Monday 16th March 2020, I woke up with a new sense of urgency, a flow of creativity, direction and purpose. The previous few weeks had been busy, but from somewhere a new gear of leadership energy kicked in, as we faced the Coronavirus outbreak and decisions needed to be made.
That week was full of emergency meetings, decisions, delegation and communication. I was operating in ‘King’ mode, because my team and my church needed me to take a lead in a crisis. I knew that this was a temporary phase, a reordering of life and reimagining of church, the rhythms of life changed dramatically and would do so in the weeks to come. Dramatic change, brings uncertainty, in ‘King’ mode, we needed to act decisively, to be ahead of the curve and bring whatever clarity we could to ease anxiety.
In the midst of that crazy week, the discussions rolled along online about reimagining church. What would virtual church look like for our church? Could we go into our buildings? What rhythms of worship does the church need right now? What messages of hope and understanding the season do our people need right now? Whilst operating in ‘king’ mode, I realised the distinction in these discussions was between the priestly perspective and prophetic perspective.
The world needs different types of leadership. Not everyone can be a king and too many kings causes tribalism and factions. Not many leaders need to lead in ‘king’ mode for long, it’s a mode which responds to crises and gets projects completed, but God’s people need spiritual leadership. There are a few good and a lot of bad examples of kingship in the Bible, and we look to build the one kingdom, with one king, Jesus. If we lead only from ‘king’ ‘mode, we’ll ignore the real kingdom and burn out our people. Leaders, be aware that ‘king’ is a temporary operating mode. Leading in the next stage we need to know whether God has made us Prophets or Priests. And then we need to know how to value those who aren’t like us.
My thinking in this area has been inspired by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ weekly readings of the Hebrew Bible. In his reflections on week 8 of Exodus Tetzaveh (Exodus 27.10-30.20) he makes fascinating distinctions between Priests (kohen) and prophets (navi). Drawing on the debates between the great sages of the middle ages, Maimonides and Nahmanides. Here’s a simplified table of the distinctions Sacks gives us of Hebrew priesthood.
|Succession||Dynastic (passed down family line)||Vocations (individual called by God)|
|Uniform||Robes of office||No uniform, same clothes as everyone else|
|Social role||Distinct from people, separate job||Lives amongst people, did ‘normal’ job|
|Honoured||Rules and social convention of respect||By being listened to for what they say|
|Worship||Sacrifices, rituals, silence||Spoken word|
|Key words||Pure, impure, sacred, secular||justice, love, righteousness, compassion|
|Key verbs||Instruct, teach, distinguish||respond, change|
|Personality||Nothing personal, its about role||Each individual prophet charisma and distinctive voice|
|Time||cyclical, rhythms, patterns, routine||historical, seasonal, kairos|
|Prayer||rhythms, duty, liturgy, obedient||relational, responsive, extempore,|
|Disposition||consistent, obedient, law abiding||Passionate, spontaneous,|
Have a glance through that table and reflect on where you’d place yourself on each layer of that spectrum.
I’ve found this distinction hugely stimulating in understanding myself and seeking to understand the parts of the Church of England that baffle me. I am undoubtedly on the far brink of the ‘prophet’ end of the scale, called to serve in a denomination in which many value the priestly role. The table I’ve given you is simplified, go and read Sacks (Covenant & Conversation: Exodus, and Lessons in Leadership) for more on this.
To give a different angle on this let me share something from my prayer time this morning. I was using an imagination prayer exercise in which I invite the Holy Spirit to guide me and then in my imagination place myself in a particular peaceful location and invite one of the Trinity to come and meet with me. Today, my heart longed for the Father, we sat on a bench in my garden and I let him speak to me. In my imagination, the Father invited me to get up from the bench and walk around my garden with him. He started commenting and asking questions about our garden and my gardening. (Maybe he was answering my wife’s prayers, she wants me to be gardening not writing today!) I responded in some surprise, why was the Father so interested in the garden, when there is so much mess, sin, confusion in my heart to process. I could tell the questions he was asking me about the garden, were to reveal more of my heart. Then I started to consider different types of gardening. The priestly role is to cut the grass, prune the hedges and flowers, harvest the fruit and water and feed where necessary. The kingly role is to make decisive action; chop off branches, clear overgrown areas, uproot the brambles. The prophet’s role, is to reimagine the garden, think through the seasons, consider the vistas, plant those things which will be beautiful for generations to come.
