership in the surrounding culture, these models cannot substitute for the norms of Scripture.


When we deal with ‘leadership’ in such generic terms, insufficient attention can be given to the very distinct ways in which pastoral or priestly leadership can be conceived of and practiced in different church contexts and traditions. One result of this is a failure to appreciate the degree to which the peculiar force that certain questions have within the church today may be in large measure a result of the distinct histories of our different church traditions and their resulting institutional forms.

Evangelicalism’s story and identity, for instance, does not typically centre upon the sacramental ministry of the church. As one illustrative example among many, the rise of Methodism involved the development of a ministry in ‘preaching houses’, field preaching, circuits, and class meetings alongside the established sacramental ministry of the local church. Distinguished from the sacramental centre of the Church’s ministry, the ministries that occurred within these contexts allowed for a greater use of lay (and female) preachers, crossing of the boundaries between parishes, and direct address to individuals in a manner detached from the ministry of their local church. Within such an approach—which is not without great advantages—the form and ordering of the local church body can easily become somewhat marginalized or obscured, as can the ministries and liturgy through which this order is established and upheld.

Such a form of ministry can be of great value. However, one could perhaps characterize it as ‘prophetic’ in character. It is exercised within a more general and less sacramental context. While ‘priestly’ ministry primarily ministers to the faithful in the sanctuary, such ‘prophetic’ ministry operates upon a broader and less defined stage. It speaks to a much wider audience, many of whom aren’t within the Church at all. Also, while the priest plays a more fixed symbolic and relational role within a defined community, the prophet is less firmly rooted, often moving around from place to place. While the ‘priest’ may be more like a father, whose teaching is bound up with his relational and symbolic presence and identity within his family, the ministry of the ‘prophet’ doesn’t typically involve such a symbolic or relational presence and identity.

I would suggest that, within the context of evangelicalism, there has been a distinct tendency to represent the pastoral ministry of the church according to a more ‘prophetic’ model, one which downplays the role of the pastor as a symbolic and relational presence within a sacramentally defined body. Instead, the pastor can become closely identified with the ‘prophetic’ function of preaching, with the relational and symbolic dimensions of his role being minimized. Evangelicalism’s understanding of itself and its ministry often can be so focused upon the ‘prophetic’ interface between the church and a dying world or the preacher and the individual conscience, that much less of an account is provided of the internal and ‘priestly’ body functions of the church.

All of this shapes the form that debates about women pastors will take within evangelicalism. The emphasis upon a ‘prophetic’ model of pastoral ministry over a ‘priestly’ one encourages an understanding of this ministry according to gifted functions, one that diminishes the significance of relational and symbolic presence. Within the ‘prophetic’ model a restriction upon pastors based upon their sex makes considerably less sense—especially when we recognize the obvious ‘prophetic’ gifting of many women—than it does within a context that recognizes the ‘priestly’ character of the pastoral ministry.


In appreciating that our conceptions and discussions of pastoral leadership are profoundly shaped by our ecclesial contexts and traditions, we should also recognize this corollary: implicit in accounts of pastoral leadership are concepts of what sort of entity the Church is. As pastoral leadership has taken its cues from advertising, business, or entertainment, for instance, the church itself has been subtly and sometimes not so subtly reconceived.


Many seem to conceive of the pastor as the brain of the church, defined primarily by his theological knowledge and communication of that knowledge through the act of preaching. The pastor is the person who should know the answer to the theological question and chiefly handles theological concepts. Intellect and knowledge are the primary virtues of such a pastor.

Others seem to conceive of the pastor as the heart of the church, defined primarily by his love for his congregation and for his ability to warm their hearts through his preaching. The virtues of such a pastor often tend to focus upon such things as empathy and relatability.

While these functions are not without their importance, I would suggest that a more apt representation of the pastor would be as the backbone and immune system of the church. As the backbone of the church, the pastor is the one who ensures that the body is communicating with its Head. He is the one who is primarily responsible for maintaining the form of the body, so that it is functioning robustly and strongly as a coordinated whole under its Head, rather than collapsing into a weak and amorphous mass. As the immune system of the church, the pastor is the one who maintains the healthy operation of the body, detecting and attacking all that would undermine it. The primary virtues of the pastor are not the virtues of the head, or even the virtues of the heart, but the virtues of the chest, such virtues as fortitude, commitment, whole-heartedness, firmness, strength, loyalty, resolve, valour, nerve, courage, and a love that isn’t sentimental.

