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Leading life to the full: scriptural reflections on leadership in catholic schools

30 November, 1999

David Tuohy SJ provides guidance for lay principals and teachers who as part of their own commitment to God and ministry in the church wish to deliver a christian ethos in schools.

148 pp, Veritas, 2005. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie


The context of leadership in Catholic schools
How to use this book

Spirituality and Leaders
Personal spirituality
Spirituality of work
Spirituality of leadership

Theme 1 The Call to Leadership
Exodus 3:9-12, 4:10-12 The call of Moses
Jeremiah 1:4-10 The call of Jeremiah
Mark 3:13-15, Mt 4:18-22 The call of the disciples
Luke 1:26-38 The call of Mary

Theme 2: Vision in christian leadership
Deuteronomy 30:9-20: Choosing life over death
Luke 4:14-21: Jesus’ sense of mission
Ephesians 3:14-21: Paul’s prayer for christian fulfilme1
1 Corinthians 1:17-25: Paul’s vision of wisdom

Theme 3: Leadership styles
1 Peter 5:1-4: The role of the leader
Matthew 20:20-28: Servant leadership (servant)
1 Corinthians 12: 4-11: Leadership as a team (shared)
Luke 24:13-32: The disciples on the road to Emmaus (companion)
Matt 4:1-11: The temptations of Jesus

Theme 4: Dealing with others
Luke 10:29-37: The Good Samaritan
Luke 15:18-32: The Prodigal Son
Matt 13:24-30: The Parable of the Darnel
Matt 12:33-37: Character comes from within
John 8:2-11; Luke 19:45-48: Discipline and confrontation

Theme 5: Teaching
2 Tim 4:1-5: Sound doctrine
Ecclesiastes 3: 1-11: Seasons in education
Matt 13:4-9, 18-23: Parable of the Sower

Theme 6: Jesus as the model teacher
Luke 11: 1-12: Lord, teach us to pray
Matt 13:13-17: Jesus teaches in parables
Matt 23:1-12: There is only one teacher


In recent years there has been a rapid decline in the number of priests and religious holding full-time positions in education. Consequently, lay teachers and principals are faced with the task of delivering a Christian ethos in an increasingly secular environment where attitudes to power, moral values and personal fulfilment have changed. Leading Life to The Full is designed to provide guidance for those who hold positions of leadership within schools as part of their commitment to God and ministry within the Church. It begins by examining the importance of a personal spirituality in relation to teaching and leadership. Subsequent chapters offer invaluable insights on topics such as Leadership Style and Jesus as Role Model through short exposition, scriptural passage and a series of questions designed for personal reflection. For all those who work with young people on a pastoral level, Leading Life to The Full is a thoughtful and timely publication.

Theme 1: The Call to Leadership

Do not be afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them (1).

The scriptures tell us of many different leaders in the history of Israel and in the early Church. Some of these people seem to have been born with great leadership qualities (Saul, Joshua, Samson in the Old Testament, and Paul in the New). There are also plenty of examples of those who were not obvious leaders, and who seemed to ’emerge out of nowhere’ to take on an important leadership role and meet a need in the faith community of the time (Moses, David, Jeremiah in the Old Testament and the apostles in the New Testament). For all of these people, their leadership was seen as a gift from God. This gift was made known to them in a call to serve a particular function or perform a specific task on God’s behalf, and was confirmed by a heightened sense of God’s presence with them as they performed their role.

As the history of Israel unfolded, different forms of leadership emerged. In the early days, the focus was on great men. These were the Patriarchs of the Chosen People who responded in faith to God’s initiative and self-revelation. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob built up a community of believers who were faithful to the One God, who made a covenant with them that he would be active on their behalf. The faith of the community was soon tested. Early prosperity gave way to captivity and slavery in Egypt. Then God took pity on his people and led them to freedom, promising them entry to the Promised Land. This promise required a new kind of leadership, and we see this first in charismatic figures such as Moses and Joshua, and later in the great kings, Saul, David and Solomon who established Israel as a nation. These were leaders chosen to perform great deeds. They had powerful signs that God was with them, clearing their enemies before them. Their leadership was experienced as a special call, although this was not always a personal call. For instance, David’s call was mediated through Samuel, although his work as king was accompanied by a special relationship with God.

