“The reality is that where you have a good vicar you will find growing churches.” It was an unguarded statement by the Archbishop of Canterbury last New Year’s Eve when discussing the state of the Church of England on Radio 4. Vicars from static or shrinking churches saw it as an insult to their own ministries, others complained that the Archbishop was obsessed with numerical growth, and he soon apologised at General Synod. But his natural assumptions had been laid bare, that there is a direct link between good leadership and church growth. As he wrote in a private memorandum for the Bishop’s Council in Durham Diocese just two years ago: “Again and again in church history churches far worse off than us have, with clear leadership, found new life.”
Justin Welby has not yet written a leadership manual, but were he to do so, these would be his top four principles:
Rowan Williams acknowledges: ‘Justin is, frankly, immeasurably better than I ever was at prioritising. He clearly knows where he wants to put his primary energies, and I was always much too ready to say Yes to this and Yes to that.’ Likewise Professor David Ford, who served as an advisor to both Robert Runcie and George Carey, says of Welby: ‘I haven’t seen this level of strategic thinking in any of his predecessors.’ Before he even took office, the Archbishop settled on three major targets, which he has drummed home repeatedly: prayer, reconciliation and evangelism. Like every good communicator he knows that three is the magic number, and these priorities must shape Lambeth’s resources – personnel, time and money. Welby has worked hard to release the necessary finance to bankroll the strategy, helped by the Lambeth Partners (now headed by his old Cambridge friend and City magnate, Ken Costa). For example, David Porter’s role as Lambeth director of reconciliation has grown from half-time to full-time, and now is recruiting his own deputies, because the Archbishop has decided that Anglican reconciliation will be a major focus.
2) Build a Trusted Team
Welby has been decisive – some would say ruthless – in restructuring the Lambeth team. Amongst the senior staff who have left since he arrived are the ecumenical secretary, the international development secretary, the interfaith secretary, the Anglican Communion secretary, the press secretary, the patronage secretary and the chaplain. In their place the Archbishop has hand-picked new colleagues, beginning with his friends from theological college, Jo Bailey Wells (chaplain) and Chris Russell (evangelism advisor). Only one senior post, the communications director, has been open to a competitive application process. Welby’s aim is to head-hunt highly competent individuals who already trust each other. His preferred management structure is a flexible inner cabinet, the so-called ‘Lambeth Seven’. Welby’s ultimate plan is for a ‘Lambeth Eight’, and he still hopes to recruit an African bishop as his liaison with the Anglican Communion, though this is highly sensitive, politically.
3) Don’t Play Safe
Welby began to hone his risk-taking instincts many years ago, as an oil industry treasurer responsible for a multi-billion dollar portfolio in a rapidly fluctuating market. He has transferred those skills to Christian ministry. Playing safe, he argues, leads to paralysis of action and the Church of England is institutionally risk-averse. Repeatedly he asserts that leaders must have the confidence to step out in courageous ways – the risk of speaking your mind without always checking with your PR company first; the risk of building relationship with controversial figures, even if your motives might be misunderstood; the risk of backing new projects which might fail; and the risk of heading into the unknown before all the loose threads are tied up (the women bishops legislation is a case in point). Welby has sometimes moved too swiftly, creating new policies before consulting his advisors. But he insists upon quick decisions and practical action. To quote Professor Ford again: “He’s oriented to action. ... There will be a flow of proactive things from Justin over the next ten years, that’s how he’s always been.”
4) Recognise Your Fallibility
The Archbishop knows from bitter personal experience that poor decisions can have major consequences. The collapse of the International Centre for Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral nine years ago, was the biggest leadership failure to date of his otherwise glittering ministry. He admits, “I failed quite badly as a result of a series of mistakes ... I learned not to let situations drift.” Welby knows his own fallibility. At last summer’s “Home Focus” holiday for the HTB family of churches, he said: “I’m going to make a lot of mistakes, necessarily. I’m a human being; like everybody else I will get things wrong. Sometimes I’ll do it by stupidity, sometimes by cowardice, sometimes by exhaustion”. Elsewhere he reiterated: “Put not your trust in new leaders ... Human sin means pinning hopes on individuals is always a mistake.” Welby has big ambitions for his tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury, but is also brutally realistic about his own limitations, which drives him daily to his knees. The wise leader is ultimately the one who relies upon the Spirit of God to grow the church.
Co-published with The Church of England Newspaper, 11th July 2014
Andrew Atherstone’s biography, Archbishop Justin Welby: Risk-taker and Reconciler, is newly published by Darton, Longman and Todd
Andrew Atherstone is tutor in history and doctrine, and Latimer research fellow, at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford