What does the biblical witness have to say about leadership in a time of institutional decline and cultural upheaval? What insight might the Bible offer to give grounding to those called to innovate within the institutions of the church? 
In exploring answers to these questions, I have been drawn more and more into the Old Testament literature of the exile. Most recently I have found the book of Ezekiel and the vision experienced by Ezekiel, described in Ezek. 37:1–14, a compelling text to reflect on these questions.
The literature of the exile speaks powerfully into our situation as a metaphor for the cultural context in which the church of the West in particular is now called to live out the gospel. Not that we should overplay this comparison. For Israel the exile was a catastrophe of immense suffering and loss; the loss of land, culture and institutions is accompanied by the reality of a huge loss of life – exile brings a new and challenging reality but also invokes an experience of trauma that needs to be acknowledged. Similarly, the exile metaphor must not devalue the pain and trauma of modern exiles, asylum seekers and refugees, whose dislocation and loss is a daily experience of pain and injustice.
Nevertheless, in exploring exile as a metaphor for our experience as the church in the West, we can connect with an experience of dislocation, disorientation and even despair that characterised the experience of those wondering how to “sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land”  in Babylon in the sixth century BC. Walter Brueggemann describes this as a “sense of the loss of a structured, reliable ‘world’ where treasured symbols of meaning are mocked and dismissed”.  It is fundamentally a world where the shaping story is no longer our story; indeed, a world without any agreed sense of a shaping story. It is also a post-Christian world, not just in the sense that the western world has moved on from the Christian story as a foundation for communal, cultural and political life, but that its life is often expressed in contradiction to this story that in a variety of ways is now discredited and dismissed. It is in this context that the church experiences a kind of exile for which the literature of the Old Testament exile provides powerful connections and insight.
In this article I want to explore the leadership of Ezekiel as a model for Christian leadership today. The vision that Ezekiel receives in the valley of dry bones acts as a focus, a concentrated image, to bring his witness to our attention and allow it to offer insight to our own task as leaders in our own contexts. The article will therefore use the framework of this vision as it unfolds to offer some reflections on the nature of leadership and innovation.
Honest engagement with the reality of exile
The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry.
By the time we get to the vision of chapter 37, Ezekiel’s life has come to embody the story and experience of exile. He was born in Jerusalem at a time of hope and reform. It was the year that the book of the Law had been rediscovered: an event that appears to have energised and encouraged the programme of reforms of King Josiah.  Ezekiel was also born into a priestly family. From his first moments of life a vocation within the traditional priestly institution of Israel was anticipated, and he was nurtured and trained for such a role. However, this stability and predictability was thrown into disarray by the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians during the reign of Jehoiakin in 597BC. The first wave of Babylonian exiles, some 10,000 members of the nobility, priestly, military and skilled classes, were deported. Among them was Ezekiel.
The institutions of the Temple and the priesthood had directed Ezekiel’s life, shaped his mind and heart, and given him identity, status and purpose. His experience of exile is emblematic of the experience of the whole community, dislocated from the city of Jerusalem, the Temple, the rhythms and rituals of social, political and religious life, and divorced from the symbols of the assurance of God’s presence among them and their status as his covenant people.
It is as an exiled priest that Ezekiel heard a call to a new ministry as prophet to Israel. “Among the exiles by the Kebar river”  he sees overwhelming visions of God and is sent back “in bitterness and in the anger of my spirit, with the strong hand of the Lord on me”  to speak the word of God to the beleaguered house of Israel in Babylon. Ezekiel’s call confronts him with the pain of exile and the loss of his own vocation, future and status. This call is a personal death, evoking feelings of bitterness and anger as he returns to his community. But it is only in this personal confrontation with the death of his identity, status and purpose that Ezekiel is able to bring hope and a faithful vision of renewal to Israel. Dying to his own assumptions and attachments to a particular course for his own calling enables Ezekiel to confront the reality of death for the whole community. This is what happens as the vision of Ezekiel 37 begins with this extraordinary tour of the valley of dry bones.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the visual force of an overview of the valley “full of bones” would have enough of an impact. Yet we are told the Spirit leads Ezekiel back and forth among them. Why? A significant reason is that Ezekiel, walking up and down the rows and rows of bones in this vast valley, is enacting the critical importance of lament in the process of renewal. Confronting and articulating the reality of the death of what has gone is the first step in the journey towards renewal and innovation. That is what lament does – it provides a form that can enable us to make the journey from despair to hope, from loss to new life. And it does so, not by shirking or avoiding the pain of loss, but by engaging with it and using it.
