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Position Vacant

As Joel Edwards completes his 11year stint as general director of the Evangelical Alliance (EA), Andy Peck asks what qualities and experience would be needed if the EA is to build on his legacy.

I was in West Bromwich of all places representing ‘Christianity’ at a Willow Creek Association UK leadership conference. Joel Edwards, then the general director of the Evangelical Alliance, was sharing the speaking with heavyweights from the US: Bill Hybels, then senior pastor of Willow Creek, Chicago and author and retired pastor, Gordon MacDonald.  Joel’s message was electric: Bible based, great anecdotes, laugh out loud funny, moving, personal, refreshing, powerful, in short, a compelling presentation of the importance of evangelical unity in our day, and though different from the excellent offerings from our friends from across the Atlantic, easily in the same league.

Then on 7/7 2005, I was at London School of Theology for the debate sparked by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann’s book, ‘The Lost Message of Jesus’.  I was asked by Premier Radio to see if Joel along with two others would say some words after the terrorist bombs had left many Londoners in fear. Somehow he found measured words that spoke of the love and mercy of God, while not minimising the evil of those perpetrating crime. He urged restraint in tainting all Muslims with the same brush, and urged Christians to pray for peace and that justice would be done.

As Joel Edwards leaves the Evangelical Alliance for his next challenge, after 11 years, that old cliché, ‘hard act to follow’ seems especially apt, words no doubt also uttered when Clive Calver handed over to Joel in 1997.

But someone will follow. And as leadership vacuums give everyone a chance to check the direction, and focus of the organisation we lead, Christianity is asking, what sort of person is required for the next leg of the journey for this 162-year-old movement?

The indispensable Cs

The aforementioned Hybels writes about the 3Cs in his book, ‘Courageous Leadership’ and they provide useful markers for the sort person needed: character, competence and chemistry. The character qualities are of course indispensable for any leadership: check out the apostle Paul’s direction in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3 on the qualities a church leader needs: someone in whom the Spirit of God has worked and is working in, conforming them to Christ.

Competence is of course a ‘can you do the job’ word and will relate to how the EA views the sort of role he (or she, but probably he!) will perform: something we will focus on later. He won’t need to hit the heights of the sort of performance Joel gave at West Bromwich, but in an evangelical world that still values monologues, you would imagine that at the very least he would be conference standard. Linked is a competence in handling not just the Bible but theology, so he is not taken completely off guard when the next theological debate kicks off. Yet coupled with erudite speech and gravitas, an ability to listen carefully would also be a necessary trait: to the media and what they are asking, to fellow evangelicals, to younger evangelicals who may have nuances not easily spotted. He will also need competency in leadership: of the staff team, of the wider Council (of 70+), and the Movement as a whole; but at the same time not have designs on leadership per se – more of which later!

Chemistry is the hardest to define: Hybels speaks of how he feels when someone enters the room: you don’t want people thinking ‘oh no’! And so chemistry will matter within his team within the EA, and those with which he engages more regularly. In an evangelical world where people are known according to which ‘camp’ or ‘tribe’ they are perceived to belong to, it would be a must that previous affiliations would not mean that the chemistry in question is toxic! No one minds someone having convictions, but bad mouthing the opposition with little appreciation of their viewpoint would be a skeleton in the cupboard that might come back to bite them.

Leader, Figurehead or Fireman?

