Published by Jeremy Fagan on 12th September 2018

From the Chair: Developing Saints and Developing Heroes

_wsb_164x218_david10Too many years working in Business Schools have made me wary of discussions about ‘ethics’, which have often either entailed codes that are too boring to remember, or have attracted the attention of those who have big problems with behaving ethically. Of course this is unfair – there have been some pearls of excellent and thoughtful work on business ethics among the dross. But my negative attitude had spilled over and kept me from reading Sam Wells’ book ‘Improvisation: the Drama of Christian Ethics’[i]until this summer.

There are many different themes in the book that I would have liked to share with MODEM members, and they are interesting and counter-intuitive enough that to summarise them briefly would not do them justice. I will restrict myself to the three pages in the book (42-44) where Wells talks about saints and heroes because I think that I at least, guided by iconoclasm on one and and some dubious hymns on the other, had not thought about this properly. The traditions that I know best have either paid no attention to saints, taken the word as a synonym for all Christians, or treated them as heroes.

Martin Luther King statue

Hero or Saint?

Wells suggests five differences between saints and heroes. First, the kinds of stories that are told about them are quite different. Heroes make visible and decisive interventions which rescue a situation from disaster, and the story is basically about them. Saints, on the other hand, often have low visibility in a story which is really about God.

Second, the hero’s story is told to celebrate the good – sometimes almost magical – qualities of the hero. The saint may not have any spectacular qualities, except for being faithful. Stories of saints are told to celebrate faith rather than the distinctive personal competencies of those saints. If we accept this distinction, then some of the well known books on church leadership are very clearly trying to develop their readers as heroes, not saints.[ii]

Third, stories of saints and heroes make different assumptions. Hero stories assume a world of limited resources which people will then fight for. Stories about saints assume a world in which Christ has already fought and secured the true good. The goods that matter are abundant. Only grace is required to accept them, and the challenge is to be able to accept graciously, rather than to wrest resources from others. This does not imply that life is more comfortable for one than for the other, but much of our accustomed storytelling deals better with the hero dying in battle than with the martyr dying while refusing to go into battle.

Fourth, if the hero goes wrong it is a disaster, and the heroic cause will be seriously damaged. If the saint fails this is to be expected and highlights the wonder of God’s victory. ‘The saint knows that light only comes through the cracks, that beauty is as much (if not more) about restoration as about creation’ (Wells, 2004, p.44).

Fifth, the hero stands alone and exhibits their heroism against all comers. Saints rely not only on God, but also on each other for the resources to lead faithful lives. Wells points out, of the sixty-four references to saints in the New Testament, every one of them is in the plural. Heroes are heroic because they stand alone. Saints are saintly because they are part of the communion of saints.

Members of MODEM are, in many cases, involved in the development of organizations or of key people within organizations. Many organizations, including churches, want us to help them develop heroes to create the future and lead the way to a more secure, successful and popular state, so that afterwards, when the victory has been won, someone can say that ‘The faithful few fought bravely’. Business Schools and training consultancies have colluded in the idea that they know how to develop heroes, and that these heroes will be able to make things happen, and the senior management of many organizations, including churches, have bought the idea and considered the investment in such capability worth making. Such thinking is now seen as tarnished in many commercial organizations, but continues to be popular in public sector, not-for-profit and church organizations. My reflection on Wells is that we might do a much better job in our attempts to promote effective organization in Christian ministry if we were to help the organizations that we are involved with think more about whether they want to develop heroes or saints.


[i]Wells, Samuel (2004) Improvisation: the drama of Christian ethics. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press. 2nded. due later this year.

[ii]Hybels, Bill (2002) Courageous Leadership. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan

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