Simplicity and complexity in vision and leadership

Andrew Katay - Arrow 4 (2001-2002)
Christ Church Inner West Anglican Community - Senior Minister 


If leadership is more or less about the art and science of mobilising and directing others towards a common goal, then the question of what motivates people to unite in effort for a cause is very close to its surface. One common answer to that question is vision - clear, compelling vision, a picture of a preferred future which fires peoples' imagination and draws out their commitment.

Clarity of vision, therefore, is always a core component of powerful leadership. A close cousin of clarity is simplicity, but the dark shadow of simplicity is simplistic. There is, of course, a crucial difference. Simplicity is the ability to see what is common and foundational in the midst of complexity; simplistic is to deny the complexity, to pretend that it doesn't exist or that it doesn't matter. There is all the difference in the world between leadership, and the vision that embodies it, which is clear and simple, and that which is clear by being simplistic. 

The reason this matters is that the Christian vision - God's work through the life and mission of Jesus Christ, and through the life and mission of the body of Christ - is both simple and complex at the same time. It is simple, in that its essence is simply Jesus Christ, crucified, risen and ascended as the one true Lord, in whom all things are united, and through whom the whole created order is redeemed, reconciled to the Father, in the power of the Sprit. But, of course, that itself is immensely and gloriously complex. It encompasses every aspect of reality; it embraces every kind of relationship; it calls for every mode of transformation. And the great danger of visionary leadership in tough times - and there is no doubt that these are tough times for the ministry of the gospel of Christ - is that it slides into being simplistic, rather than being simple; that it flattens out the complexity that is a necessary part of the work of the gospel for the sake of energising and sustaining commitment. On the flip side of that, in my judgment, one of the greatest challenges we face is to equip and nurture leaders who are powerfully simple, even in the midst of complexity.

Where does all this play out? I see it in the theological, the strategic and the tactical contexts of leadership, and in what follows I'll give an example of each of those, although it works itself out on hundreds of ways.

a) Theologically
First, theologically. I am writing whilst visiting New York City, en route to speaking at a missions conference for a US church. I attended an exhibition while here, called Habeas Corpus, about a 14-year-old Afghani boy who was imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay for 7 years, before being freed by a US court. He is not permitted to enter the USA now, and so was being 3-D projected onto a sculpture prepared specifically for the image from Ghana. We could wave to him, and after a 45 second delay, he would wave back. A remarkable sound experience filled the hall - in massive irony, the New York Park Ave Armoury - multiple speakers playing slow-moving guitar distortion, designed to unsettle and disturb in the darkened venue. On the back of the handout, there was a note about the inspiration of the installation: "dedicated to the freedom and basic goodness of all human beings."

As I read that dedication, several thoughts came crashing through at once. On the one hand, I could hear many friends saying, "No! There is no such thing as the basic goodness of human beings, only the universal sinfulness of human nature since the fall." And of course, that is right. But it is right in a simplistic, not a simple way. Because at the same time that all humans are sinful, they are also created in the image of God, capable of what Jonathan Edwards called 'common virtue', such as standing up against injustice, as this installation art was seeking to do. And to deny that is foolish. It's not in any remote sense a saving goodness. But it is a goodness nonetheless. Another way of saying this is to recognise that we need to hold together God's work of both common grace, by which he provides for all people, including restraining the evils that they can perpetrate upon one another, and special grace, by which he saves sinners from their sins.

That is theologically complex. And the point is that an exercise of leadership that fails to do justice to that kind of complexity will be simplistic. It will either lose grip on the necessity of a work of divine saving grace, or on the value and dignity bestowed on people by the very fact that Christ died for them while they were still sinners.

b) Strategically
The second example I want to explore is at the strategic level. It concerns the complex interaction between the works of evangelism and discipleship.

Of course, the Great Commission joins them together, so that they must not be separated. We are to baptise all nations in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit; and we are also to teach them to obey everything that Jesus has taught us. But all too often, in the interests of clarity of vision, only one arm of this pair is focussed on, we go for simplistic. 

It tends to see-saw.

Evangelism is really hard in a post-Christian world. We are ideologically under attack, which makes us reactive and defensive, never a good starting point for an evangelistic conversation. And so people get scared, and then they get lazy, and so clear leadership calls for a renewed focus on personal witness. Programs are rolled out, campaigns are organised. But then a gap is noticed, a gap between the power of God in the gospel, and the lives of those who proclaim that gospel. And so discipleship is emphasised, there is a renewed push for holiness of life, for accountability and for deeply applied Bible teaching.

The result is the same either way - clarity of vision is achieved, but only at the cost of complexity-ignoring simplistic leadership.

c) Tactically
The third example I want to give is at the more fine grained level. What is our vision of the mature Christian person, someone in whom the work of God is drenched? Is it someone who is rich in the word of God and prayer, of private devotional practices? Or is it someone who displays godly character, the fruit of the Spirit evident in their life and speech and relationships?  Or is it someone whose public life - their work, their engagement with the various institutions, community groups and issues, and organisations in their city - is full and a blessing to others?

Another way to approach the same issue is to notice the regular calls, on the one hand, for a stronger ownership of and defence of the truth of God's Word (say, for example, in relation to the same sex marriage redefinition debate), or on the other hand, of the need for greater Christian unity, and less public vitriol against one another, in other words, more love. Is it to be truth or love?

Of course, these are not either - or's, they must be both - and's. And yet, if an analysis was done of the applications made in sermons and Bible studies, of the training courses offered and the seminars run, what would that evidence-based investigation reveal about our actual priorities and concerns. Would the complexity of the mature Christian person be adequately reflected, or would it be the case that in the interests of clarity, we have become simplistic?

Notice that this is not quite a question of balancing competing agendas, or finding some middle ground between alternatives. There is place for that, of course, but it's not quite what I'm getting at here. Rather, what I'm suggesting is an urgent need for leaders, is the ability to achieve simplicity of vision whilst at the same time perceiving the complexity of the issues, and sacrificing neither for the sake of the other.

Christian leadership has always been hard. But I suspect that it is harder than ever in our post - Christian, post - modern, highly judgmental context. The temptation is to proclaim, defend and teach the gospel in ways, using methods, and based on leadership strategies that are themselves sub-gospel, that sacrifice some part of the rich complexity of gospel ministry, for the sake of at least getting something right! But that will always be nothing short of cutting the branch off at the trunk. Gospel shaped leadership always has to be fully faithful, including faithful to the at-times confusing complexity with which we are faced, theological, strategic and tactical.