You cannot talk about the role of the general director of the Evangelical Alliance without checking what it is that the Evangelical Alliance is and does. Its stated mission focus is clear enough: ‘Uniting Evangelicals to present Christ credibly as good news for spiritual and social transformation’. Its purpose includes, in its words:

  1.  To provide a prophetic and evangelical voice in the public square
  2. To motivate, mobilise and equip evangelicals as they engage in spiritual and social transformation as active citizens
  3. To convene, catalyse, and engage with evangelicals for effective action best delivered altogether in promoting unity and truth
  4. To service the strategic interests of Evangelical Alliance members

It is no surprise that the outworking of this mission on the ground is tough: 1 may be possible but 2, 3 and 4 are fraught with difficulty. Is the Evangelical Alliance set up to enable this? The truth is that the EA is at heart an alliance of individuals, and groups with their own agendas and there is a not a thing they can (or choose?) to do about it. Agendas between affiliated groups within the EA compete and the EA seeks to bring harmony. For example they worked hard to ensure that the various groups in the theological debate concerning the atonement could hear one another. Yet one of the sad outcomes of the debate is that some time after the debate, UCCF inspired a split from Spring Harvest’s Word Alive week and then set up their own event ‘New Word Alive’: hardly ‘effective action best delivered ‘Altogether’. Also, it is sad to observe local situations, where churches are formed from splits from other fellow evangelicals, but in time given the cloak of respectability by being ‘affiliated to the EA’.

If leadership is ‘influence’ as leadership ‘expert’, John Maxwell would suggest, then clearly the gen dir of the EA has great opportunity to influence. But the sort of leadership they are used to: (in a church, para church, charity, or in the marketplace) is unlikely to work within the sort of constituency of 7000 churches and 750 churches (amounting to maybe 1m evangelicals), who are affiliated. Church leaders are unlikely to look to him as their leader – they are more likely to look to their denominational head, or new church stream leader (if they are also so affiliated ) or to the leaders and opinion formers of the networks they are part of: eg. Proclamation Trust, New Wine. In practise most independents pick and mix their ‘influences’ and will only buy into ‘EA’ if they wish to. Hence EA , and the gen dir , is in the unenviable position of having something of a vantage point on which to view the battle but lacking the real clout to direct operations, like a general who has no real understanding of what the regiments are doing, or about to do.

So at one time the general director is a leader rallying the troops, at another ‘a figurehead’ representing a ‘united’ Movement to the world, and at another time a fireman, throwing water (which may seem like petrol?) on fires that have been started by its members: Joel would probably say that there are days when he was all three. All of which means you want a Churchill and a Gandhi and a Mandela and all in the same person.

Serving or Competing?

All of which brings us to the key question any general director of the EA needs to face, within its present role – the extent to which it acts independently and the extent to which this action is competing with the very members which pays its salary. In some respects the presence of the Evangelical Alliance acts rather like a route way around a city. Its presence enables groups to move quickly without having to go back to basics. It is vital that it is there and many take it for granted that they were able to move from A to B so quickly. The EA general  director helps ensure that groups are able to travel well, have vehicles suited for the journey, invites others to join the journey, and on hopefully rare occasions, that others leave. It is behind the scenes, one on one, ‘should I say this?’ ‘how much should I say?’ type of work . There’s no round of applause for this work but it is vital for evangelical unity.

But this service can conflict with its need to raise finance and demonstrate that it is making progress. Having a presence in the Media costs money, theological research costs money – it needs our support to accomplish its task. But it needs to take great care lest its activities and products compete with the very members it seeks to represent. An entrepreneurial style leader naturally wants to see ‘results’ in what he or she is able to accomplish. But we have noted that the sort of influence the general director wields may not have easily measured outcomes and would drive a classic entrepreneur bananas.

Mark Landreth-Smith, senior leader of Beacon Church, Camberley Surrey says: “The challenge facing the EA now, given supposed declining traditional church attendance, potential fracture within Anglicanism and the threat of radical Islam, is huge. But the opportunity for a new Son of Issachar (who understands the times) is also great.  What is needed is a new man of clarity, wisdom and winsomeness to be raised up – I am quite confident this will happen.”

The ‘E’ word

But perhaps the toughest requirement is that the new leader works through the difficulties associated with the word ‘evangelical’. The EA’s reverence for the historic theological position it adopts is laudable, but the ‘man in the street’ and increasingly the man and woman in the pew doesn’t hear ‘evangelical’ and think, ‘salvation by grace through faith: wonderful!’ They think: ‘narrow, bigoted, gay hating Bible thumpers’.

