The Christian leader as a helmsman

Although every member of the crew has a role to play, on a modern cruise ship ultimately it is the captain on the bridge who has the ultimately responsibility for the ship. It is the captain who decides the direction and the speed of the ship. In this respect vividly remember a talk given by a Cunard First Officer, who told us how on the bridge of a cruise liner those assisting the captain normally arrive on the bridge half-an-hour or so before they are due on duty, so as to ensure that their eyes get accustomed to the sight of the ocean before them. No electric lights are used on the bridge, for that would have a detrimental effect on the sight of those steering the ship.

In the ancient world the helmsman played a similar role to a modern sea captain. Significantly his role of piloting or steering the ship became a well-known metaphor for governance of the ship of state – helmsmanship became an image for the kind of leadership that guides a community through difficult times and challenges.

It is therefore not surprising that the Apostle Paul in his list of gifts of the Spirit in 1 Cor 12 draws upon this imagery of helmsmanship as a metaphor for leadership. For Paul in 1 Cor 12.28 notes that in the church there were those who had gifts of kubernesis: i.e. gifts of navigation and steersmanship.

Although the Authorised Version spoke of ‘governments’, the RSV and the original edition of the NIV translated the term respectively “administration” or “the gift of administration”. This, however, was unfortunate for it conjured up the image of clerical assistance involving ‘administrative skills’. J.B. Philips & Eugene Peterson similarly speak of “organisers”. Most modern translations, however, emphasise the leadership aspect of this gift and render the Greek term for helmsmanship as “forms of government” (NRSV), “power to guide” (REB), “guidance” (later versions of NIV), or ”those who are given power to direct” (GNB). Interestingly Anthony Thistleton in his commentary speaks of ‘the ability to formulate strategies’ ” (1 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical & Pastoral Commentary, 215). He comments:

“As a metaphor for a person who has a special gift for the whole church, it marks out one who has the capacity to steer or guide the chip of the church through crosscurrents, contrary winds, and hidden dangers. In positive terms, a pilot not only preserves the ship from disaster, but also steers it toward a goal. When picture in imagination, a perplexed or uncertain church seeking to perceive the direction in which they ought to go in God’s purpose needs as the person of the hour one who has ‘the ability to formulate strategies’: someone who can perceives what opportunities or dangers lie in this or that direction.”

Leaders keep their hands on the tiller and ensure that the ship is kept on course. In this respect John Gunstone, a former Anglo-Catholic priest, had some perceptive comments to make on this metaphor (see A People for His Praise, 39, 69):

“The leader… is the man at the helm. The gathering (i.e. the church) is driven along by the wind of the Spirit, but unless the leader’s hand is firmly on the tiller, there is every danger that the ship’s course may be deflected by the cross-currents of human emotions and ambitions that move not very far below the surface of the sea over which she sails.”

Gunstone went on to argue that this gift is basic to every pastor’s ministry:

“The spiritual gift of the ordained ministry is seen to be that of ‘presidency’ (i.e. helmsmanship’). He is not the one who has every spiritual gift necessary for the congregation….. But what he has above all is the charisma of leadership which enables him to preside over a congregation in its worship, life and mission, in such a way that he enables individuals and groups in that congregation to minister with the gifts that God gives them.”

Gunstone ended his exposition of this image by commenting that a ship with no one at the helm is a frightening place to be. How right he was. Just think of the Costa Concordia!

Another thought is that in a storm the helmsman often needs a good deal of strength to keep the ship on course. Although this may not be true of a modern cruise-liner where the ship can be controlled with the touch of a finger; in an old-fashioned sailing boat, a degree of strength and toughness is certainly needed by the person at the helm.

One thing for certain: leadership is not optional, but a necessity, for a church to move forward leaders are needed who have the gift of ‘helmsmanship’.

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