As the kingdom of Israel became established, two leadership functions emerged in the community – the king and the priest. The king became the adopted son of God. God promised that he would protect the king if he was faithful, and assured prosperity and justice for the people by victory over external and internal enemies. This linked the role of the king with the covenant. The priesthood was established in rather gory circumstances in the time of Moses (Ex 32:25-29) and the tribe of Levi was specially consecrated to exercise its functions. The priest presided over the worship of the community and acted as a mediator between the people and God through the ritual of sacrifice, reciting the narrative of the covenant (Torah) and communicated the divine blessing to the people.

Both these functions were hereditary. The kingdom of Israel split in two, and bad kings emerged in both kingdoms. They copied the kings of their neighbours, especially in an idolatry that regarded royalty as divine, instead of receiving its mission from God. Similarly, we read of priests who failed to nourish the people because of their own lack of commitment (Hos 4:4-11). In the midst of this, a third form of leadership emerged – that of prophet. Prophets were specially called by God and prompted by his spirit. They were to pass on the Word to the whole community. ‘Hear, O Israel’ was a common theme among all the Old Testament prophets. They reminded the people of their covenant pledge. They also interpreted the meaning of that call within the historical circumstances of each age.

In the New Testament, Jesus exercises his leadership as Priest, Prophet and King. In his death, he is the priest of his own sacrifice, bringing about the salvation of his people. In this function, he also comes to fulfil the Law (the Torah) by showing its richness, and by transcending it in the law of love. Jesus also acted as a prophet. His actions against authority and hypocrisy were very much in the prophetic tradition. He had received his message from the Father, and he spoke with authority in making known the signs of the times, and proclaiming the fulfilment of God’s promises. His preaching was accompanied by signs and miracles, and the people proclaimed him as a prophet (Jn 4:19). Jesus exercised his kingship in a way that is totally different from a secular understanding. He had been sent by the Father, and he was the true Son of God. His mission was to preach the kingdom, but he specified that his kingdom was not of this world, and not in competition with that of Caesar. At his death, he was ironically proclaimed as ‘King of the Jews’ and spoke of how he would enter into his true glory after his death, where he would later come again in judgement.

From the very beginning of his public life, Jesus wanted to have others with him and to multiply his presence. He seemed to have two levels of special followers – disciples and apostles. When he sent them on a mission, they were to speak in his name, with his authority (Mt. 10:40). The selection of the twelve had a special symbolic significance in constituting the new Israel, and they were to witness that the risen Christ was the same Jesus they had lived with. Hence their calling involved a long apprenticeship in understanding the message of Jesus, and learning who he was.

The New Testament also bears witness to a more gentle form of leadership. If the role of leadership is seen as a call to understand the values of Jesus, develop a relationship with him and witness to his presence in the world, we find that among a number of women in the scriptures. In the resurrection stories, Jesus shows himself first to Mary of Magdala, Joanna and Mary the mother of James, who then raced to tell the apostles (Lk 24:1-11). Mary of Magdala had heard her call in the forgiveness she experienced from Jesus. But the greatest witness to Jesus was his mother Mary. It was her ‘yes’ that allowed Jesus come into the world. She nurtured him through childhood and taught him to be human. She pondered all the events of his life in her heart, and faithfully followed him to the cross. She acts as the signpost and model for the Church in its work of revealing Jesus to others.

In Vatican II, the document Lumen Gentium (34-36) reflects on the way the laity is called to share in the three roles of Priest, Prophet and King through their baptism, and how our personalities, our daily lives and above all our daily work witnesses to and promotes each of these elements of the Christian mission to sanctify, to teach and to rule. In considering the spirituality of leaders earlier, we saw how archetypes are a key to understanding the role of leadership. These three roles are the archetypes of scripture, and we return to them in more detail in Theme 3, on leadership styles.

In this section, you are asked to reflect on the sense of call to leadership. In the events we have outlined above, most of the individuals had a strong sense of individual call and election by God. This was central to their leadership. From the Old Testament, we have chosen one leader, Moses, from among those who were called to perform great deeds, and one, Jeremiah, from the prophetic tradition. In the New Testament, we have chosen the call of the first four apostles, and of Mary. Each of these types of leaders reflects a different emphasis in the tradition of religious leadership. There is much that can be learned from each in their own right. We also learn by trying to see how these forms of leadership complement one another, for they all point us back to the type of leadership exercised by Jesus himself.