So this becomes especially tricky in its media role. Many members recognise that a main role is to go into bat when issues are raised by secularists, atheists, pluralists and the like,  and the Christian wicket needs defending.  But outrageous as it sounds, it is not fanciful to imagine that a day may come when speaking ‘as an evangelical’ is viewed with the same ire as someone today who speaks ‘as a Nazi’.

“I think the EA has to decide what it exists for. The vision, mission and purpose statement on the website doesn’t give me enough clarity about why we need it or where it’s going,” says, Pete Broadbent, bishop of Willesden.

“Any new General Director is going to have to address these questions. Joel has done a great job in terms of raising the public profile of Christian faith, but there are some major challenges:

  • Whom does EA represent? Probably not evangelical Anglicans; probably not the Black Majority and International churches…
  • Is ‘evangelical’ becoming a dirty word? – we are often perceived as homophobic, bigoted and backward!
  • Is there a need for a coalition built wider than the small world of evangelicals – a coalition of orthodox Christians?”

But this is not just of immediate concern: the evangelical constituency is ageing. The average age, according to The English Church Census (2005) is 42 with Ministers on average aged 52, and the instincts of the younger generation of Christians within evangelicalism are not perceived as being warm towards the word ‘evangelical’. Many are joining ‘emerging church communities’. In the next decade we will discover whether emerging church is reshaping the church landscape and reaching communities, or a philosophy with no widespread momentum.

Jacky Oliver, team leader, Generation Church, Ewell, Surrey believes reaching this generation is important: “The leader needs to be able to understand and shape the debate with the younger generation. To build on Joel’s legacy the EA has to, continue to hold to core values of the Christian Faith and yet be secure enough to retain an ability to adventure, explore, challenge and be inclusive of the marginalised. The future depends on resisting any tendency to default into a siege mentality or becoming an outdated institution.”

Who will it be?

At this stage in the EA’s history, the new general director will be a significant appointment (it was ever thus!). Its role is limited in scope, as we have seen, but that doesn’t mean that the right one couldn’t further strengthen the unity and sense of purpose that has been built in recent years. Equally, sensitivities are such that in the wrong hands, the hard won ground of understanding Joel and others have brought, could be put back: there is enough rancour and division around, sadly to employ a team of fire fighters.  He (or she) faces considerable challenges of developing and mobilising new and younger evangelical leaders if the Alliance is to thrive in the next decades. Yes Joel will be a hard act to follow. But we know that God specialises in doing a new thing, and will equip whoever it is with all that’s necessary for the vital task.


Founded in 1846, the Evangelical Alliance(EA) is one of a worldwide network of national alliances constituting the World Evangelical Alliance and is a member of the European Evangelical Alliance. In the UK, the Evangelical Alliance works in partnership with the African and Caribbean Evangelical Alliance and Global Connections

Under a former general director, Clive Calver (1983-1997) it saw a resurgence in size from 1,000 individual members in 1983 to 56,000 in mid-90s, and from less than 1,000 churches to 3,000 in the same time span. Today it includes 7000 churches and 750 organisations. Its income and expenditure in 2007 were around £2.5m. Many who work within other European countries speak positively of the degree of unity that exists in the UK amongst believers across the denominations.

Andy Peck is a former deputy editor of Christianity magazine, with additional reporting by John Buckeridge.

The ideal candidate!

  • The preaching ability of a Steve Gaukroger or Steve Brady
  • The theological nous of a David Hilborne or an Elaine Storkey
  • The broad appeal of a Hugh Osgood or a Rob Parsons
  • The grasp of the younger generation of a Krish Kandiah or a Pete Greig
  • The networking skills of a Lyndon Bowring or a Russ Rook
  • The strategic focus of a Steve Chalke or a Terry Virgo