Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture

Power, Leadership and the Church

11 Aug 2017

By Rt Rev'd Professor Stephen Pickard, Executive Director of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture 

It's hard to imagine a more contentious and contested subject for the Church than the nexus between power and leadership. This is particularly so given the evident failures of the churches in Australia in relation to the many many people who have been the victims of sexual abuse brought to light by the Royal Commission. The fall out from that will be with the churches for generations. Also significant has been the poor track record of responding to bullying, domestic and institutional abuse, and associated disregard for matters of natural justice. What makes such matters even more serious for the Church as an institution is the fact that leaders among both clergy and laity have turned a blind eye to much of this and/or protected the abusers and left the victims to languish.

The problem underlying this state of affairs, in the view of theologian Steven Ogden, 'is the Church's dependence on sovereign power'. This 'is the problem of a church leader acting and believing he/she is the sovereign exception, exercising sovereign-like entitlements'. The appeal to some such sense of entitlement or right is softened in the Church by use of the term prerogative.

In an increasing anxious and fragmenting society we tend to give prominence to leadership that can deliver quick fix solutions. This plugs into the leader as charismatic hero. The end result of this kind of leadership in the church is reinforcement of the idea of the sovereign power of the leader. In this way the Church's leadership simply mimics the surrounding host culture of competition and success at all costs where human life is often of secondary importance. The challenges these developments pose for leadership of the Church of God are recognised in an emerging literature with titles like Leadership and Self-Deception; Leadership for the Disillusioned; A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix; and Steven Ogden's recent The Church, Authority, and Foucault.  The list goes on. Best practice in leadership which is enlightened, collaborative and liberating is often found beyond the walls of the Church of the West.

While no leader can stand outside the inevitable web of power relations in which we live and move nonetheless we all have to exercise responsible choices about how we engage with power and its pitfalls. This is no easy task and requires a far more collaborative approach to leadership than most leaders are capable of or see the need. A truly collaborative and shared approach to leadership in the Church requires a great deal of spiritual maturity. Such maturity involves recognising that in the life of the Church, leadership – which is a complex matter at the best of times – subsists within a much richer community of gifts and graces where each has a contribution to make for the well being and flourishing of the whole. And all this is set against the horizon of the common good of society and the gospel of God for a needy world. The horizon of the world suggests that leadership serves a higher purpose than self fulfilment, quick fix solutions and hero worship. The world desperately seeks models of community leadership and engagements that are gracious and generous even while they are robust and clear. This can only be achieved as leaders understand themselves as embedded in something far bigger than themselves, serving the light that shines in all people.

These issues cross ecclesial boundaries and touch the very heart of the Church and its engagement with society. It connects with the ACC&C Pillar on Ethical Leadership and Institutional Resilience.  It is for this reason that the ACC&C together with the public and contextual theology centre (PaCT) at Charles Sturt University have hosted a day seminar on the topic of power, leadership and the Church in Canberra. This seminar will be led by two eminent persons with both practical, pastoral and scholarly expertise in the subject over many years. Canon Professor Martyn Percy is Dean, Christ Church, Oxford and a prolific writer and speaker on the subject of leadership today. The Rev'd Dr Emma Percy is Chaplain, Trinity College Oxford and Chair of WATCH (Women and the Church) in the UK. The Rev'd Dr Steven Ogden will also speak on his recent book, The Church, Authority, and Foucault: Imaging the Church as an Open Space of Freedom. The day seminar will be attended by women and men, clergy and laity, from across the churches.