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Sharing your Leadership Space

posted 12.07.2012

“There are five incomparable days in the believer’s life. The day one is born, when life is given. The day one is baptized, and enters with anticipation into the community of faith. The day one is confirmed; when one chooses to re-affirm one’s baptism…The day one may choose to enter into a lifelong covenant of fidelity of love. The day one dies, when life is received back into God’s hands.

What do those five days have in common? Who is invited to share them all? They are incomparable, pivotal moments in life. Besides the family, what persons or professionals are welcomed into the intimate circle of significant participants in all of those days?

Only the clergy.”

Thomas Oden[1]


The modern urban Singaporean pastor faces two challenges.

The first is the leadership expected of him in governance and administrative matters. As local churches share in the same fabric and norms of our society, many areas of church life need to stand up to ‘auditing’; whether by governmental authorities or just the standards perceived as necessary by members. The church needs to be “well run,” and by definition, this is not even about members’ expectations on the average, but an aggregate of views shaped by their own backgrounds.

And in Singapore, these areas rank very highly.[2] The Vicar is expected to ensure that the church meets the standards. Weekly bulletins, websites and flyers (printed or digital) must be designed well. Accounts must be properly kept and procedures in decision-making duly observed. The church calendar must be planned and effectively communicated in advance.

Secondly, the pastor is expected to lead the church to grow. Catch-words like vision, strong leadership and focus are bandied around. Not a week will pass without his church being compared to another fast growing one round the corner. In Singapore, there is always one just round the corner! And in a digital age, the competition has gone global. The Vicar may be compared to an American or Korean pastor whom he has never met in person, let alone the member doing the comparison. Vision statements are emailed to him, sometimes anonymously. The church needs to be Alpha-ed, 40-day Purposed, Cell-ed and of course, Intentionally-Discipled. Underlying all these, parishes are expected to observe their own ‘family ethos.’[3] Nothing wrong it seems and after all, whether programmes or ethos,[4] these areas are being implemented and experienced in some measure in many parishes. However, the pressure is on because inevitably, the church – and her pastor - is being measured by these external standards.

No wonder when a member calls me up to tell me their loved one has just passed away, she does so apologetically. The wakes and funeral services have to be organized. “Sorry, pastor for this unplanned intrusion into your already busy week.” I am being spoken to as if this is not my pastoral responsibility. In the next moment, I will be receiving a call from a leader and his tone of voice tells me that I am expected to be present at a coming business meeting.

These misconceived ideas are further reinforced as I can send a pastoral staff to visit a grieving bereaved member but I cannot do the same when a meeting needs to be chaired. And no Vicar can absent himself from a ministry meeting where the future or vision is being discussed.

What used to be the primary roles of a pastor have now become secondary; almost something he does only when he can ‘spare the time.

And the larger the church is, the more apparent this divide is.

How do we cope with the realities of urban parish work here, and yet remain faithful to our ordinal vows? There are numerous books on this subject, but I believe Singaporean pastors need to think through and sort it out from their local context.  I don’t think guilt-tripping and constant ‘ordinal reminders’ will help. The clergy’s roles and the pressures he faces need to be understood by those around him. I would like to propose a way forward. They will need some teasing out within the context of each parish.

Sharing the Clergy’s Leadership Space

I have at times wondered why ‘trivial’ issues like food distribution needed to be brought to the attention of the disciples in Acts 6 and after that, deacons were appointed based on some high spiritual requirements.[5]

The fact is the church is a community. And any issue of import - especially those which threaten to divide the community - will ultimate be referred to the “elders.”[6] The same can be said of the parish, where the Vicar is ultimately responsible. In our Anglican tradition, the Vicar is the focal point of unity in the local church as he serves the parish on behalf of his bishop. There is a leadership space already entrusted to him.

A wise Vicar will learn to share his leadership space as the parish grows. I am not talking about teamwork here, but team leadership, where the Vicar intentionally invites or empowers other leaders to share in his responsibilities. Some will need to be professionally trained when it comes to matters of finance or legal governance. And as ministries can be major areas of work,[7] capable ministry leaders are needed. They need to be given space to seek the Lord over the issues and make decisions without having to refer back to the Vicar all the time. And I use the term ‘seek the Lord’ as this is one of a few indications whether leadership space is being shared. If a leader has the space to do so and not dependent on the Vicar to tell him what to do, this is a good sign of healthy leadership sharing. I have seen how some leaders spent weeks praying and deliberating, only for their plans to be turned down over a few minutes in the Vicar’s office.

I use the word ‘healthy’ as there is also such a thing as abdication and usurping of responsibility. In the former, the Vicar is irresponsible and in the latter, he is sidelined. Neither is about sharing leadership space. In fact, the latter is about stealing leadership space! Lay leaders, who bypass their Vicars and self-appoint themselves to decide on parish matters, will only diminish the life and order of the parish in the long run.

When leadership space is shared in the right way, good leaders can draw alongside and help the Vicar. And when this is done in the spirit of Christ-like servant-hood, it is a beautiful thing. There will be occasional stresses but it is an erstwhile journey of discipleship and mutual submission.

