When god is your CEO: Five leadership lessons from the clergy

Working for an 'invisible leader'; running a 24/7 operation with tiny resources; delivering a message to sceptical audiences - some of the greatest management challenges are faced each day by members of the clergy.

by Rt Revd Dr Nigel Peyton & Dr Caroline Gatrell
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Once ordained, ministers work their way through a range of different leadership positions, from the parish priest with little authority relying on the support of volunteers, to an Archdeacon with considerable power over resources and strategic direction - and working as the 'bad cop' to the 'good cop' role of the more visionary Bishop.

Here we share some of the lessons from our interviews with clergy about their experiences of commitment and sacrifice for their organisation.

1. Establish a personality
When your organisation already has a leader who is remote and inaccessible (in this case, God), it's even more important there is an approachable, human face to deal with. That means knowing yourself and being comfortable in your own skin so that you can be consistently open, personal and grounded in the more day-to-day concerns and problems of people.

You always need to be able to keep the conversation going. It's also a matter of clarity and the ability to translate the higher mission and goals - and all the sophistication this might involve - into a clear vision and messages that anyone can follow and relate to.

2. Balance the demands of the professional and personal
Vicars tend to live in what's known as a 'tied house' within their parish, which means their home can also be the base for Church functions, an office etc. The vicarage is therefore more like a community building, a place where anybody can contact the vicar, in or out of working hours: parishioners, the homeless, the sick, funeral directors, the archdeacon, the bishop and the local newspaper, and somewhere all sorts of people other than the vicar and her or his household feeling entitled to wander in and out.

One vicar we spoke with talked about how they'd opened up the vicarage for regular charity 'hunger lunches' and found that parishioners would roam around his house without asking and go through his kitchen cupboards.

Non-Church leaders would obviously find it unacceptable - not to say illegal - for customers to be blithely wandering around and exploring their home. But there is an insight here into the blurring of the personal and professional as mobile media and more flexible working change the nature of work and leadership.

Dealing with people and situations requiring a 24 hour response can be stressful. Vicars do make themselves available during 'off duty' hours, but it is important to seek a balance and make plans to be away sometimes with smart phones and e-mails switched off to ensure some personal and some family time. Clergy tend to be very adept at achieving time off/away in order to avoid any household 'critical incidents' (marital stress). Vicars often have difficulty balancing the needs of family and friends over priestly duties and some can find themselves isolated and lonely.

3. Be patient in reaching long-term goals
The Christian pastoral paradigm is for a 'mend and make do' approach to getting things done rather than being objectively critical. Clergy won't want to face the difficult issues that generate conflict, such as women bishops or sexual orientation.

This can be a problem, leading to simmering discontent and a feeling of frustration among followers when their issues aren't addressed. But at the same time, patience rather than speed and confrontation, can be a better way of getting good outcomes in the end.

Modern business culture demands constant targets and the kind of short-termism that can lead to its own problems - as demonstrated by the credit crunch. It's more important to catch the tide at the right moment, know when to go for it and when to wait. Being patient with a long term goal and taking the right steps in the right order can work far better than any hurry.

4. Control matters for wellbeing
Staying open to all-comers at all hours inevitably means working long hours, and that will lead to issues around overworking and consequences for physical health. Despite working some of the longest hours and having to deal with the greatest potential variety of challenges of any leaders, clergy manage stress very well in general. As well as the role of faith and the fulfilment this brings, this is largely because of the level of control they have over their daily lives.

Leaders in other areas might think they're in control and have great deal of independence, but on closer inspection the many demands and agendas of business operations, boards, shareholders and other stakeholders will take their toll no matter how senior you are. With goals and motivations that are clear and bright, clergy are able to operate more freely and make their own decisions.

5. Treating change as the natural state of things
Church leadership is always about the management of change, playing a part in the milestones of the life cycle, the births, deaths and weddings. And for the individual priest, taking over new parishes, and the transformations in people's lives.

The lesson for other leaders and managers from this is to appreciate that colleagues and co-workers do experience life-changes and may need flexibility at work to assist in coping with these. Change brought about at work by opportunities for development can be a good thing and its important as a leader to recognize when colleagues are ready to move forward and develop career and experience in new directions. Leaders need to recognise when their colleagues are on a change 'growth spurt' or when they are stuck and respond appropriately.

Rt Revd Dr Nigel Peyton is Bishop of Brechin and Dr Caroline Gatrell is senior lecturer at Lancaster University Management School. Their book Managing Clergy Lives: Obedience, Sacrifice, Intimacy has been published by Bloomsbury.

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