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.