Global Leadership Network UK & Ireland

GLN UK & Ireland

Chemistry in Church – Anthony Clarke

Following a recent conversation with a WCA staff member,  Anthony Clarke was invited to present his concerns about Willow Creek’s emphasis on chemistry in leadership teams:

Chemistry in Church

by Anthony Clarke, Tutor in Pastoral Studies and Community Learning, Regent’s Park College, Oxford

One of the great and continual questions in all groups is the relationship between those perceived as the leaders and the rest – between the few and the many. In church life many things will shape the way that this relationship between the few and the many is worked out: personality, culture, context, understanding of church, interpretation of the Bible to name some of the significant ones.

In addition, there are then the questions about the relationship within the ‘few’ – within a leadership team and especially with one who may be perceived as ‘the leader’ – and about the way people move between the few and the many – how individuals become part of a leadership team or, for that matter, step down from a position of leadership.

There are some, such as Walter Wright, who tend to describe leadership in terms of influence, thus spreading leadership much more widely in a church or organisation. Even though I have much sympathy with this approach, organisations still have formal leadership structures which draws boundaries around who is involved in different kinds of leadership. How are people chosen and what is the place of chemistry, with the rest of the team and with ‘the leader’?

Take the account of Jesus choosing the twelve Apostles (Mark 3:13-19; Matthew 10:1-4; Luke 6:12-16). One interesting way to approach these texts is to ask yourself the question ‘where do I find myself in this story?’ Do I find myself standing with Jesus, following his example, and choosing others who will work with me and be ‘team’ around me? Or do I find myself standing with one of the other disciples, called by Jesus. Peter, who emerges through the Gospels and Acts as a key leader within the Apostles, has no say in whom the others will be, but works with those whom Jesus calls.

This is one of the occasions when I think it is quite dangerous to take Jesus as an example for leadership today. Not only do we miss the fact that Jesus is, of course, unique and does not expect his disciples to copy everything he does, we also downplay the fact that a key significant aspect of this passage for us is that Jesus himself continues to call people into leadership. The question, then, is how that calling is discerned.

As a Baptist, I am committed to the belief that God speaks through all and that it is the role and responsibility of the congregation to discern what God is saying. The call to leadership is a key issue and one which I would want the whole church to wrestle with. For me, then, it is the local church itself which discerns the call of Jesus to leadership within the congregation. For me this emphasises the continual role of Jesus in calling leaders, ensures the whole church takes seriously this important issue and protects me against my own weaknesses. Over the years in pastoral ministry I have worked with others where there has not been the chemistry click, and whom, for that reason, I would probably not have chosen to be a leader – if the choice had been mine! Attracted to those with whom I got on well, there would a great temptation to overlook others. The leadership team would be denied the differences, which might at times appear as conflict, but through which there would be growth and development. The church would be denied those whom Jesus may be calling into leadership.

Certainly it is vital to look at how a team is functioning together, but chemistry, especially chemistry with ‘the leader’ cannot be basis on which a team is formed. It must be on the calling of Jesus, and for me that it is discerned by the church. The discernment will look at other key issues such as character and competence, but will be bold enough to put a group together with the differences of the first Apostles. Couldn’t I do that as a leader? I know my own frailties too well!


  • Willow

    Questions/Observations in response to Anthony’s article:

    1. Was the narrative about Peter’s leadership in Acts intended as a model?

    2. In his book, Courageous Leadership, Bill Hybels states that the number one criteria for leadership recruitment is character, then competence, and only then chemistry. His reason for appealing to chemistry is a pragmatic one which would seem to make the most sense in the situation: ‘Today I am a convert to the doctrine of chemistry. Why? Because so much of my time is spent in team. Nearly every moment of my working day I’m sitting around a table with the elder team, the board of directors, the management team, the teaching team, the programming team, the WCA leadership team, or the international conference team. For hundreds of hours each year, I sit in small circles working on kingdom challenges with other people. I don’t know how to say this diplomatically, but it helps if I really like being with those people! So if two job candidates have equal character and competence, I’ll give the nod to the person whose personality and temperament blends with the other team members and with me.Courageous Leadership, Bill Hybels, pp84-85, Zondervan

    3. Regarding a leaders frailties, each Church requires a governance system that takes this into account. At Willow Creek, this is undertaken by the Elders. See Defining Moments – The Crucial Role of Elders and Defining Moments – When a Staff Member Falls.

    4. How does Anthony’s argument work out in day to day church practice?