Responding to this season
We find ourselves in a significant moment of change. Responding to the Coronavirus pandemic, and the impact of self isolation and sharing in a single focus globally. Dramatic change of season, requires reimagining our leadership role and I believe different phases of a crisis will require different aspects of leadership. (I would say that, I’m a prophet not a priest!)
The initial response for many of us was the ‘king’ role, deciding, delegating and changing.
But now as we settle into sustained period of lock down, are you going to lead as a priest or a prophet? What does the shape of what you give your time to tell you about this? What does your response to the rules not to stream services from your church building tell you about yourself?
Times of dramatic change expose our priorities. We jettison those things we think of no value and hold fast to what we believe matters. Seeing what matters to other clergy through their posts on social media, highlights this contrast to me. The debates about celebrating eucharist alone or representatively particularly highlight our prophet:priest distinctions. (The Ad Clerum from one Bishop (different diocese) to their clergy on eucharist baffled me.)
I’m sure all of us have had to look at our priorities very differently in this season and I’ve found seeing them through the lens of prophet or priest, hugely helpful to recognise why I’ve made choices which differ from other leaders and to be at peace about that. I’ve also seen how this shapes my delegation to members of our team, where do I need to balance what we do collectively?
Your answer to the question: ’What leadership does my church need right now?’ Will be shaped by where you are on the priest-prophet spectrum. If you have a priestly disposition, you will prioritise daily prayer, collective worship and familiar rhythms. Through times of change, you will be bringing hope and assurance, through consistency.
If you are more prophetic, you will probably be giving your time to Bible studies that help us navigate this historical moment wisely, reflecting on what God is doing and batting away some of the heretical wacky prophetic stuff that’s going around. You will be bringing hope through words of truth and assurance of the bigger story of God’s rule.
What leadership will we need in the next season?
As well as the now, we need to be considering what is to come. This season will end, we don’t know how or when, but it will end. But the world and the church, will be very different from what they were at the start of March 2020. One way of describing this season is a sharp winter’s frost, those things which are not healthy and deeply rooted in the vine (John 15) will die and new life will grow.
As leaders, we need to be prayerfully seeking God about how to rebuild and regrow society and the church in the next season. I’ve been re-reading the Creation narratives in Genesis to meditate on that and recently read Ezra and Nehemiah too. Again, how we do this will draw on our priestly and prophetic dispositions.
It seems to me that this a dramatic shift in culture, requires prophetic leadership. (Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel, John the Baptist and many others were the loud voices at times of dramatic change. Jesus is of course Prophet, Priest and King. The priestly roles were given to Moses (a prophet) in the wilderness and patterns established in the tabernacle, which became foundational when the people settled in the promised land.
As we look ahead and prepare to lead in the next season, we will need seeds and stories.
The word ‘Seed’ (Heb. ‘zera’) appears in the 11th verse of the Bible. God created seeds very early, (day 3) they are an essential part of his creation and feature throughout scripture. They are a miraculous piece of creation, something so small, seemingly dead, containing the whole dna to grow into a complex, growing, regenerating, reproducing organism.
What we plant now, will grow into what will grow in the next season.
What we pray now, will shape what happens in the years to come
What we teach now, (across the internet) will reproduce in the lives of those we lead. And we will be scattering further by the internet than our immediate congregations.
What seeds are you scattering and sowing now for what is to come?
Humans are meaning makers. Victor Frankl’s stunning teaching on our search for meaning, was born in the midst of crisis and horror, and taught us about how we respond not react to dramatic change.
The story we tell about this pandemic and its impact on the world, will shape the way people understand themselves, society and life. Social media is an amazing technology for spreading stories. Memes are snapshots of the stories we are telling. Take a look at what stories your feed are telling. Consider how different media tell different stories, (don’t let twitter get you down, it’s just angry people shouting in a room)
What stories are we telling?
Loo-rolls or foodbanks.
Everyone is so selfish, or ‘in this together’.
Obey those in authority or criticise politicians who aren’t from your party.
God is angry, or God is gracious?
The role of a priest, is to consistently enact and retell the eternal story of God.
The role of a prophet, is to respond to God in season and help others live in God’s story, not the one they’re telling themselves
We need priests and prophets right now.
We need you to use the gifts God has given you, to be the leader he made you to be.