Andrew White is a favorite speaker at Wheaton College, and he was with us again last week. He is an Anglican priest whose parish is in downtown Baghdad. Yes, Iraq. He's affectionately called the "Vicar of Baghdad," and it's a rough job: In the past ten years, some 1,200 of his church members have been killed. When he travels on pastoral visits, he is accompanied by a couple truckloads of armed guards. Just in case.
I've heard Canon White address our students now three times. And in every case he ends the talk with his pastoral mantra. The students know it so well, they finish it before he can.
White tells how many times people caution him while he's in Iraq. They say "Take care." It annoys him; taking care is the last thing he wants to do. So he thunders to all 2,600 of our students, "Don't take care . . ." and they chime in: "Take risks." He currently has a Wheaton graduate as his personal assistant. One of my students, Sally, may join him this summer as an intern. Imagine telling your parents that your 2014–15 summer internship will be in Baghdad. "But don't worry—the church will supply armed men."
As I walked back to my office after another Canon White chapel, I began to think about risk-takers and how important they are to the vitality of the church, or any organization: a ministry, a college, perhaps any gathering that desires to have vision. We need risk-takers. Sometimes they're called prophets. Andrew White is both a risk-taker and a prophet. And like most biblical prophets, he lives large—and dangerously. He is quite happy to speak boldly and forthrightly about what he believes. He is not a cautious man.
It seems most organizations have a variety of leaders who serve somewhere along a continuum between what I call "custodians" and "prophets."
Custodians and Prophets
Let's be clear: Prophets can be annoying. They look at the status quo and wonder why it can't be different. They are impatient for change and are driven by a vision for something better, something clearer, than the rest of us normally see. Perhaps like the biblical prophets, they are driven by a vision for justice or compassion or righteousness that compels them to take risks in order to sound the alarm or heighten the community's consciousness. They like change. And they work even subversively in order to enact it. Some of our greatest social reformers—Wilberforce, say, or King—were prophets. The same is true within the church. In their day Luther and Wesley were nothing less than prophetic.
Custodians, meanwhile, maintain the order of things. They keep the lights on and the trains running on time (the very trains the prophets use daily). They value tradition and prefer a social environment where everyone shapes himself or herself around a mission that has been working smoothly for years. They are risk-averse. In fact, they hire professional "risk managers" to keep an eye on things. For custodians, change is less an opportunity than it is a threat. They look at the status quo and see first what they like and easily describe its critics as cynical or unhelpful. And yes, they do not like prophets. Custodians may want to build an expensive new building; prophets may ask why that money isn't given to the poor or sent to Nigeria instead.
Prophets at the extreme end of the continuum can be unhelpful, even destructive. Custodians at the other extreme will easily fossilize an organization. Healthy organizations need both. They need the stability, restraint, and caution of the custodians, as well as the vision, risk-taking, and energy of the prophets. Someone once told me: Steve Jobs at Apple? A technology prophet. Bill Gates at Microsoft? A technology custodian. I value both companies. But it was Apple that changed the world. I wonder if Microsoft keeps the world going round.