Loss is crucial for renewal and innovation for loss is personal and transformative. It arrests us to the limitations of our own hopes and plans for renewal and confronts us with a new and often more challenging perspective on our predicament. It also stalls us, stopping us in our tracks long enough and profoundly enough to create the kind of space in which new ideas can emerge – ideas less tainted by our own ego, and liberated from vain hopes of a return to the past.
A dream or a vision has to die. Leadership in our own exilic context therefore needs to be the sort of courageous leadership that confronts and names the losses, that fosters “communities of honest sadness”.  That means taking time to walk among the bones of our situation, the reality of decline, the truth of the dismissive context and the discredited position we start from as a religious institution in a post-Christian society. It means recognising and detailing the losses. It means telling stories that are true even though they are tough, not resorting to false stories that shore up hopes of restoration and return rather than renewal and innovation. Stories of harsh reality, rather than depressing us further, actually open up the possibility of a way forward, making it possible to move on well and begin to create alternative possibilities. As Lee Beach says:
[D]efining reality is an act of empowerment, because it orients people in a way that allows them to proceed with the facts as they currently stand. Without this act of truth telling, a legitimate hope can never emerge. 
Leading from a place of relinquishment
He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
Emerging from the tour of the bones, Ezekiel is asked a question. Is it rhetorical? After all, surely the point of the detailed inspection of the bones was to press home the emphatic reality of the situation for Israel. There was no going back. The military solution was a dead end. Responding to those voices urging patience and awaiting some kind of restoration of the fortunes of Israel, Ezekiel is silent, and falls instead on the wisdom and initiative of God.
This posture is one that might be described as relinquishment and, like naming loss, is a precursor to renewal and innovation. The key characteristics of this posture of relinquishment are described by Ezekiel’s answer – “Sovereign Lord, only you know”; they are humility, restraint and attentiveness. These elements characterise a posture and spirituality for leadership that offers hope and renewal in the context of exile.
“Sovereign Lord” is a phrase used throughout the book of Ezekiel. It subverts our tendency to co-opt God to our own plans and purposes. Properly, it is a term of worship, a restatement of the right order of our allegiances. It is the testimony of Ezekiel that God is free to be who he will be. He will not be used.
This is a huge challenge to our own very utilitarian culture, where everything must have its purpose and its use. Ministry and leadership suffer from the same malaise, under pressure from ourselves and those we are accountable to, to generate results, outcomes, returns. “Sovereign Lord” as a worship statement is the practice that moves us beyond utilitarian images of God to one that embraces the uncertainty of his initiative and will. We move to a place beyond enterprise or fantasy and beyond working harder at the same things in the hope of achieving better results.
“… only you know.” Restraint is related to humility. It concerns knowing the limitations of our leadership and ministry. One of the great pressures of leadership is to be a fount of knowledge. There is a fear inherent in saying “I don’t know”. While the western tradition has been influenced by the Enlightenment’s pursuit of knowledge, the Orthodox church in the East has maintained a greater tradition of openness and acceptance towards not knowing. This apophatic approach works its way into a leadership posture that embraces rather than resists the human limitations of our leadership. This in turn evokes greater participation and responsibility among those we lead. And that opens up space for creativity and for a more diverse set of responses to common issues and challenges.
Knowledge and competence are at the heart of the way we train leaders in the western church. While these are important, they need to be balanced by a value for character, faith, wisdom and maturity. Steve Addison points out that the phenomenal growth in the Methodist movement tips into decline around the same time that the movement began formally educating people for leadership.  The implication is clear – training people to be experts in certain forms of knowledge as a basis for leadership may have the collateral effect of reducing the churches’ capacity to adapt and innovate into new contexts. Without a kind of holy restraint in the light of God’s sovereignty and our own human limitation, we shouldn’t be surprised to get a church of human enterprise rather than divine surprise.
Restraint relates closely to attentiveness. For in surrendering our attachment to knowledge as a means of control, our commitment is directed by a conviction that “only you know”. We become leaders whose primary task is the seeking of God’s knowledge and will. John V Taylor wrote that “the prophets and apostles were obsessed by divine revelation or the lack of it; we are obsessed by human response or the lack of it”. 
We foster attentiveness through another restraint implicit in this short answer from Ezekiel: the restraint of speech. It is the silent refrain from speech, and the focus of our silent attention on God, that allow an attentiveness to the presence of God to grow.
