The following text, adapted for the blog, is the core of a keynote address on leadership, given by Bishop Steven to over 500 Christian leaders at the 4th Forum christlicher Führungskräfte in Fribourg, Switzerland in March 2018. The keynote address was recently referred to in the Financial Times Business Education supplement


Let me tell you about the most challenging sermon I ever heard…

I was around 37 years of age. I was married with four young children aged 10 and under: two sons and two daughters.  I was the minister of a local Church. God was blessing the ministry. The Church was growing because people were coming to faith and learning the faith. As is common in those situations, I had far too much to do and was overstretched.

I took a hundred or so people from my parish away for the weekend with their families. We returned for an evening service for the church members who had been away and the church members who had not. I was extremely tired from looking after my family and looking after my church family. Our visiting preacher from the weekend couldn’t be there and had sent a substitute: someone I didn’t know.

The guest preacher took some words from the prophet Jeremiah as his text. It was as though he was speaking straight to my heart. I have never forgotten his talk.

Jeremiah has an honest relationship with God. The context here is one of Jeremiah’s complaints. He’s moaning and complaining. Life is very difficult God. Things are not working out. Why don’t you do something? Get on with it.

I paraphrase.

God replies:

“If you have raced with foot-runners and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you fall down, how will you fare in the thickets by the Jordan?” (Jeremiah 12.5).

God is challenging Jeremiah. If you think this is hard, wait and see what is round the corner. In my case, if you find this one church and this one challenge difficult, how will you cope when the responsibilities become greater. In the beginning, I found the words difficult to receive. But over time, I didn’t hear the words as harsh but as gentle: an encouragement to really lift up my head and see the wider horizon and see what more I might be capable of and called to. But they did shake me out of my introspection.

I was in all truth overstretched by my present responsibilities. More accurately, I was overstretched by the way I was inhabiting those responsibilities. The sermon reminded me that there might be yet further challenges to come and they would probably be more difficult and require greater capacity and love and courage and endurance. Part of my calling in watching over myself was to see my capacity for leadership grow so that I was ready and prepared for whatever might come.

Leadership is difficult

Everyone here is familiar with leadership insights from the social sciences and the business schools. All of us will have learned something from these sources through books and MBA’s and courses.

We may not be as aware that there is an older and deeper tradition of reflection on leadership in communities. I like to use the picture of an old, deserted mine shaft, in the shadow of the bright lights of the business school. The shaft is deep. It goes back more than 3,000 years.

I’m talking of course about the biblical tradition and all that has flowed from that tradition. The Judaeo-Christian tradition is the longest continuous tradition of reflection on leadership in communities in the entire history of human culture.

The shaft is broad. At its base, in the scriptures, there is law here and story and history. There is ancient myth and poetry and wisdom writing. There are parables. There are psalms which are searingly honest and reach the heights and depths of human emotion.  There are is the person of Jesus Christ at the very centre as the Messiah, the King, the leader who is to come and the model of servant leadership.  Flowing from the scriptures, there are writings from every age, sifting, distilling and applying the wisdom of scripture and there is contemporary reflection.

At the heart of it all, there is one single powerful insight which is deeply countercultural to the insights of many of the business schools and particularly the more popular literature on leadership.

The insight is simply this. The entire tradition is built around the truth that leadership in communities, in business, in political life, in the Church is very, very, very difficult. If we understand this then we have made a good beginning. Unless we grasp this, then we will continually struggle and fall.

The insight is foundational to the many different stories of leaders in the Scriptures. We are not presented with heroes so much as anti-heroes: people who more often than not fail and fall when exercising power and leadership.  Even the good leaders like Abraham and Moses are manifestly imperfect. Many of those who begin well are corrupted and their lives are distorted by the power and responsibility they wield: think of Saul and David and Solomon. Each one shows great promise early in life. In each, the full promise is not fulfilled.

Saul attains the kingship. His insecurities are exposed. His court is corrupted by jealousy. No sooner has David become established in the kingdom than his desire for Bathsheba leads to adultery and then to murder and then to division in his family and then to civil war in the kingdom. Solomon also begins well and seeks wisdom. Yet over time he surrounds himself with those who lead his heart away from the God of Israel and he becomes blind to the suffering of his people. By his neglect, Solomon sows the seeds of the division of the kingdom he has worked so hard to establish.

It is not so hard to think of contemporary examples in any sphere of jealousy and court intrigue playing on a leaders insecurities and leading to bad decisions. It is certainly not hard to think of examples of the toxic mix of sex and unequal power affecting leaders and the communities they steward. It is not hard to think of leaders who become too comfortable in the consolidation of power and isolated from the shadow effects of their leadership.

This core insight of the difficulty of leadership continues into the New Testament. Even with the example of Jesus Christ, the leaders of the early church, the apostles, are all too fallible and imperfect, especially Peter, their leader.

