The Emergent Anti-leader and Tradition

Among my fellow clergy there seems to be a search for a new model of leadership that might be called the anti-leader within the context of what can loosely be understood as the emergent church.  There is nothing simple or straight forward about that.  

Although I’ve read several books and a dozen or so articles about the emergent church, I still am unable to offer a clear definition of what it is or means.  There appears to be one consistent theme, and that is to embrace a great deal of freedom of thought and practice in the proclamation of the gospel, and to be deliberate in breaking through the real or imagined constraints of long standing denominational custom.  Phyllis Tickle (The Great Emergence) calls it a giant church rummage sale.  After all, didn’t Jesus say that you cannot put new wine into old wineskins?  New ways require new forms, do they not?  There is a certain freshness to that, and I like it.  

But we might recall that Jesus also said that once the old wine had been tasted, no one would want the new.  Why?  Because new wine has to be carefully aged before it’s any good, with the caution that if it’s not carefully aged, it will turn to vinegar.  Jesus also said that the good steward brings out of his treasure that which is old and that which is new, presumably in a right proportion one to the other.  Therein lies a certain cautionary note about our enthusiasm for whatever appears to be emergent in the church. 

I’d like to take Tickle’s rummage sale analogy and look at it this way.  Imagine a great and ancient cathedral that had served its community for many centuries.  Beautiful beyond beautiful, it had slowly acquired such an enormous collection of religious ornamentation and fixtures, not to mention layers of soot and dirt, together with it’s lack of any modern conveniences, that God in Christ was no longer all that visible as the center of its being.  At best it had become a museum of some curious, old, no longer followed religion.  Now suppose the congregation and its leaders begin a project to restore Christ to the center and clean the place up.  In a burst of energy, it is emptied of all its ornamentation and every fixture, the soot and dirt is scrubbed off, and modern technologies installed to bring it up to date.  What results is a big, empty, up to date building presumably dedicated to God but in which there is not a sign as to how or what that might mean, and with no obvious connection to the generations of those on whose faith their own had been built.  Decisions have to be made.   Of the previous ornamentation and fixtures, what needs to go back in?  Which of them are the necessary and appropriate signs and symbols of a living faith anchored in the necessary and appropriate traditions of the church?  What new ornamentation and fixtures can fulfill the necessary and appropriate purposes that the old can no longer fulfill?  

All of that requires leadership, which brings us to the question of the anti-leader.  One of the characteristics of the emergent church movement is an enthusiastic elevation of the priesthood of all believers accompanied by a certain distaste for anything that might be described as hierarchical.  I think we left the ‘Father knows best’ model of clergy leadership behind a long time ago, but it seems to be the straw man that emergent clergy still like to tilt at.  In its place is the anti-leader who empowers the laity by offering a great deal of encouragement combined with as little guidance as possible along with a benign avoidance of too much responsibility or accountability.  It is, I think, a very poor model of clergy leadership.  It is the clergy who are called upon to be the educated teachers of doctrine and tradition in ways appropriate for inclusion in our imaginary cleaned out cathedral.  It is the clergy who are called upon to be scanners of the environment examining and explaining how events and conditions are changing.  It is the clergy who are called upon to be qualified to prepare laity for competency in their service as members of the priesthood of all believers.  It is the clergy who are looked to for an appropriate degree of guidance and supervision.  Failure by clergy to claim the leadership roles to which they have been called will result in the spontaneous emergence of illegitimate leadership, sometimes but not always out of malice, because groups of any kind cannot exist without organization, purpose and some form of acceptable leadership.  Finally, it is clergy leadership that is required to keep God in Christ always at the center of everything.  Failure to claim leadership responsibility is irresponsible.

The question I would advise be always kept before us is this.  How can we best proclaim the good news of God in Christ for the people of today within the traditions of our denominations, but always with the gospel as a challenge and judge of those traditions?  In other words, tradition must always serve the gospel, not the other way round.

As for leadership, there is an old saying that when the best leader’s job is done, the people will say we did it ourselves.

13 thoughts on “The Emergent Anti-leader and Tradition”

  1. CP – that personal responsibility stuff again! I don\’t think you get the joy of non-responsibility, I mean, how can we ever get our way and blame it all on the clergy OR blame it all on the congregation if things \”don\’t work out\” in this new emerging plan.Drat! Your case for not throwing the baby out with the bathwater is one that truly holds water::))Great post!

  2. Your piece comes at the precise moment I am reading my way through the most recent (um …. well … it was the most recent until I checked my mail this weekend) edition of the Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2009.The whole edition has to do with leadership, or a lack thereof, in the Episcopal Church. It\’s very good and several articles tie back to Paul and Gregory the Great or Gregory of Nanzianus.Ultimately, a coherent theology of leadership is that of a leader whose life is based upon his or her relationship with Christ.If you can get your hands on a copy, I\’d highly recommend it.

  3. Instead of an \”anti-leader\” how about simply a wise one? But who today trusts the word \”wise\”?\”Tradition\” is of Roman origin: it renews the foundation by augmenting it. To work, such renewal needs to be seen; thus a wise leader leads by inspired example. Her acts augment the foundation and thereby renew it face to face, day by day. The source of her authority thereby shows itself; and that\’s the only way \”hierarchy\” can make sense: her acts elevate and so you find yourself inspired to look up.So what would it mean today to augment the founding, the inaugural response to Jesus? Is tradition renewable today if few believe in the very possibility of wise leadership? But to so believe, wouldn\’t you first have to believe that you yourself can augment the founding, face to face, day by day? Does the real problem with \”leadership\” today begin there with that faithlessness?

