In this collection of fifty-nine short vignettes from a wide range of leaders, each one addresses the question: ‘What would it mean to lead like a God who is open, relational, and loving?’. Open and relational theology is a broad spectrum of views that overlap in their belief that God is relational, giving and receiving love and affected by that; that creatures and creation are similarly relational; and that, “the future is not predetermined but open, which means our choices and decisions matter” (i).
The book is divided roughly equally into two sections: Theory: Leadership in the Divine Model, and Application: Leadership in Church and Society.
The vast majority of the short essays are by people in leadership positions (whether that be in business or churches, education, sports or medical organisations) or academics in the area of leadership. These are useful reflections on leadership for individual leaders in such roles; it would be helpful and holistic to also read about open and relational leadership from those who are not in conventional ‘leader’ roles, particularly given the non-hierarchical thrust of open and relational theology. We have all been led, after all.
While some are academic in style, the essays in the main are a variety of personal histories, theological reflections and inspirational exhortations. They reflect the large umbrella under which open and relational theologies sit. The connection to open and relational theologies is sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, and sometimes more specifically related to process theology.
From an online search, it appears that of the fifty-nine short essays, there are only fourteen essays by women, even though open and relational theology seems like it would be at home with many women’s approaches to leadership. Likewise, all but a handful are by white people. This may have to do with the make-up of the denominations that are engaging with open and relational theology, or the busy-ness levels of contributors from a more diverse background. Finally in terms of demographics, most of the essays are by North American contributors and so many do focus on that context. These issues inevitably narrow the lens of the book but nonetheless there is wide variety within the book in other areas.
“When people are loved, they grow” (143)
Many contributors point to the primary importance of a leader’s own relationship with God – and their theology of who God is – in terms of a listening posture, a Spirit-led approach, and for seeking a model of leadership (162). In relating their input to the claims of open and relational theology, a recurring theme is how a leader can, like God, exhibit aspects of servant leadership, being “self-giving and…others-empowering” (135). Contributors variously explore how an individual leader can be empowering by yielding power to others, by backgrounding themselves, by helping others develop gifts, by listening to each other, to God and to the earth (216) and through not being concerned with “pomp, ceremony and fine clothing” (133).
Another theme in the collection is the need for leadership to involve vulnerable trust (204); writers explore how God models such an approach by entrusting us to co-create the future with God. They also point to “the value of discomfort” (147) in dwelling in “time between time” (186), “without plans” (194), skills of particular importance for leadership grounded in open and relational theology for which the future is open.
Many describe the importance for open and relational leadership of not being manipulative or controlling as leaders – as God is not manipulative or controlling – and allowing people room (“brave spaces” (171)), whether this be by not micro-managing, by treating everyone the same, or by allowing theological space to wander and ‘wrestle with God’. The essays advocate teaching people to accept the agency that comes with freedom, and to take brave responsibility for an emerging future that takes injustice seriously (156).
Leaders as liberators (249)
The approaches in this book press up against the reality that many people, a great number of whom self-identify as Christians (and millions of voters in some countries) are evidently drawn to either being or supporting ‘alpha’-style, bullying leaders who tell them what they want to hear, take on all the responsibility of an organisation, and sometimes appeal to their basest instincts and fears. Several of the essays take on the American political context as one example and explore the meaning and value of democracy. How do we listen to and understand (rather than simply dismiss) people who demonstrate the desire to support such leaders, and how can open, relational leaders, like God, lovingly “lure” (152) rather than force people towards long term benefit rather than what is easiest in the short term? How can they demonstrate a belief in a “democracy of revelation”? (34)
The approaches to leadership processes based on open and relational theology offered in this book offer ways of developing a loving culture of shared, self-giving leadership for both those with ‘official’ leadership roles and those who lead outside of those roles. They lend themselves to taking a mindful responsibility for adopting a (personal and corporate) relational rhythm of sometimes listening and sometimes speaking, sometimes carrying others forward (leading) and sometimes being carried (following) on the wave of the emerging, hopeful future as it is co-created. Working with others and with God (rather than for (206)), we can “[learn] to cooperate to make something beautiful in the world” (152). With open and relational theology the future is not pre-determined so what we do really matters in terms of agency and responsibility.
It seems to makes sense, then, that this would lead to team approaches to leadership roles, so that one person is not carrying the ‘Heroic Leader’ burden, (nor even the ‘servant leader’ burden) alone, and is not left vulnerable to the personality and faith distortions such a role, even with a humble attitude, can create. This approach to leadership as a power rather than a role itself bears a kinship to ‘collaborative sensemaking’ leadership models and practices (see Caudwell, 2014 for example).
In her contribution to the book, Libby Tedder Hugus best captures this sharing of leadership in her description of a ‘birthing team’. She continues:
“community organizers follow a model of leadership that defines a leader as anyone who invites another to the table. The table may represent a shared goal or need, or a shared community or identity” (62).
“a shared kind of power that engages the capacity, ability and willingness of others to act cooperatively” (63)
and she describes this as “kin-dom” (63), as distinct from kingdom.
Many of the contributors indicate further reading on open and relational theology, and leadership that shares its values. For the theology itself, Thomas Jay Oord’s ‘The Uncontrolling Love of God’ and his newest ‘God Can’t’ are good places to start.