What Does Holy Leadership Look Like?

By Glen O’Brien

Relational leaders need to admit their fallibility and proneness to sin. They should walk with Jesus in solidarity with others.

“Holiness” is an increasingly “insider” concept, rarely used outside of a religious context. In fact, it’s very difficult to think of its occurrence in the present culture of the West except as something very negative. Someone might say, “He’s a bit of a holy Joe” or “she’s a bit of a holy roller.” Of course, this kind of statement is not meant as a compliment! What does it mean, then, to offer genuinely holy leadership?

In a relational theology, holiness is characterised by love and by openness toward others. It isn’t about being separated from the “impure” or the “unclean,” but about the power of presence. Think of how Jesus, surely the holiest of all spiritual leaders, touched and healed the unloved, the impure, and the rejected. Yet his holiness was not tainted by this contact in any way. Rather, those he touched were healed and themselves made holy. His was a contagious holiness.

In the nineteenth century, Protestant churches were very much engaged in a project to transform culture through the application of Christian principles to social problems. This was as true for Liberal advocates of the “social gospel” as it was for the Evangelical revivalists. In some circles, this ethic of transformation began to be replaced by an ethic of separation so that withdrawal replaced engagement. This created a leadership gap in the public square as the focus shifted from contributing to the common good to purifying the holy community from within.

Of course, the church no longer has the privileged place it once had in society and there are good reasons why it should not assume the sole place of moral leadership in a plural society. Yet Christian leadership still has an important role to play alongside other people of good will in seeking human flourishing across cultural and religious boundaries. Any concept of holiness as separation will not be up to the task of such engagement. Only a relational concept of holiness as transformative presence will do.

While there is a public role for relational leadership, there are also internal dimensions to church leadership to be considered. In Holiness churches, uncritically received teachings about sanctification, and in particular “entire sanctification,” have sometimes resulted in rather toxic patterns of leadership. I have known leaders who could not admit responsibility for the harm caused to others through their words and actions. “My motives are pure because my heart is fully sanctified. If you are harmed by something I said or did, I’m sorry, but it was not intended by me.” This is not an apology at all but merely an evasion of responsibility. Even the most fully sanctified are aware of their proneness to error, to fault and yes, to sin. No one ever outgrows the prayer Our Lord taught us to pray—”Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Relational leadership is the kind of leadership that is honest about failure, open to correction, and willing to admit fault.

Too often we think of leadership as exercising authority over people in order to get things done. It is something quite different to that. The relational holiness to which Christian leaders are called does not treat people in an instrumental way—simply as tools to achieve some purpose. Rather it wants to learn from others and is open to the contributions and insights of all, including (indeed especially) the humblest and simplest of fellow travellers. When reflecting on the people you think of us as the holiest “saints” you know, they are likely to be people who are too humble to speak of themselves in such terms. They don’t need their holiness announced, it announces itself. These people are true leaders, even if they have no official leadership role in the church, because they are models for us to follow.

In the 1980s I was involved in attempting to plant a church in a little seaside village on Australia’s east coast. Around 60 people attended a public service, interested in what the introduction of a “Holiness” church might look like in their region and whether they might like to be involved. The invited speaker gave his testimony with great boldness and confidence. “Forty-five years ago, God sanctified my heart at an altar of prayer and since that day my heart has been as pure as the driven snow.” My heart sank and I knew we had lost that crowd. Sure enough, no one showed any interest except to say, “If that’s what a Holiness church looks like, we don’t want to be a part of it.” That kind of testimony might have gone well in a camp meeting in rural Tennessee within a revivalist subculture, but in beachside New South Wales it failed to communicate. It was heard only as prideful boasting. It didn’t point to Jesus (as the speaker probably intended), but only to the person speaking. As such it failed the test of genuinely relational holiness—it spoke of the “purity” of the preacher but did not evoke the “presence” of Christ.

One of the key insights of the theology of Openness is that God is a relational Being who does not simply act in an arbitrary way over against people from a position of ultimate power. Instead, God makes covenants, keeps promises, grows frustrated, dances with joyful celebration and occasionally even has a change of mind. God’s people, made in the divine image, are also called to be relational beings expressing a range of responses in a dance of mutual connection to others.

Christianity certainly affirms the oneness, the unity, and the power of God, but it does so in a very particular way. God is not simply a Divine Being, but a being who exists in communion. The Father loves the Son. The Son asks the Father to send the Spirit as our Helper, and the Spirit speaks not of herself but of the Son.1 Terms like “Father” and “Son” can seem very gendered (and very male!) but if we think more deeply about them it is not their gender that matters so much as their relational nature. The relationships that exist within the very being of God are mutually reinforcing relationships of others-focused love. There is nothing jarring, competitive, selfish or abusive within God. Relational leaders will exhibit a similar kind of holiness, even if of a less perfect kind. They will not demand a predetermined set of responses from others, but be open to their uninvited, unexpected (even sometimes unwanted), insights. Relational leadership will ask how best to provoke love even in the most surprising and disarming of circumstances.

There is a very short answer to the question of what holy leadership looks like. It looks like Jesus. Not the Jesus who is morally perfect (though he was that) but the Jesus who loved perfectly. Most people do not become (or stay) Christians because they become convinced that Jesus is God the Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity or any similar theological description. Somehow or other they encounter him, maybe through reading the Gospels, maybe through seeing a movie, maybe through a conversation. They are drawn to him, not as an idea, or as a concept but as a person and they find they want to follow him. It’s for this reason that Christianity is not first a system of beliefs or religious practices (even though it involves such things) but a way of living with and for Christ in solidarity with others. A person may be a religious leader but can only be a genuinely holy leader when their response to others is in line with the love most fully exhibited in Jesus of Nazareth.

Glen O’Brien is Research Coordinator at Eva Burrows College within the University of Divinity and Chair of the University’s Research Committee. He is a Uniting Church minister with an ecumenical placement to The Salvation Army. He is the author and editor of several books including (with Hilary Carey), Methodism in Australia: A History (Ashgate 2015) and Wesleyan-Holiness Churches in Australia (Routledge, 2018).

1 The use of the feminine pronoun in reference to the Spirit seems allowable given that the Greek word pneuma is neuter. The author is aware that male pronouns are used of the Spirit in the New Testament.

To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.

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