Yet even this can be open to exploitation. Attentiveness does not earn the right for leaders to speak in the manner of Moses descending from the holy mountain. The role of our attentiveness is to foster attentiveness in others. Twice in the book of Ezekiel God charges him as a “watchman” for the house of Israel.  The role assigned to him is to watch and to warn. To watch, to hear God’s voice, to speak it and then to leave the people to respond in their own responsibility. In other words, the role of watchman is to point people to the source of that which you have been called to be attentive to. The leader cannot be faith for people, cannot be responsible for what people do in their own response to the presence of God; she can only watch, listen and point those she leads to the same presence, the same voice that is the basis of her life and leadership.
This posture of relinquishment described by this response of Ezekiel is part of the foundation for the vision of renewal that will now be given. But too often these attitudes, a mixture of character, posture and spirituality, are skated over. We are in a hurry to renew, to innovate and reimagine and hope that a course, a conference or a book will provide a short cut to what we long for. Ezekiel’s witness is clear. We must lead renewal from a place of relinquishment, recognising that the revelation of God for his people must be our primary source of knowledge for the way forward.
Creating the space for participative response
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”
So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet – a vast army.
Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”
Ezek. 37: 4–14
As this prophecy unfolds, an unfolding dialogue between God’s instruction and Ezekiel’s response, it is clear that there is a poetic drive and rhythm to its language and structure. Repeated motifs and repeated words offer insight into the interpretation of the passage. The structure of the passage can be laid out schematically like this:
“Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy… and say’” (v4)
Oracle of hope (I will x 4) (vv5,6)
“Then you will know that I am the Lord”(v6b)
“So I prophesied as I was commanded”(v7)
Oracle of hope fulfilled (vv7b–8)
“Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy…and say’” (v9)
Oracle of instruction (v9b)
“that you may live” (v9c)
“So I prophesied as he commanded me” (v10a)
Oracle of instruction fulfilled (v10b)
A vast army! = the people of Israel whose hope is gone (v11)
“‘Therefore prophesy and say’” (v12a)
Oracle of hope (I will x 7) (vv12b,13,14)
“Then you will know that I the Lord has spoken” (14b)
The arrangement shows how the passage divides into three distinct sections, each propelled by the phrase “prophesy… and say”. The first two sections then follow with the content of the prophecy or prophetic act. This is followed by the consequence, “that you will know that I am the Lord (v6)”, “that you may live” (v9c). Then Ezekiel carries out the instructions he has been given and they are fulfilled.
The third section however breaks with the first two in a couple of significant ways. Firstly, the scene of the vision moves from the battlefield to the graveyard. As it does, the vision makes clear that this vast army, without hope, is nothing less than “the people of Israel”. In other words, the focus for any blame, or indeed hope, is not an institution, be it the army or the priesthood or the royal dynasty. The focus for hope must be in a collective rediscovery of what it means to be the people of God. The hope for Israel lies not in revitalised structures of power but in the renewal of identity and purpose.
This point is then reinforced and built on by the second break in structure in this last section. In the first two sections of the vision, the consequence of the prophecy, “that you will know…”, “that you may live” is immediately followed by Ezekiel’s enacting of the instructions and their fulfilment. In the final section, this does not take place – instead, the passage comes to an end, as though leaving a space into which someone may come and carry out the prophecy that has been given. Who will be that someone? Surely the invitation is for it to be “the people of Israel”, stepping into their identity and purpose as the renewed people of God. Here then is an invitation for all Israel into the same dynamic participative relationship with God that Ezekiel models in the first two sections.
What is playing out in the renewal of Israel through the exile is the invitation to choose God over and against the lure of institutional power and authority. The way of restoration was imagined as a reinstatement of these fundamental constructs of Israel’s life. But the passage makes it clear that this route is blocked. The only means of restoration is through a more creative and risky process of renewal, trusting in the person of God and his renewing Spirit.
This trust dynamic between the person of God and the institution that has grown to represent and enable the witness of his people is of course the one we wrestle with today. And all the more so because of the way in which western culture has exiled religious institutions to a peripheral place in society. Might it be that we in the western church have for too long lived out our faith in the context of institution that has, by and large, spoken and acted on our behalf, through its representatives, the clergy? And might it be that we too, in the context of exile, are being invited to a deeper trust and participation, as a whole people, in the renewing work that God has for us? John V Taylor explored this same dynamic years ago. He asked what kind of structure fosters a participative life in the Spirit and guards against the tendency towards intuitionalism and control. Taylor argues that the answer lies in the testimony of the early church, which displays a consistent participative quality throughout the New Testament. This can be seen in the word allelon, “one another”, which punctuates the New Testament “like a peal of bells”. 
Taylor goes on to argue that “the ideal shape of the church is such as will provide [this] ‘one-anotherness’ with the least possible withdrawal of Christians from their corporateness with their fellow-men in the world”.  That size and shape will therefore likely be small – small enough to allow for “one-another-ing” within and protecting against the alienating effect that large structuring inevitably brings. Taylor therefore argues for the renewal of the “little congregations” as a shape and size of church that is better able to embody the participative spirit of the early churches’ witness of allelon.
