LGP Stories

Personal Stories from DMINLGP

Expectations and Reality: Thoughts on Leadership and Church from London Town (and Oxford)

Written by: on June 8, 2017

‘My First Sermon’ (above) by Sir John Everett Millais

When we happened upon the Guildhall Art Gallery during a break one afternoon from our meetings in London – ‘happening upon’ an gallery containing both famous works of Art and an Roman archaeological site, is the kind of thing that you see in movies or hear in other people’s stories, but it really happened to us this day – I was immediately drawn to the above painting, My First Sermon by Sir John Everett Millais.

I am not what you would call an ‘art lover’, I can’t tell a Monet from a Rembrandt and I certainly don’t know what makes a painting ‘good’, but I do enjoy art and a stroll through a gallery as a great diversion on cool London afternoon.  As we walked through the gallery, my companions – all with more ‘refined’ artistic palates than me – peeled off to pursue one interest or another, and I found myself standing and staring at this girl in a red cape and a black hat.   I chuckled when I looked down and saw the title of the painting – I really am a sucker for church, I thought.  Then, when a small guided tour moved away, the paintings companion was revealed and I actually laughed out loud.

My Second Sermon

Another way to encapsulate the issue at hand is this: Lot’s of people like the idea of church and even want to go to church, but too many people can’t wait to leave once they are there.  Not many of us have fallen asleep during worship recently (it hasn’t happened to me since an unfortunate incident with some cough medicine on Christmas Eve, 2008…), but we all immediately identify with the feeling and circumstance conveyed in the two paintings: Excitement for church – or even just interest – quickly fades to boredom, indifference and disconnection.

As I stood in the Guildhall gallery, it struck me that these two paintings – and the issue for the church that they illustrate so well – was a major reason why I was here, in this place and part of this program.   Simply put, I believe that the mission and work of the church is as vital as ever, but that we are in the midst of a culture that is changing so completely and so quickly that our old methods of leadership, of outreach and evangelism, of worshiping and being the church are no longer up to the task.The adage goes that admitting that there is a problem is the first step in finding a solution – and I have, as many of us are, been aware of this disconnect between culture and the church and between expectation and experience of worship and church community.

But my awareness of the issue hasn’t produced different results.  You must look closely, over his left shoulder, but the selfie of my son (Ian, 6) to the left, was taken in the middle of a worship service – while I was saying the words of institution for communion no less!    If even communion isn’t dramatic and engaging, then we are – I am – clearly doing something wrong, or at the very least not well enough.

This is, at least in part I believe, because I was brought up and trained in a church and an academy that was preparing me to lead in a world that no longer exists.  In response, led by the Holy Spirit (I hope…) I embarked on this LGP DMIN journey… seeking the understanding and the tools to be a different kind of leader to lead a different kind of church.

When I shared my thought process and the details of the LGP program with my wife and some close friends and colleagues, one question came up multiple times, ‘So you are going to London?  Is this all just so you can go see an Arsenal game?’

Outside of my faith, my family and friends and the church, one of my biggest interests is following the Arsenal football Club, ‘the pride of North London’.  While it (really!) wasn’t why I chose the LPG DMIN program, once I found that Arsenal would be hosting arch rivals Chelsea on the Saturday afternoon that we were to be in London, I resolved to find a way to get to that game.

As you can see from the animation on the right, I was able to get to the game. What an amazing experience it was. The 3-0 Arsenal win certainly helped, but even before the first ball was kicked, the day had already exceeded all of my expectations: the atmosphere at the pub before the game; the energy from the supporters in and around the stadium; the sight of the pristine, picture perfect pitch waiting expectantly; the ‘Aaron Lambsley’ pie from Piebury Corner…. All of it was even better than I had imagined.

Having already had my epiphany at the Guildhall, the experience of the Arsenal game provided a stark contrast to the disappointment of ‘My Second Sermon’ and the distraction of my 6 year old.   This contrast has provided me the vision for what I want to be working for as I move through this process over the next three years.  To be clear, I am not seeking to become an entertainer – the analogy between the church and soccer experiences isn’t perfect – but rather how to connect more meaningfully and engage more fully those that I encounter as a pastor and those that we are reaching out to as a church community.

Later during our England Advance, we were provided an excellent example of what I am striving for as a leader in relation to our culture as we visited the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, meeting place of the Inklings (Lewis, Tolkien, etc.).    We sat where they sat and talked where they talked.

These brilliant minds figured out a way to put their faith front and center in their lives, in their writing and in their work – and yet not be boring or staid.  How many people have come to know Jesus or get a better understanding of who God is and how God loves us through the work of these faithful leaders?

What does that look like – not to be the ‘neoinklings’ (Katy’s term), but rather to shine and share God’s light and love like them and engage the world around us for Christ as they did?  At least in part, I think it has to do with a new understanding of leadership and authority.

Like many of us, I was brought up in a church and cultural context where the pastor was respected, revered and listened to because – well, because he (or she, but almost always he) was the pastor.  Though remnants of this culture exist, particularly in the Southeastern and Midwestern U.S., we don’t live in that world any more.

This connected for me as we looked at the various styles of leadership and the forms of authority that our leadership relies on to be effective.  The Weberian forms of authority (personal, traditional, legal-rational) that almost all our churches conform with are simply no longer adequate.   At this point the relational school of the sociological study of leadership can provide for us a way forward. [2]

In a culture where respect and authority are not simply given, but rather ‘earned’ the ‘right, power and authority’ to lead is derived from the relationships that you cultivate.  The first step to that authority is simply the forming of the relationship, the willingness to engage in a personal way being an important piece of this ‘earning’.  The second step is showing authenticity – a buzzword to be sure, but a critical aspect of authentic leadership in our current context.