The task of the pastor is to act as a symbol of and to effect the authority of Christ within his Church. Within the body of a church, the pastor may be more akin to ‘bone’ than to ‘flesh’, firmly maintaining the structure for the flesh of the body, in order that it can conform to the Head. The neglect of such a notion of pastoral leadership in favour of more therapeutic, sentimental, or intellectual models has the tendency to produce weak and ineffectual churches.


The virtues that God seemed to select for in priestly leaders for Israel and the Church in the scriptures sharply contrast with those for which many contemporary churches select. These leaders were to be men who could operate effectively with strength, resolve, and a lack of false pity in the context of violent assault against the people of God, steeling others against all such attacks, men for whom zeal for God’s name took priority, and men who had an unsentimental but profoundly self-sacrificial love for his people. Their protective and combative role as fathers and shepherds was related to a profound sense of the vulnerability of the Church’s members as children and sheep.

In the popular models of church leadership of our day, many of these facts seem to be neglected. One could not easily deduce from them that we are talking about the frontline leaders in a fierce spiritual warfare, or about those who protect the church’s walls from being overthrown. Given the leaders that we choose, should it be any surprise that the Church so often lacks the nerve to make enemies? Should we be confused that we so often surrender to the assaults that we face? Should we wonder at the fact that few people in our wider society take the Church seriously?


In the contemporary Church, a lot is said about the need to have a more ‘inclusive’ form of Church leadership and especially about the need to ‘empower’ women and recognize their ‘equality’ by bringing them into priestly and episcopal ministry.

A number of things need to be observed here. First, there is an increasing tendency to present the priestly ministry of the Church from the perspective of ordinands, rather than from the perspective of the Church and its part in a spiritual conflict. When the priesthood increasingly comes to be framed as a matter of recognizing the gifts of a wider range of ordinands, making them feel valued and included, whether as individuals or members of a class of people, and providing for their vocational aspirations, the priesthood itself will start to be taken much less seriously by people both within and without the Church, no longer wholly directed towards providing the Church with the sort of robust priestly leadership that it needs. We easily forget that the priesthood exists for the sake of the health and protection of the Church, not for the sake of those within it.

Second, a focus upon ‘empowerment’ tends to lead to a displacement of actual power. People wanting to be ‘empowered’—in distinction from those seeking to be powerful—implicitly cast themselves as the object of the action of some external party that actually possesses or effectively symbolizes power. They want the trappings of power, but can’t effectively symbolize it themselves. The power exists without and they would like for it to be given to them by those who possess it. The more that such people are admitted to an institution or agency, the more that institution or agency itself will come to be perceived as an ‘empowered’, rather than an actually powerful agency, possessing the trappings but not the substance of power. The Church also faces this risk.

Third, and following on from the previous point, many people seem to regard authority as something that just exists naturally in institutions and which should be shared out more fairly. The priesthood has historically possessed authority and still possesses the trappings of this in many respects. What people fail to appreciate is that the priesthood historically possessed authority because it historically was constituted of many men with backbones of steel, iron nerves, faces of adamant, the indomitable strength and will to make enemies and to challenge the world, and a sense of the gravity of their calling. The priesthood possessed authority because it effectively symbolized it.

Feminism, both within and without the Church, tends to put a lot of emphasis upon achieving equality through pursuing the trappings of authority and calling for empowerment, but all too typically neglects the actual substance of authority. Where its demands are met, all too frequently the result is the steady disempowering of the position that it has just gained, from political office to the workforce. The lingering trappings of authority may be enjoyed for a time, but its substance retreats. When we are assured that the admission of women to higher positions of ecclesial office will lead to different styles of leadership, what often seems to be forgotten is that authority is the sort of thing that swiftly evaporates when not effectively symbolized. These may be highly controversial statements, but I would at least request that people reflect upon them before dismissing their claims.

Some might accuse me of wanting to hold women back. That is not my aim. In fact, the sort of leadership that I am championing is one that can strengthen women in their ministries. With a truly robust and authoritative priestly leadership—which is just one of many ministries within the Church—the other ministries of the Church will have more scope and security within which to operate and will be less vulnerable to external attack or internal collapse or enervation. The assumption that one must be a priest in order for one’s gifts or calling to be recognized and honoured within the Church is also mistaken.


My chief concern is to reframe our conversations around the issue of the priestly leadership that the Church needs, something that I believe has been sorely neglected as we have focused upon being inclusive and empowering. The prevailing narratives surrounding Church leadership have led to much of the Church’s authority leaking away. We are increasingly told that the Church will only be taken seriously as it conforms to this or that expectation or prejudice of the surrounding culture. However, the Church has often been able to be taken seriously precisely on account of its strength and resolve in resisting the surrounding culture.