I would argue too that it is in that smallness of form that the church is better able to foster an attentiveness of the whole community to the leading of God’s Spirit.
Being small and communal in the context of a particular network or neighbourhood guards against the way in which the church so easily delegates the call to listen to the Spirit at work in the world to a cohort of experts or professionals. Our “one-another-ing” must extend into the community or context we are present in so that the whole community is engaged in the spiritual task of listening for the signs of God’s Spirit at work. Again Taylor sums this up by saying that “it is the ‘little congregations’ which must become normative if the church is to respond to the Spirit’s movement in the life of the world”. 
Consequently our leadership must be one that sees participation as a key indicator of a healthy community. The default indicator of numerical growth seems sometimes more akin to the modern economist’s fixation on GDP as an indicator of progress. As with GDP, numerical growth is not value neutral. If growth inhibits the key value of allelon then it inhibits the church’s ability to listen attentively to the Spirit, both within the community and in the world. The longer-term effects of this will be decline in adaptability and the potential to innovate. And in a constantly changing social context, this cannot be ignored.
Creating the space for the innovative power of the Holy Spirit
Creative renewal for Israel will come about therefore if they respond to the invitation to participate as a whole community in the new life that God is offering, rather than delegating this trust to the old institutions. However, this must come in partnership with a renewed reliance on the work of God’s Holy Spirit.
The presence of the Spirit is a theme that weaves its way through the whole of the vision of the valley of dry bones. The passage is saturated with God’s Spirit. The Hebrew word ruach, usually translated “Spirit”, is used no less than 10 times in this 14-verse passage. There are two things in particular worth noting about the testimony of the Spirit in this passage.
Firstly, the coming of the Spirit is meant to signal not just renewal, but resurrection. The first stage of the vision results in a resuscitated army whose bones have been refurnished with tendons and flesh but who lack one thing: breath (ruach, v8). As the vision continues, the word ruach is invoked no fewer than five times in just three verses (vv9–11), translated variously “wind”, “breath”, “breathe” and “Spirit”, and the army is then reanimated and stands up in a new kind of life.
But what is this new kind of life? Is it a resuscitated life? A return to the past? I suggest the passage invites us to see this as resurrection. The two-fold process of reconstruction and reanimation reminds us of the second creation narrative, where matter is first given form and then given “breath”.  This clear echo of creation then invokes a foretaste of re-creation, of resurrection. Here we are in a place of bones and hopelessness, outside a city governed by foreign and pagan forces, and in which the people of Israel are displaced and struggling to assert their identity and autonomy. And here a process of re-creation is described, just as John describes the resurrection of Jesus as a re-creation process and has Jesus’ first act on appearing to the disciples as that of breathing the Spirit into them. 
Chris Wright therefore comments:
The most significant echo of Ezekiel 37 comes in a locked room on the very evening of his resurrection, when, we read, “he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” The Lord of life himself, freshly risen to his feet from where he had lain among the bones of the dead, adopts simultaneously the posture of Ezekiel in summoning the breath of God, and the posture of God himself in commanding the breath of the Spirit to come upon the disciples. 
The vision therefore propels Israel forward, urges them to avoid nostalgic visions of restoration and begins to imagine renewal as a radically new thing that God will do with the elements of the old to resurrect Israel into a people of the future.
A new kind of leadership
This refounding of the mission of the people of Israel, therefore, invites a new kind of leadership: one that enables the stewarding of the participation of the whole community in the life of the Spirit; one that is committed to avoiding the controlling and over-organising tendencies of heavy institution. There is something about the language used to describe the work of the Spirit in this vision that points to the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of the Spirit. The word ruach is multivalent and fluid, playful and indistinct, sometimes noun (e.g. breath, wind) and at points verb (breathe). It is as though the language of the Spirit is itself inviting a leadership that is humble and more peripheral in the light of this new initiative of God’s Spirit, which in its form cannot be too closely defined. It invites a leadership less in thrall to strategies, plans, outcomes and measurables; after all, as Taylor puts it, “the Holy Spirit does not appear to have read the rubric”. 
I suggest there are two key characteristics that will help to describe the nature the kind of leadership needed to participate in the innovating work of the Holy Spirit. They are discernment and stewardship.