  4. Egad Tom, your philosopher credentials are showing through. As I see it, here is the key phrase in your comment: \”…if few believe in the very possibility of wise leadership?\” As a person called to be a Christian leader I must proclaim the good news of God in Christ whether or not there are any believers in that, or my leadership. Moreover, I would be foolish to assume I can do that by appealing to the original event without benefitting from the wisdom of generations of other leaders, hence the development of tradition. As it has been said, God is still speaking, and I\’m not the only one listening. But we have to ask, how is what I think is being said and heard anchored in the Christ event.

  5. You wrote, Steve:\”As it has been said, God is still speaking, and I\’m not the only one listening. But we have to ask, how is what I think is being said and heard anchored in the Christ event.\”Yes, I agree: it\’s the \”anchor[ing] in\” that challenges. I look up to someone whose words have weight to anchor. OK: but don\’t I first have to be open for words to carry such weight to be ready to so look up? Don\’t I first have to have faith that words themselves can carry weight? When Jesus read out Isaiah to his home synagogue to open his Galilean ministry (as Luke presents it), his comment on those words was to proclaim their fulfillment right then and there \”in their ears.\”Surely his fellow Nazarenes thought the words weighty, so how did they come to try to kill him in response? What was it about \”their ears\” that so radically refused the weight of what fulfillment could mean right then and there, face to face?I can\’t help but think that Luke understood that it\’s this question in this encounter that will anchor the problem of \”leadership\” in a community of followers.

  6. nice work here, steve. but i want to push back a bit to see if we can go a bit deeper on the \’anti-leader\’ concept you\’ve outlined.your basic caricature of the \’anti-leader\’ as one with a basic distaste for all things hierarchical, who encourages the priesthood of all but avoids both responsibility and accountability sounds far less like emergent leadership — as i understand it — than it does boomer leadership, which often carries with it the understandable distrust of its own power (think Nixon) and hesitance to exercise it. i think if anyone in the church is beating on the old straw man (\’Father knows best\’), its our boomers who are still doing the work of de-constructing the old paradigm and practice. there isn\’t anything emergent about this — both in form and content.emergent leadership, on the other hand, especially as practiced by those of the X and Y generational cohorts, gladly accepts the power given to effective leaders by the effectively led — yet, that power is rightly understood as a corporate reality, entrusted to individuals in the service of the whole. i\’ve experienced the new leadership to be more ready to cast a solid vision, to rightly marshal people and resources toward the vision, and to speak truth along the way re: what is and isn\’t working. there\’s no shirking of responsibility or accountability in that.many emergent leaders, of which I might count myself, are, as Tickle says, radically Jesus-centered — and, as a result, have a much finer filter at work when discerning the essentials from the accidents — our notion of \’tradition(s)\’ is much more basic, bearing in mind the deconstructive lenses of gender politics, class politics, and postcolonialism. much of what we\’ve received as \’tradition(s)\’ appears to many of us to have little to do with Jesus or the Kingdom he so enthusiastically understand the apparent \’laissez faire\’ leadership style of some emergents, i would point you again to Tickle\’s brief description of \”Networked Authority,\” pages 150-153. We understand our leadership to be a \’role\’ within the Body — always discerning God\’s will with the Body, but also recognizing the mandate to lead with which we\’ve been invested — without ever taking ourselves too seriously and presuming that the church will ever live or die by our work alone.if emergent leaders are \’anti\’ anything, i\’d say we\’re probably \’anti\’ anything that has unnecessarily divided the Body of Christ into competing rather than complementary parts — including, but not limited to, many of our most cherished \’tradition(s).\’ sometimes our leadership is little more than getting a good laugh at ourselves…for christ\’s sake.keep up the good work!paul

  7. Well CP, looks like the next questions will be,What is a bishop?What is a priest?What is a deacon?Why have them? How are they chosen? How do we discern who serves Christ vs who serve themselves?Good work CP.

  8. Well Paul, speaking as a confirmed curmudgeon, if you young whipper-snappers have actually learned the lesson as you have proclaimed, you have learned what we have known and been teaching about organization leadership for almost sixty years. Having been through a couple of generations of others who said they did but could show little evidence of it as the years went by, I\’ll wait and see. The usual practice is to learn the language but not the discipline. If you can forget the aphorisms, slogans and buzzwords, but pour your heart and mind into the discipline, you\’ve got it made.CP

  9. Bruno,Oddly enough, our bishop, Jim Waggoner, has been talking about the need to redefine the role of bishop from the ground up. He suggests, leaving the canons aside, dumping out every and all assumptions about what it is to be a bishop and begin a process of rebuilding with fresh ideas. I agree. I believe that re-inventing the wheel every now and then is a good thing to do. We are having to do the same thing with priests because we have as many locally ordained non-stipendiary priests as we have seminary trained \”professional\” priests, and the momentum is not in favor of the seminarians.CP

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