Where do we find leaders?

Rhys Bezzant is Dean of Missional Leadership, and Lecturer in Christian Thought at Ridley College
First published in The Melbourne Anglican. Used by permission.

Rhys Bezzant discusses our need to cultivate leaders in the church who can communicate and commend the promises of God to a world without hope, whether in sermons and sacraments, in someone’s home or in the neighbourhood café.

In Melbourne, we don’t do well at spotting, training, empowering, and sending leaders, and the need is increasingly clear. Our city is growing rapidly, likely to overtake Sydney in our lifetime in terms of population. Our city is expanding geographically, calling for new kinds of initiatives where Anglicans are not easily found. Our church is at best stable in terms of Sunday attendance, though this number has certainly declined since the last census. Relative to the size, complexity and composition of our city, we are barely keeping up with shifts in the population. We need more leaders, who will pastor our grand-children and reach out to a city being reinvented even as I write.

Of course, many clergy train elsewhere in Australia or overseas and come to Melbourne to take a parish or to be employed in sector ministry, obviating our need to find leaders here, but just as many leave us for missionary service, for labours in other parts of the country, or to retire gracefully. We ought not to be complacent and assume there will always be a pool of potential leaders to draw upon. It is our responsibility and privilege to tell out the goodness of the Lord to our children’s children and to recount the deeds of the Lord before the nations.

What kind of leaders should we then be cultivating? Those who know Melbourne well are in the best position to encourage vocations of people who can serve in Melbourne. There is clearly a contextual element. However, there is a link between the nature of the church and the nature of leadership to be developed within the church. What kind of leaders should we be cultivating? That depends on what kind of church we are envisioning.

The promises of God lie at the heart of the church. A core Protestant conviction is the idea that God’s voice, or God’s Word, or God’s call come before our response of faith and obedience. God reaches out with his offer of salvation, and we receive his promises with trust. Our Anglican heritage puts the ministry of Word and Sacrament at the core of the church’s life, for the church is a congregation of the faithful “in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance.” At the heart of the Tabernacle or Temple in the Old Testament was the ark of the covenant, in which the tablets of the law were placed. Christ, as the renewed Temple of God (John 2), embodies the promises of God, and as his body we the church carry his promises to the ends of the world (Matthew 28). Leaders in the church must be people who can communicate and commend the promises of God to a world without hope, whether in sermons and sacraments, in someone’s home or in the neighbourhood café. We want leaders who are clear-minded, adept in speech, and confident in God’s power to speak and to save. Look out for leaders like these!

And at the heart of God’s promises is his desire to draw close to his people, to show them his face, and to assure them of his presence (Psalm 27). Indeed, God’s presence is the second guiding criterion to establish where we find the true church. In the Tabernacle and after that in the Temple, God filled the building with his presence, and in times of disobedience he withdrew his presence from them. Moses pleaded with the Lord to remain with the people in their wanderings despite their sin (Exodus 33). The glory of the Lord eventually departed from the Temple in the time of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 10). In Christ, God has come to “tabernacle” with his people (John 1), and by the Spirit we enjoy God’s intimate presence.

After his resurrection Jesus promised to be with his church until the climax of the ages, and in the Communion service we proclaim the presence of the Holy Spirit with us and offer each other a hand of peace. Leaders in the church must be people who rejoice in the fruit and gifts of the Spirit of God, who empower others to cultivate the fruit and exercise their gifts. Through the Spirit we participate in the life of God the Holy Trinity, no longer observers but players in the divine drama. Leaders in the church are people who train others for active involvement and spiritual maturity, not dependent on the clergy but pursuing their own ministry alongside us. We need leaders like that!

But to preach God’s promises and celebrate God’s presence faithfully, we need to understand the context of God’s purposes, which are to renovate the world through the death and resurrection of Christ, starting with us. Remarkably, the Tabernacle was adorned with images of fruit or trees from the garden of paradise reminding us of the start of the story, and ultimately the Temple became an eschatological emblem of the way the world will one day be, situated on the transformed Zion with all the nations streaming to worship there. Jesus describes his person and message in terms of the Kingdom of God, for in him all God’s purposes are consummated. The church is his bride, and we will dwell with him forever. Indeed, the grand story of history focuses on the Father glorifying the Son, and the Son glorifying the Father, in the power of the Spirit. In the new world, there will be no Temple, for the ultimate purpose of God, announced in the promise of God to dwell with his people forever, will have been realised (Revelation 21-22).

Leaders in the church are people who guide us towards fulfilling the purposes of God, who are skilled in mission, who encourage us to make connections with the world around us for the sake of our witness, who have a godly impatience with the status quo and have eyes to see how the church is a down-payment on the world to come. The prophetic leader is the person who recalls us to our true mission, and sends us out “in the power of the Spirit to live and work to his praise and glory.” Those are leaders whom we desperately need because they have a clear vision and the capacity to urge us to action. Don’t be scared of their insights and urgings. Promote them!

Where are we going to find leaders like this? In the first instance, there may not be many around. Our job, whether ordained or lay, is to imagine what the people in our parish or sector could yet be, and to take steps to help them see their future in a new way. Who is the person you could never do without? That person is surely a candidate for further training. Who is the person in the parish that others naturally look up to? That person might be the next Vicar of the parish. Who is the person who wants to learn more, is always asking questions, and is offering to help out in ways that are not always natural to them? That person with a servant heart and nimble mind could well be a warden in waiting, if only we cultivate their enthusiasm. Leaders are made, not born, and it is the job of everyone in the church to be finders or spotters, encouraging and equipping the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4).

That also means that as present leaders, who serve for example as clergy or parish council members, we need to develop our own skills in mentoring and training. If we are not doing the job of developing leaders, it is unlikely that anyone else will. We set the mood and culture of the parish. And part of the way that we lead and feed is to think long-term and beyond the boundaries of our parish itself. The ordained, for example, take our part in “the councils of the church,” owning our responsibility for its sustenance and enduring life. We ought not to be embarrassed about investing in a few individuals – after all, the Lord Jesus did. We ought not to imagine that we have nothing to contribute – in a fragmented world, our friends or parishioners are looking for models of integration and wholeness, which even the least trained can offer. We ought not to think that someone else will do the job of cultivating vocations, whether that be the diocese, or the parish down the road, or the colleges. They each have a role to play, but leaders in local settings are in the best position to identify and empower. If you find and cultivate leaders, you won’t get a spotting fee, but you will be honouring God’s promises, presence and purposes for the church. I for one would gladly spend and be spent in that noble task.