The Leading Edge of Church and Art

As a child, when teachers said I was “a natural leader,” I assumed it meant the same as when my brother and friends called me “bossy.” And, to an extent, I was right. In most definitions of leadership, the common thread is “mobilizing people toward a goal.” So, to lead – “Hey, let’s go this way!” – and to boss – “No, do it this way!” – are both about influencing the behavior of others for a purpose.

Today leadership is a buzzword in both education and vocation. Schools seek to “develop leaders for tomorrow” while young jobseekers are asked about their “leadership experience”.

I don’t remember leadership being such a prominent idea when I was a student and young professional 20+ years ago (except in the thinly veiled reference by teachers to a slightly bullying personality). Is leadership becoming more important in our day? Or is what we’re calling “leadership” different today than it was then?

In the arts, both are true. Arts production and presentation are changing, and new ways of working require knowledge, skills, and traits that weren’t necessary twenty years ago. But what’s now being called “arts leadership” is pretty much the same job that has been, and often still is, called “arts administration.”

I’m sure this rebranding came from arts leaders themselves. The people producing and presenting creative work aren’t simply relieving artists of tasks too menial and “left brain” for them to bother with (as more than one artist has described my administrative role). They are leading everyone involved toward a shared goal – creating works of art and sharing them with others. Sometimes that looks like writing press releases, running board meetings, and shaking hands at fundraising events. Other times it looks like dreaming up a big vision, rallying people around it, and inventing unique ways to share it with the world.

It even looks like making art. Most arts leaders are passionate about the arts because they are artists themselves. And few artists have the luxury of making art all day long while someone else builds a structure to present their work. Most artists need to “mobilize people” to build their own careers.

Yet the director of Australia’s Cultural Leadership Skills program bemoaned, “Some outstanding artists felt so uncomfortable about identifying themselves as leaders that we had to beseech them to apply for the new $20,000 grants for leadership development.” (Artery 15, p. 11) Is “leadership” such a repulsive idea that artists would refuse needed funding and helpful training, merely to avoid it?

In my work, I hear three recurring points of resistance to embracing arts leadership: the fear of losing an artistic identity; a reluctance to take responsibility for, or be accountable to, other people; and lack of skills or natural leadership ability.

Fortunately, in the church, we have solutions to those problems.

First, our identity is in Christ, so we have already relinquished any other earthly, professional identity. We have given our lives to God and know that he will equip us for any role into which he might call us – whether we’re “natural leaders” or not.

Second, in the church we are called to take responsibility for, and be accountable to, one another. We don’t get a pass on that, in our vocations or in our community life, no matter how uncomfortable it might make us. In the church we have a rich tradition of “servant leadership” that can be a model for us all.

Third, we have models of leaders – Moses, Deborah, David, Paul, Peter, James, Christ himself, and many more – who didn’t have MBAs and were often distinctly unqualified. Yet they did just fine in their leadership roles, with God’s help.

The church is uniquely positioned in the world of the arts to help fill the leadership gap. We already have answers to the three big objections keeping talented artists from becoming talented arts leaders. Whether we feel like leaders or not, we can mobilize people toward a shared goal of creating great art and offering it to others.

We leave it up to God to lead us toward the venue and context in which he’d have us serve. We can serve as arts leaders within the church, producing and presenting art that serves the mission of the individual church and its body. We can serve as arts leaders in our community, offering art that reflects our Christian beliefs. Or we can serve God in a secular arts organization by leading in a way that reflects our Christian values, and testifies to who we are and who we worship.

The arts need leadership. Vincent van Gogh’s paintings might still be stacked under his bed were it not for his art dealer brother who mobilized people into an entirely new way of seeing that changed art forever.

Imagine what we could do.


Luann Purcell Jennings is the founder and director of Church and Art Network, which is working to engage churches with communities through the arts, and engage churches with the arts through arts leadership. Luann is a twenty-year veteran of arts leadership, as a theatre director, artistic director and administrator; and as a staff member of two churches, including Redeemer Presbyterian Church (NYC) where she founded and ran the Arts Ministry within the esteemed Center for Faith and Work.  

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