This fundamental insight then becomes a cornerstone in the writings on leadership in communities in the centuries which follow: the first six hundred years of the Church.

Watch over your inner life

Leadership is very difficult and demanding. Therefore a fundamental strand in developing leadership is to watch over your inner life.

The Acts of the Apostles, written by the author of Luke’s gospel, tells the story of the early Church from the Day of Pentecost through to the apostle Paul preaching in Rome. There are three main sections to the book. The central section, 12-20, tells the story of the way Paul and his companions plant new churches across what is now Turkey and into Macedonia and Greece.

At the end of this section of the book, Luke has Paul make a speech to the ministers and leaders of these churches. Ancient historians have a convention of bringing their narrative alive with speeches. The presbyters, the leaders of the church in Ephesus, come together on the beach at Miletus to hear what will be Paul’s parting words to them. It is a wonderful and very moving speech and three times Paul and Luke mention tears: a clue to the difficulty of this enterprise called leadership.

Paul explores some of the difficulties and challenges which lie behind him and ahead of them and he articulates a response.  Because leadership is so difficult, this is what you must do “Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20.28).

These are deceptively simple words. But they will go on to shape the entire Christian tradition of writing and teaching and understanding of what it means to lead communities. If we would lead others, if we would grow in our responsibilities, if we would be safe leaders then we must continually take responsibility and watch over ourselves before we watch over the flock, the organisation, the country, the multinational company.

Paul’s words from Acts go on to be part of all Christian formation in leadership and every service of ordination where the Church commissions and prays for new leaders and vests them with authority in its life.

In particular, they shape the tradition of reflection on leadership in the early centuries of the Church in both East and West.  There is a remarkable trilogy of books which contain this tradition.  In the fourth century, Gregory of Nazienzen wrote a treatise on the difficulty of Church leadership called “In defence of his flight to Pontus”.  A little later John Chrysostom, Bishop in Constantinople wrote his books on the priesthood. Two hundred years later again, Gregory the Great, who had just become Pope, writes his seminal book, the Pastoral Rule.

Each of these books is shaped by that short quotation from St Paul. Each begins with the same story. Each of these three books is written to set out the reasons why the author, when invited to assume leadership in the church, ran away as far as he could go: because this is so very, very difficult. Each is in two parts. The first and most important part is concerned with watching over yourself. The second focusses on what we might call skills for ministry – the acquiring and outworking of knowledge in your own sphere of leadership.

For hundreds of years, Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Rule was at the foundation of reading and reflection on leadership in the Western tradition, inside and outside the Church. It has some claim to be the most influential text on leadership ever written.  Today it is neglected and unread, even in many parts of the Church. In our contemporary thinking about leadership we have lifted up the importance of skills and knowledge. We have neglected the importance of character formation and development and the challenges to the self of the exercise of power.

Here is one of Gregory’s metaphors on leadership and its challenges:

“And indeed, what else is power in the post of superiority but a tempest of the mind, wherein the ship of the heart is ever shaken by hurricanes of thought is ceaselessly driven to and fro until, by sudden excesses of words and deeds it founders on confronting rocks” (1.9)

This seems to be a powerful description of the multiple stresses of leadership overwhelming the mind and good judgement and leading to breakdown or disaster.

How not to be overwhelmed

How then do we grow in the leadership we offer so that we are able to watch over ourselves and over the communities we lead with integrity so that we are able to grow in capacity through all the challenges around us and not be overwhelmed?

When I was 11 years old, I was offered a place at grammar school. One of the challenges of going to grammar school was the cost of the uniform and especially the jacket, the school blazers. Boys of 11 grow very rapidly. The normal pattern for my classmates was that our parents would buy a jacket for us which was several sizes too large. We would grow into the jacket over two or three years. That way there was no need to buy an expensive new jacket every year as we grew.

I can remember very clearly putting on my first school blazer and that sense that it was several sizes too large. I had to grow in order to fill it.

At every single transition in my leadership, I have revisited my 11-year-old self. Every change has felt from the inside like putting on a jacket which is several sizes too big. I have needed to grow and deepen not physically but in terms of my inner life in order to respond well to the challenges each task brings.

I went on from being Vicar of a single parish – which stretched me enormously – to being the head of a College training clergy.

I moved from there to working across the whole of England encouraging new forms of Church.

From that role, I moved to be the Bishop of Sheffield in the north of England, an average size diocese and a great responsibility.

From there I moved to be the Bishop of Oxford, one of the largest dioceses in the Church of England in one of the great crossroads of the world.

Each time I have put on a jacket several sizes too big and I have needed to grow on the inside to fulfil the role. The temptation when we assume a new responsibility is always to exude confidence. I have found it is much better to be honest, to put on my L Plates and to admit that I have a great deal to learn.

