Manchester United is in a shambles, and I for one am glad. Gloating even. Being an Arsenal supporter the past twenty years has been bittersweet. Some victories over those evil geniuses, but way too many losses, especially in the last ten minutes of a match. And why has this happened? Well partly because of the ageing player list, partly because other teams such as Liverpool have been magnificent (sadly not Arsenal among that crew), but mostly, mostly, mostly because of Sir Alex Ferguson.
What? you say! Wasn’t he the most successful manager ever? Didn’t he win title after title, brook no rivals, rule with an iron fist, kick out anyone who wasn’t 100 per cent with him, and generally run the show, abuse the referees and demand – and get – whatever he wanted?
Yep to all of that. And Manchester United were a force to be reckoned with, always in the hunt for the title and the match, always winning games in extra time. Until this year. Until Ferguson left. Until Ferguson installed his anointed successor, David Moyes. David Moyes, who will go down in history as the John Major to Margaret Thatcher (as one London scribe put it). David Moyes, who will struggle to come back from this after spending a whole career virtually at Everton waiting for this moment. David Moyes, the only manager for whom Ferguson never had a bad word, never a fall-out, and who was always just one conversation away in the United boardroom from being touted as next manager. That’s what Ferguson wanted, and that’s what Ferguson got.
Pity it train wrecked Manchester United’s 2014 season.
So what has this to do with church leadership and church planting? Well this: Sir Alex Ferguson has shown us every way possible how not to plant a church. And he has shown us every way possible how to plant a church without any real idea of who could succeed him. Let’s face it, there are some really gifted Sir Alex Fergusons in the church planting world out there. They turn up and things happen. Big things happen. And whilst those big things are happening, lots of people get excited, the church grows quickly and heads the table going into the pointy end of the season. These Sir Alexes get things done, and that’s great. But often they get things done exactly the way Sir Alex got things done. By being the last word on everything. All of the time. Never brooking a difference of opinion. Racking up a body count who end up playing in the local leagues because they got burnt by the boss, or worse still, giving the game away entirely and only watching Match of the Day.
Church leaders like Sir Alex tend to have a vague succession plan in mind, but also lack the requisite people skills to attract the really great leaders who might continue their work. They tend to attract the “yes men” who know that getting the boss offside is a bad thing so they don’t do it. They tend to attract people whose skill level will never rise above theirs, one because it can’t, and two, because it daren’t! Sir Alex church leader types are inherently suspicious, resentful even, of those who are better than they are at something. Not openly, but often surreptitiously. They tend to overlook the really gifted because they are a little bit, dare I say, jealous?
Sir Alex Ferguson leader types are always talking about succession plans, but in their slightly narcissistic heart of hearts, no one is as good as they, so what they do is they go out and look for a shadow, a moon, a pale reflection of themselves. And often they will find that person hanging around already, always eager to step up, always eager to think they can do the job. Which of course they will probably have to because all of the really great leaders who once hung around, the ones who stood up to Sir Alex (CHURCH LEADER NAME INSERTED HERE) when he was getting it wrong, have gone off to plant their own gig, and raise their own team of leaders. Sir Alex types mistakenly believe that the way to attract a set of strong leaders around you is to be the uber-alpha male. This betrays a huge lack of insight. This betrays a fatal lack of self-understanding. Strong leadership flourishes around leaders who are not threatened by those who are better than they. Strong leadership flourishes around an equally strong leader who is not an alpha-male and doesn’t feel the need to always win at table-tennis during the lunch break, be the best preacher or be the one to come up with all of the great ideas (or take credit for them!).
It remains to be seen what will happen with Manchester United in 2015 (is hoping for relegation a bridge too far? – Ed), but it will take more than just a good manager. It will take a leader who can rebuild the team and the confidence within the boardroom. It will take a person who can attract the right leaders around him, and who can stand out from the shadow of Sir Alex and all his gifts.
And what does that teach us about church leadership? It tells us that when such a leader leaves a church there are no guarantees. No surety that relegation won’t follow. No proof – and plenty of evidence otherwise – that a vacuum won’t be left behind which the church struggles to fill, and for which the current second tier of leadership is ill-equipped to sort out. It’s tempting to be a Sir Alex, but if the year after you leave things have fallen in a heap in a church, then the finger pointing will begin. Oh, and it’s worth remembering that the Owner – unlike the disinterested Glazer family that owns Man Utd – has more than just money invested in its success.