Innovative leadership will value revealed knowledge as much, if not more, than received knowledge. It will place huge emphasis on seeking the leading and wisdom of the Spirit in community. Consequently, discernment becomes a key task of leadership. It is not the task of the leader to roll out the predetermined, pre-packed plan over a fixed term, using the community as resource to achieve this. Instead, it is the leader’s task to model a discipline of attentiveness to God’s Spirit as a means of discerning where the Spirit is at work and how the community can participate. Our images of leadership may need to change therefore from the hero or CEO to the sage, from the likes of Jason Bourne or Warren Buffett to those of Dumbledore or Gandalf – leaders who may well be noted for their absence rather than their presence, but whose discerning wisdom gently guides and affirms those participating in the drama of God’s Kingdom life.  The differentiation of these leaders from the need to be at the centre of things, driving the agenda, makes for a space in which attentiveness to the Spirit and discernment for the direction of the community can flourish.
This places a much greater emphasis on the character and spirituality of leadership rather than on strategic ability or natural authority. A vision for charismatic innovation invites a leadership that can foster the creativity and initiative of a whole community through prayer, discernment and wise guidance.
This leads to the second characteristic – of stewardship. Leadership that fosters the innovation of the Spirit will be leadership that stewards the context and resources of the Christian community to enable the flourishing of its life and mission. The role of the leader can be understood, Graham Tomlin suggests, as one whose call is to bless the church, not in some top-down pseudo-magical way, but in the biblical sense of fostering its vocation as a community called to bless the world.  This will be expressed as stewardship, as the careful encouragement, affirmation and guidance of individuals and a community to fulfil their potential in the vocation that God has given them. Tomlin, drawing on the early church father Basil the Great’s writing on priesthood, points to two metaphors for such leadership: the gardener and the parent.  Both are concerned with stewarding the best environment for growth and work with the context and resources at hand to enable the flourishing of life. Both are founded on a deep trust in the life already at work, either in the soil, the plant or the person. In the same way, leaders whose aim is to foster innovation in the church must take their place more humbly and peripherally in a space, trusting that the wind of the Spirit is already present and at work to foster creativity and innovation, and enabling the church to fulfil its call to be a blessing to the world.
Ezekiel’s journey through the valley of dry bones and the vision he receives embody a journey towards a leadership that can foster the creative power and insight of the Holy Spirit at work in the world and in the body of Christ. Such a journey begins with an honest confrontation with what has died, and an accompanying relinquishment of hubris and human-centred enterprise, which is so often the default mode of the people of God when it is allowed to settle into a position of power.
The presence and primary initiative of the Holy Spirit invites a leadership that creates space for participation in the church. This will mean careful stewarding of the nature of size of Christian community with the chief aim being that of participation in the life and work of the Spirit. This requires leaders with the humility and committed spirituality to lead from the edge rather than the centre: to be leaders for whom a key practice is discernment; to be leaders whose wise and often peripheral presence creates the kind of trusting and affirming space for people to cooperate with the renewing work of God’s Holy Spirit.
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 Elements of this article are adapted from Paul Bradbury, Home by Another Route (Abingdon: BRF, 2019 (forthcoming)).
 Ps. 137:4.
 Walter Brueggemann, Cadences of Home: Preaching Among Exiles (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 2.
 2 Kings 22.
 Ezek. 1:1.
 Ezek. 3:14.
 Brueggemann, Cadences of Home, 4.
 Lee Beach, The Church in Exile: Living in Hope After Christendom (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2015), 144.
 Steve Addison, Movements that Change the World (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 87–92.
 John V Taylor, The Go-Between God, 2nd edition (London: SCM Press, 2004), 69.
 Ezek. 3:17–21, 33:7–11.
 Taylor, The Go-Between God, 126.
 Taylor, The Go-Between God, 148.
 Taylor, The Go-Between God, 149.
 Gen. 2:7.
 John’s illusions to the creation framework for the resurrection are clear. We begin in a garden (19:41) on the first day of the week (20:1). Thus John interprets the resurrection as the first day of a new age in which the creation is being recreated and brought into its renewed identity and purpose within the sovereign will of God.
 Christopher J. H. Wright, The Message of Ezekiel: A New Heart and a New Spirit (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2001), 310.
 Taylor, The Go-Between God, 120.
 David Runcorn cites Gandalf and Dumbledore as model of a less anxious, more peripheral kind of leadership – “both bring the gifts of widely lived and well-processed experience. Both are significant mentors and guides to younger characters… both are able to function peaceably without being the centre of the action”. David Runcorn, Fear and Trust: God-centred Leadership (London: SPCK, 2011), 57.
 Graham Tomlin, The Widening Circle: Priesthood as God's Way of Blessing the World (London: SPCK, 2014).
 Tomlin, The Widening Circle, 148–152.