Four domains

As I have pondered the shape of the great Christian tradition on leadership, I find it helpful to think of the learning and growing I need to do in four different domains. All four together sum up what it means to exercise leadership.

I’ve worked with the model for around 14 years now in three different roles and also shared it in many contexts outside the Church as well as inside.

  1. Watching over myself is the heart of the Christian tradition of leadership: ensuring that the leadership I offer has integrity and balance.
  2. The leadership I bring and the influence I offer is put into effect in my leadership of individuals and teams.  That is the second domain.
  3. The third is the leadership I offer across the organisation as a whole through the development of vision and strategy and good stewardship of resources.
  4. The fourth is outward facing leadership. I am continually called to look beyond the organisation I am leading to the wider world and to God’s purposes within the world.

It is a helpful exercise to map the leadership you offer onto those four domains and see where the focus of your energy lies and especially which area you may be neglecting at the expense of the others.

This week I have taken time each day for silence and prayer and reflection. I have written in my journal several times because of some of the demanding situations I am dealing with at the moment. I have taken time to answer when colleagues have asked me how I am in it all. I have taken time off as well as working 24-7. I am taking time to read because that is how I am stretched and replenished. I have been to the gym.

This week I have spent a great deal of time with my immediate teams in routine planning. I have had a significant number of one to one conversations with clergy and with senior colleagues. I have been concerned for a number of individuals who are bearing a great deal at the moment.

In terms of the third domain, last week at this time, I was spending time with clergy and congregations across one area of the diocese as we develop fresh vision and strategy and priorities for the next period in the life of the diocese. I have been exploring new appointments and investment as well as dealing with the impact of staff changes and thinking about where we need additional support.

And finally, I have invested energy in outward facing leadership. I will be spending two days this coming week exploring the area of Artificial Intelligence and its impact on society. I sit in the House of Lords and my current responsibility there is a Select Committee on AI. I am also preparing an address for my Diocesan Synod on care for the environment.

Where I wonder do you think my chief need to learn and reflect lies?  Where does yours?

I have learned over many years that the key challenges, the key growth and the most important learning is not the outward facing leadership; not the organisational change; not forming a team or coaching others.  The key learning and the key challenges take place in the inner domain: as I keep watch over myself, then I am better able, by the grace of God, to watch over and to lead the community which God has called me to serve and lead and represent.

Shadow side

There is, as we know, a shadow side to leadership: things which challenge and stretch us all beyond our capacity.  As I have become more senior in leadership and grown older, I have become more aware of the deep challenge to continue to grow in the exercise of leadership as we continue through life.

I have become more aware of two groups of people who do not do this. The first group neglect to watch over themselves and so become overwhelmed by the storms and the crises of different kinds, in Gregory’s picture. This leads to burn out or becoming overwhelmed in one way or another and is always difficult.

The Bible has a powerful image to describe these forces of chaos in the image of storm and water, deeply rooted in the Old Testament from the creation narrative onwards. The sea in the Old Testament is a force of chaos which overwhelms us.  Leadership of large organisations often feels overwhelming either in its size or complexity or because our public persona overwhelms our individual identity.

The strong metaphor for leadership in the Old Testament and the new is God bringing order out of chaos in creation and calming those inner storms through times of contemplation and reflection so that we live from the inside out.

The second group of people behave differently. Those are the people who become so overwhelmed by the challenges of leadership that they step back and resign themselves to inaction. They remain in office but they are not leading. The pain and difficulty and jeopardy have defeated them, for a time at any rate. All they want to do is to see out their time to retirement now.

I had a conversation many years ago with a Vicar in his forties who had served 12 years in a demanding parish and was really trying to say to me that he had now fulfilled his calling and was looking to scale down his responsibilities.

Those are the leaders addressed in God’s words to Jeremiah with which I began.

“If you have raced with foot-runners and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you fall down, how will you fare in the thickets by the Jordan?” (Jeremiah 12.5).

They remind us that one of the primary callings of leadership in every organisation and in every generation is courage: to lead with your heart and from your heart and to continually step up to the plate and offer what you can offer in God’s service and according to your calling.

Courage is hard to exercise when our lives are unbalanced, when we are exhausted and when we are overwhelmed.  It is hard to exercise when we are simply afraid and vulnerable and feel we have failed or will fail. In all of those circumstances, the way forward may only be in rest and retreat and replenishment and renewal.

Our calling is to live in good rhythms of prayer and rest and work and community. But our calling is not to quiet lives. Our calling is to love God’s world and seek transformation and to turn the world upside down as our forebears have done.

For this we need to hear God’s call to adventurous and courageous leadership:

“If you have raced with foot-runners and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you fall down, how will you fare in the thickets by the Jordan?” (Jeremiah 12.5).


+Steven Oxford
Fribourg, Switzerland
9 – 10 March

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