In the recently completed election Hillary Clinton received enormous criticism for comments she made about being and saying ‘one thing in public, and another in private’.  Political feelings aside, in context, the comments are completely logical – but they drew sharp rebuke because they fed into the (already existing) perception of inauthenticity.

In a church context, pastors – myself included – were once strongly advised to never talk about themselves or their personal lives in their preaching and teaching.  In essence, we were told to ‘put on the mask’ of a teacher or theologian or disseminator of gospel truth – disconnected from any experience that might be truly or deeply personal.
We have always been keen to listen to and learn from story: Jesus taught in parables for a reason!  If we want to be leaders in the church today, we must be willing to share our stories with each other.

This was modeled wonderfully for us during our advance by the many leaders that came and spoke to us.  All of them had nuggets of wisdom and guidance for us, but I was particularly struck by MaryKate Morse walking us through an incredibly difficult passage of scripture – honestly and soberly, in a way that connected directly to who she is and her personal experience – finding the light of the gospel through a difficult passage and personal and societal pain.

Similarly, Dominic Erdozain’s presentation was particularly meaningful to me.  It was the kind of humorous, self-effacing, yet deep and thorough discourse that I really enjoy and that I strive to deliver.  His words and insights, as well as MaryKate’s, only became more valuable to me as they devoted time into building relationships over meals and walks and long conversations at the pub.  What a witness these women and men are and what a privilege it is to learn from them and to actually get to know them and call them friends.

Perhaps the most meaningful insight I gained from the lectures we heard and the relationships I formed with those that gave them was that the wisdom and insight that they shared didn’t change as I got to know them, but my appreciation of it – and even my memory of it – did.

Stephen Garner gave some wonderful insight and understanding into our popular culture and how it handles faith and spirituality, but I wonder, would I remember it if we had not shared a conversation about rugby and football (real, not American) and our children as we walked to go punting?  So, leadership requires certain abilities and knowledge, but possibly just as important is the willingness to invest liberally in the lives of those you are hoping to lead.

In many ways, as we learned in looking at the book Heroic Leadership by Chis Lowney that this type of leadership isn’t exactly a ‘new’ idea.  In tracing the practice and positions of the Jesuits, we found a model of leadership that matches up will with the ideas authenticity and relationship, highlighting four key components: self-awareness, ingenuity, love and heroism.[3]

These are not easy traits to live up to or into, but a new understanding of their importance and of the importance of the relationship with those I am hoping to lead has lead me to pay more attention to certain aspects of my leadership as I seek to initiate change as I work to lead the church into an uncertain future.  I have begun to take time to ensure that I don’t only connect with people when I need something from them; I have made a habit of asking myself if I am being completely honest in my dialog with parishioners or am I giving in to the temptation of telling people what they want to hear – and keeping in mind the careful balance of pastoral care and the prophetic voice.

Finally, my time in London and Oxford awakened in me an appreciation for the importance of place.  All of the lectures, experiences and discussions we had during our London/Oxford Advance would have been excellent and meaningful if they were had anywhere: Christchurch Oxford, a utilitarian classroom on a seminary campus, a friends living room or the table where Lewis and Tolkien sat….. but how we experience and process the information, how we attach ourselves to it is connected in a powerful way to where we are when we encounter them.










I am still working out how to put that into practice in my current context, but I have already begun working with our worship and education committees at the church to take a more holistic approach to worship planning, our education offerings and our special events so that the environment we create (while not quite up to the standard of the pictures above and below) contributes to the experience and enhances the worship or the learning.










As I am coming to the end of my first semester of this DMIN journey, I am struck not by how much further I have to go (probably best not to think about it…..) or even how far we have already come (further than you would think, not just in miles) but instead who I get to be on this journey with: the ‘Sevens’ – the cohort that is already setting new standards, but more importantly supporting, encouraging and lifting each other up; our mentors – Jason, MaryKate, Dominic, Loren, Cliff and so many others; the Holy Spirit – our true guide on this great adventure we call life.

The relationships that have already formed and the wisdom that has been born out of the connections and discussions that arose from these relationships have already changed who I am, what I think and how I lead.  And that, my friends, it the lesson I have learned and am still trying to apply: it is through our relationships, the people, places and causes that we invest our time, effort, money and ourselves in that we lead and share and grow – and it is through that investment and those relationships that we participate in God’s mission in the world and share the good news of God’s love.


[1] John Guille Millais, “My Second Sermon Sir John Everett Millais Bt PRA (1829-96),” Victorianweb.org, February 16, 2015, accessed November 30, 2016, http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/millais/paintings/43.jpg.

[2] Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana, eds., Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice: An Hbs Centennial Colloquium On Advancing Leadership (Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business Press, ©2010), 2571, Electronic Format.

[3] Chris Lowney, Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-year-old Company That Changed the World (Chicago: Loyola Press, ©2003), 82




About the Author


Chip Stapleton

Follower of Jesus Christ. Husband to Traci. Dad to Charlie, Jack, Ian and Henry. Preacher of Sermons, eater of ice cream, supporter of Arsenal. I love to talk about what God is doing in the world & in and through us & create space and opportunity for others to use their gifts to serve God and God's people.

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