Authoritative leadership is a service to the Church and we all lose out when it is not being performed. Increasingly, the models for priestly and pastoral leadership within the Church—for both men and women—are ones that lack authority, ones where this whole crucial dimension has been removed, or where it is treated as a secure possession, rather than something that must be effectively symbolized. As various churches pursue such a path, all within them will suffer the consequences.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Controversies, The Church, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Some Rough and Unordered Thoughts on Church Leadership

  1. Matt J. says:

    Good thoughts Alastair. Thanks for writing! The part about the parachurch prophet versus the parish priest is especially helpful for understanding the landscape and development of Evangelicism.

    Here in many communities in America, with our loosely defined neighborhoods, motor business zoning, and compartmentalized jobs, I think we actually have a really hard time imagining what a parish priest would even look like or what he might do. So the “big brain” church leader is the best thing we can come up with, given our context. Since the shepherd may not be able to (quite literally) walk across his pasture in even a day’s time, the shape of his work will skew. I’m not sure this can be fixed without changing the shape of the shepherd’s territory. I am most encouraged by recent church planters who refuse to let their flocks grow large (say over 150 people) and insist on intentionally branching off new congregations. I think this goes a long way toward keeping them in a more “priestly” role.

    I’m am glad of your effort to reign in contemporary sloppy definition of “leader”. I think you are right that by narrowing it’s meaning down, it will actually open up more opportunities for women to serve at higher levels. It’s a bit ironic that as the definition of “leader” has sprawled, so has the restriction surrounding it.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Matt.

      One issue that I failed to explore in detail was that, as our definition of the priesthood or pastorate has become vague, it has increasingly squeezed out other ministries within the Church and exacerbated a clergy-laity division. If we were to define its role more carefully and biblically, we might find that, suddenly, significant areas of ministry are opened up for others.

      When it comes to women, this would work out as follows:

      1. Ministry involves much more gender differentiation in Scripture. Many women would operate under the male priesthood in performing most of the pastoral roles for other women, rather than men exercising priesthood directly over the women in the church all of the time.

      2. The contemporary pastor has often largely abandoned much of the ‘priestly’ task and operates primarily within a more ‘prophetic’ role. However, the prophetic task is less limited and defined by gender. Much of the teaching and instruction that occurs in this realm could be performed by women.

      3. The role of the priest is fundamentally a symbolically ‘masculine’ one in character (for reasons beyond those discussed in this post). There are, however, modes of ministry, woefully under-explored, within which the symbolically ‘feminine’ could come into a far fuller expression. I believe that, if we were to begin exploring these, women could play a far more prominent role within the Church, as women and not just as gender neutral clergy.

      When people ask ‘can women be pastors?’ we always need to recognize that this question is shaped by prevailing assumptions about what a pastor is and that, taking the popular understanding as a stipulated definition, the answer wouldn’t be straightforwardly in the negative.

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  3. acilius says:

    Thanks very much for the post, I always learn a great deal from you and your commenters.

    “Feminism, both within and without the Church, tends to put a lot of emphasis upon achieving equality through pursuing the trappings of authority and calling for empowerment, but all too typically neglects the actual substance of authority.”

    In my experience, any gathering of feminists is likely to include people with a wide variety of ideas about authority. There is always an element of striving to develop a set of purely egalitarian social relationships, and usually a recognition that this is not a practical possibility. So some will accept authority as a necessary evil, some will want to say that authority can be a good thing once a certain measure of egalitarianism has been established, and others will be inclined to hold out for absolute equality in all things at all times. Of course, this is the sort of debate that quickly turns into an infinite quagmire, so it is understandable that the last thing most feminists would choose to do is to dive into a philosophical discussion of the nature of authority.

    • Thanks, acilius.

      Feminism is obviously far from a homogeneous movement, so, as you observe, there are numerous approaches to authority within it, including some who might be more cognizant of some of the issues that I raise here. I have heard a few feminists observing the way that women’s entry into a social position, field, profession, or a workforce more generally leads to the falling of its prestige and the impression that it is weaker, less authoritative, more compliant and biddable.

      My comments are primarily directed at the vocal and predominant brand of feminism within and without the Church that places its primary emphasis upon getting women into top positions—making them bishops, getting them into the military, getting more women MPs, more women heading up Fortune 500 companies, into cutting edge STEM work, etc. The assumption is that equality will be achieved as the ‘glass ceiling’ is dismantled and male-dominated concentrations of authority and power in our society opened up to women. The achievement of ‘equality’ is regarded as conditional upon achieving the same results as men in key areas, not upon being taken just as seriously whether or not the same results are pursued.

