Napoleon is quoted as having said, “The role of a leader is to define reality and give hope.” American Express CEO, Ken Chenault, has this as his leadership mantra, but adds the caveat, “but I don’t want to end up like Napoleon!” (1)
This quote resonates for me in relation to leading church revitalisation. In recent decades the Anglican Diocese of Tasmania has embarked on a journey of revitalisation, moving from a 30% membership decline in the 1990s, ironically during its “Decade of Evangelism”, to renewal in the 21st century. The diocese has gone against the national trend in traditional denominations of continued decline and aging. Some parishes have seen significant growth from a low base, many have commenced a children’s or youth ministry or appointed a paid minister for the first time in decades, and the average age of clergy has decreased markedly. There’s a fair way to go, but the signs are promising.
How has Napoleon’s quote been evident in diocesan and local church leadership during the revitalisation process?
- Understand The Culture
Tasmania has always been a bit different! There’s a mixture of its history, island separation and wilderness that give it a distinctive slant on the issues of some other regional areas. Cross-cultural mission skills definitely come in handy, and the outsider from “the mainland” can be seen as both saviour and interloper. Each local church context has its own culture within this Tasmanian culture, and the leader helps members explore this context.
- Expose The Local Myths
Movva writes that “myths in organisations evolve as members share stories, sacrificing accuracy to fulfil their own needs.” (2) I have observed that, in both the wider Diocese and local churches, members have often established myths to rationalise why things are not going very well. For example, in one church, a number of people explained the lack of any members under the age of 55 by saying “we are an old suburb.” Such myths need to be countered with facts, such as demographic data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Only once the myths are exposed can people face reality and make plans.
- Define Who We Are And Where We Are Going
The current vision of the Diocese of Tasmania is to be a church for Tasmania, making disciples of Jesus (3). Bishop Richard Condie spearheaded the development of this vision in 2016, and through constant effort, it has become well known and understood, with many churches localising it for their area (4). The vision shapes decisions and the use of resources within the diocese.
These three elements have been a key part of defining reality both in the diocese and within local churches undergoing revitalisation. But on their own, the elements are merely part of organisational change theory, and they were present to some degree when the diocese and many parishes were declining in the 20th century. So, what changed?
- The Leader As Bringer Of Hope
Both new bishops in the diocese in the 21st century came with a track record of leading growing churches. They had seen what a growing church looks like. Similarly, the new ministers who have gone into struggling Tasmanian parishes over the past 20 years and seen revitalisation, were all previously involved in one or more healthy, growing churches. The diocese had been declining since the 1960s, and whilst many parishioners could remember the large Sunday Schools and vitality of that era, they hadn’t seen a healthy church in recent memory and had lost hope. The new leaders had seen what was possible elsewhere and came with experience of how revitalisation can happen. Established leaders can also bring new hope through re-orienting themselves and their ministry.
- Hope Over The Long Term
With all the honouring of Queen Elizabeth recently for her long and faithful service, it is easy to forget that in the 1990s, forty years into her reign, things were so bad that she described one particular year as her annus horribilis. Most ministers who have led revitalisations can point to a time during the process when things were very tough or even horrible. At such times a strong faith in God, a trust in his promises, and the support of others become even more crucial. A long-term view is also necessary. When I began leading a revitalisation at a Hobart church, I remembered Peter Adam’s advice that we overestimate what God can do in 6 months and underestimate what God can do in 5 years – and 5 years later God had certainly done far more than I had hoped for.
- Biblical Hope
The most significant change in the Diocese of Tasmania over the past 22 years has been a growing emphasis on hope in the God of the Bible and on the importance of preaching, teaching, explaining, correcting, encouraging, and discipling people using God’s word. The writer of Hebrews reminds us that “the word of God is alive and active.” (Heb. 4:12). In revitalised Tasmanian churches we have seen the transforming activity of God’s word. This change is reflected in NCLS survey results, with people’s highest priorities shifting from traditional worship and celebrating holy communion, to biblical preaching and reaching out to the community with the good news about Jesus.
The hopeful leader ultimately does not trust in themselves, their skills, connections, and experiences, but in the God who gives true hope. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Rom 15:13).
About the author:
Stephen Carnaby is the Director of Ministry Development in the Anglican Diocese of Tasmania, where his role includes supporting ministers in around 1/3 of the parishes which are aiming for revitalisation. He is currently researching “From Decline to Growth in a Regional Diocese: An Analysis of Revitalised Parishes in the Anglican Diocese of Tasmania in the 21st Century” for his Doctor of Ministry degree at Ridley College.
4 The National Church Life Survey lists “a clear sense of direction and purpose” as one of the characteristics of vital congregations. E.g. Peter Kaldor, John Bellamy, and Ruth Powell, Shaping a Future: Characteristics of Vital Congregations (Adelaide: Openbook, 1997).