Covid-19 and ‘the wilding of the church’ – what sort of leaders do we need?

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11 February 2021 | Binfield, UK [Helen Pearson]  

‘Re-imagining’ was a key word in Newbold’s first Diversity Lecture of 2021 on Tuesday, 9 February. After environmental disasters, God works in nature giving it an infinite capacity to bounce back. Similarly, God can work through leaders who model and encourage a re-imagining of the church in the wake of the pandemic.

Dr Steve AisthorpeThe speaker at the lecture was Dr Steve Aisthorpe – Mission Development Worker for the Church of Scotland – a specialist in leadership, a committed environmentalist, and an experienced mountaineer! His lecture was an extended exploration of the metaphor of ‘wilding’ as it might apply in these days when the pandemic has affected the church like an earthquake or other natural shock.

At the heart of Dr Aisthorpe’s vision is a Jesus-centred church where all relationships are coloured by adventurous discipleship. It’s a different picture perhaps from the highly organised, top-down, institutions many think of as ‘the church’. He quoted theologian Rowan Williams: ‘church is what happens when people encounter the Risen Jesus and commit themselves to sustaining and deepening that encounter in their encounter with each other’. Vision is a core skill in Jesus-centred leadership. Contextual intelligence and the ability to see beyond the boundaries of one’s own tradition are valued qualities. ‘Leaders need to be ready to update their mental maps,’ said Aisthorpe. They need to be able to make connections beyond the boundaries of their own time and tradition – inter-personal, organisational, theological, philosophical.

As the lecture progressed, it became clear that the leadership qualities Aisthorpe was describing were part of a vision of church in which ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’ were less rigid categories. Leaders needed to foster low-control cultures of experimentation and mutual learning without fear of failure. An emphasis on high accountability meant that there would be a strong sense of shared ownership and responsibility for the church with a great deal of mutual, high-attention and prayerful listening. Leaders, he suggested would avoid the two extremes of religious navel-gazing and frenetic pious activity while cultivating a ‘rhythm of listening and action’. ‘Listening,’ he suggested is the heart of the adventure of faith. It’s scary because you don’t know what you’re going to hear until it is too late’.

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