      I frequently hear feminist women speaking about the benefits of bringing women’s styles of leadership into contexts of power and authority. Their claims may often have a measure of truth: women’s supposedly more ‘collaborative’ modes of interaction can make certain organizations healthier and more effective on some fronts, counteracting some of the dangerous and myopic extremes that hyper-masculine cultures can veer towards.

      My point is less a philosophical one and more of an observational one: what are the primary group dynamics that produce effective, powerful, and authoritative agencies and institutions and the people who create and lead them? I would suggest that, as we look around, we will see that these dynamics tends to involve such things as the following:

      1. Contexts where more agonistic, confrontational, combative, forceful, and competitive interactions are encouraged, especially when these interactions are not vicious in character. Such interactions privilege and train independence of mind and action rather than conformity and develop robust agency. They develop thick skins and teach people how to play to their strengths. Contexts where there is a constant pressure to ‘play nicely’ don’t develop such strength. Contexts where people are constantly protected by others or where everyone is expected to be gentle, inoffensive, and highly sensitive all of the time, rather than being expected to learn to stand up for themselves also produce weaker people. In such contexts you need to learn to set your own standards, rather than just conforming to others’. More combative contexts, where people are expected to play to their strengths are not necessarily violent, cruel, or vicious at all and generally have rules of civility, fair play, honour, and respect that are adhered to.

      2. Contexts that are more hierarchical. Within such contexts, the members of large groups of people without intimate personal connections can be directed and coordinated towards the collaborative achievement of external goals. A hierarchical society is more likely to create ‘events’ and new realities in the world. Winners and losers are constantly created by such new events. As new power structures are created, new imbalances of power constantly emerge. By contrast, egalitarian societies have a fairly pronounced homeostatic tendency, resisting differentials of power and the forms of activity that produce them.

      3. Contexts with shallower, less intimate, and broader networks of relationships. Instead of the narrow focus on one’s immediate relations in one’s family, tribe, or religion, such contexts produce vast networks of relations and coordinated action that stretch across boundaries and connect us with people with whom we have no personal connection for the purpose of an external end.

      4. Contexts that are externally oriented. Such groups are not overly focused upon the recognition, personal validation, and feelings of persons within them, but are focused upon the achievement of some objective goal. An example of this could be debate in which the shared focus upon the issue under discussion and marginalization of personal feeling means that we can be forceful and combative in the articulation of our viewpoint, without constantly having to affirm the other person’s viewpoint, lest they be offended.

      The contexts that I described in my four points above can form people to be assertive in their actions, more able to resist others, to be able to think and act more independently and in a more innovative fashion, to be prepared to expose themselves to risk, danger, novelty, and struggle, to develop a greater immunity to human herding patterns, to grow thick skins, to bring their strengths to their maximum potential, to be less preoccupied with their own feelings, and to develop a greater level of indifference to external validation.

      The modes of group interaction more commonly associated with women lead to groups as a whole functioning differently. Egalitarian, non-confrontational, protective, cooperative, inclusive, empathetic, affirming, and highly sensitive contexts and forms of interaction have clear benefits, but they aren’t very effective at producing or maintaining power and authority. They tend to privilege conformity and penalize the sorts of interactions that would create winners and losers, a hierarchy, or a differential of power. Nor are they good at producing the sort of people that can lead or exercise authority. Rather, they tend to produce people who are highly driven by external validation, who seek to conform to external expectations, and have a deep desire to be affirmed or to be likeable. When such people achieve, as they often do, it is usually by means of hyper-conformity to the established ends of an organization or group (which, I would suggest, is one reason why capitalism welcomes a feminized workforce).

      My highly controversial suggestion here is that power and authority have a fairly predictable logic to them and that there are good reasons why, given the forms of group interaction that are more likely to predominate and be preferred among women as a general rule (I am not here proposing an explanation for why they predominate, although I do have some possible theories), the rising number of women within the leadership of an agency or institution will lead to it both being regarded as and becoming weaker. That is unless, of course, women eschew the modes of interaction more generally associated with female groups and conform to more stereotypically male patterns. A corollary of my claims here is that the fact that human societies have tended to develop in patriarchal forms is not an accident, but is in large part on account of the fact that the modes of group organization and dynamics commonly preferred among men and the nature of character formation within these are integral to the creation and maintenance of power and authority structures and to the formation of culture and its institutions.

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