Vicars should Grow their Leaders’ ‘Leadership Space’

Over time, good leaders will gain the Vicar’s confidence and trust. They will grow and own the vision for their specific area of ministry. And we will know this when they are leading their own leadership teams and making decisions for them without the need to refer back to the Vicar all the time.

By this stage, the trust level is high and it works both ways. The Vicar knows that his leaders can be trusted to serve in a way which edifies and holds his role and that of co-leaders in high regard[8] and the leaders know that their Vicar can be trusted to support their work.

Doubtless, time is needed to build up trusted circles of leadership teams. A responsible Vicar will not readily share his space if trusted leaders cannot be found. One blessing of creating this shared space is that the parish in time will have effective leaders (staff and lay) who are able to work alongside the Vicar and one another in a ‘non-dysfunctional’ and ‘non-competitive’ way. The whole team needs to be constantly conscious of the Chief Shepherd.[9] We also need to serve in submission to Christ and to one another in that attitude,[10] while recognizing that for parish community to be well managed, order needs to be observed.

How well does the Anglican parish leadership structure hold up to modern ministry demands? I will say, very well. There is a built-in ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ wisdom in the way our tradition has evolved. The Vicar, Wardens and PCC are a great system to work with. Added to this has been our own Diocesan development since the mid-80’s of the ministry of parish workers. Parish staff, if gifted and available (as they are serving fulltime[11]) can share significantly in both the leadership and ministry load of the Vicar.  

Clergy Need To Manage Their Own Ministry Space

Assuming that external factors are under control to some extent (we wish!), how the clergy discharges his ministry is largely dependent on his own personal discipline and ordering of priorities. It is about self-management.

Clergy should return to their ordinal vows more regularly.[12] Good readings can also help us to refocus.[13] Continual mutual encouragement (especially amongst the college of clergy) can all help us ‘to stay on course.’ Lay leaders can do better to understand the pressures which the clergy is under and seek to help him in his role rather than making things more difficult for him. And of course, Bishops can also play a role to encourage Vicars to focus on their primary responsibilities.[14]

Paying close attention to growing our pastoral skills (e.g. preaching, conversing, listening to someone ‘in prayer’), developing our pastoral presence (home visitation, cell group visitation, meeting members over meals), keeping a sense of prayerfulness and mediating the presence of God (i.e. the need to observe our offices or equivalent prayer times, devotions and reading) are all time and ‘social space’ consuming. We need to discipline ourselves to ‘let go’ and create the necessary space. And being disciplined and intentional about this is needed as the drift of society and church work is such that you will be driven back to non-ministry essentials. And we let go of them by learning to share, not abdicating, a point which I have already highlighted.

Clergy do need the help of others to focus on the work of the “five days.”

What about the second challenge: the visionary leadership expected of the Vicar? This is another loaded issue and I want to refrain from erring to either extremes: of ignoring the need for appropriate leadership in a parish and overstating the case by focusing on the Vicar’s part exclusively. This issue will be taken up under this series in future.

This article continues this pastoral ministry series and is a follow-up of the first article by Asst Bishop Rennis Ponniah on in the last issue of Digest. Revd Canon Terry Wong serves as the Vicar of St James’ Church and holds various responsibilities in the Diocese, including helping to facilitate the development of new ordinands.

[1] Thomas Oden, Pastoral Theology, New York: New York, HarperCollins, 1983, p 85.

[2] I have spent some years serving in international Christian organizations and I realize that the way we do things here can just about match the administrative level of most first world nations or cities.

[3] The administration level and resources expected to run a properly planned liturgical service or event is sometimes understated.

[4] I am oversimplifying and separating these two concepts but they overlapped heavily. This is not an academic piece and I hope readers will read it in its context. 

[5] It is interesting to note that these qualities can only be ascertained in the context of close parish or ‘koinonia’ relationships.

[6] This is a good term for community leaders.

[7] To name a few examples, Youth, Overseas Missions, Cell Ministry and Christian Education.

[8]  “Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.” 1 Thessalonians 5:12, 13

[9]To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.” 1 Peter 5:1-4:  

[10] Read Ephesians 5:21-33 for this beautiful teaching on how our attitude towards Christ affects or forms an undergirding guiding attitude in our familial relationships and roles.

[11] Often comparisons are made to churches in other cities where many volunteers are serving  and thus, lower the staff manpower cost. In Singapore, the society is younger in general and working.  There is relatively a high income generation but at the cost of long hours in the office or overseas travel. The need of a capable parish staff as a nerve center to support and organize the ‘dispersed parish’ can hardly be overstated.

[12] Perhaps clergy can renew their vows once in a while, as is done annually in some dioceses.

[13] A good starting point is to revisit the classical interpretation of the clergy’s role in Michael Ramsay’s The Christian Priest.

[14] As an aside comment, I do not think that it helps the Vicar if we downplay the realities of parish growth expectations. However good support can be given to assist the Vicar across the board; from centralizing and supporting good governance (leading, resourcing and equipping, not just monitoring), streamlining administration and communication and of course practical steps to help him to focus on his primary parish work.