A second form of learning takes place by asking ourselves which is the most appropriate form of leadership for our situation. For the calls we pray about here also reflect the reality that each of us is called by God, and in that call we experience the drama of God’s majesty, our own sinfulness, our fear of God as well as our own generosity and our ability to either resist or respond to God. Our struggle to hear the call of God in our work is reflected in the call of the heroes and prophets of the Old Testament, and their struggle to understand their role, and how they could have been chosen for it. In the stories of call in the New Testament, we can be inspired by the generosity of Mary’s response and that of the apostles, and still we know how the apostles struggled to understand the implications of their call, and to remain faithful to it. All these stories reveal different responses to leadership roles in the history of salvation. They reveal and clarify for us aspects of our own call as teachers and school leaders.

The Call of Moses

And now the cry of the sons of Israel has come to me, and I have witnessed the way in which the Egyptians oppress them.
So come, I send you to Pharaoh to bring the sons of Israel, my people, out of Egypt.
Moses said to God,
‘Who am I to go to Pharaoh and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?’
‘I shall be with you’ was the answer’ and this is the sign by which you shall know that it is I who have
sent you… After you have led the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.’
Exodus 3:9-12

Moses said to Yahweh,
‘Please, my Lord, I have never been eloquent, even since you have spoken to your servant, for I am slow and hesitant of speech.’
‘Who gave a person a mouth?’ Yahweh said to him.
‘Who makes a person dumb or deaf,
gives sight or makes blind?
Is it not I, Yahweh?
Now go, I shall help you speak
and instruct you what to say’
Exodus 4:10-12


The cry of the sons of Israel has come to me, and I have witnessed the way in which the Egyptians have oppressed them.

The opening line of the passage points to God’s sense of care for his people, and his desire to respond to their needs.

  • What is the’ cry of the sons of Israel’ at this particular time?
  • How might God want to respond to that cry through education?
  • Who are the Egyptians of today? In what way are people oppressed?
  • What is the freedom offered by education?

Moses’ response was one of reluctance – ‘Who am I to go to Pharaoh?’ This reluctance is reflected later, when Moses speaks to God about his lack of eloquence.

  • What aspects of your role as teacher or leader make you reluctant.
  • What about the role makes you nervous?
  • How have you grown in appreciation of the importance of education for young people? What has been the development in your interest in helping other teachers grow in their understanding of the role of teaching?
  • How has your role in helping others attain ‘freedom’ developed? What key events have clarified that role for you? Can you find a concrete instance when you have spoken the right word at the right time? What has helped you do this?
  • How do you now see your role as leading others operate in the classroom or the school?

God promised Moses that He will be with him and that there would be signs for him – that the people would worship on the mountain, and that Moses would be helped to speak.

  • What might these ‘signs’ stand for in the education?
    – People worshipping on the Holy Mountain –
    – The leader being helped to speak
  • When others look for signs and meaning of success in education, what do they typically look for? How are these the same, and how do they differ, from signs that God may be at work?
  • What signs give you most encouragement? What can you do to develop a deeper appreciation of these signs?

The Call of Jeremiah

The word of Yahweh was addressed to me, saying
‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you
Before you came to birth I consecrated you
I have appointed you as prophet to the nations’

I said ‘Ah, Lord Yahweh; look, I do not know how to speak: I am a child.’

But Yahweh replied,

‘Do not say, I am a child
Go now to those to whom I send you
and say whatever I command you
Do not be afraid of them,
For I am with you to protect you
It is Yahweh who speaks’.

Then Yahweh put out his hand and touch my mouth and said to me:

‘There! I am putting my words into your mouth.

Look, today I am setting you
over nations and over kingdoms
to tear up and to knock down
to destroy and to overthrow;
to build and to plant’.
Jeremiah 1 :4-10


The opening words of this passage speak of God knowing Jeremiah and guiding him to the point where he becomes a ‘prophet to the nations’.

  • What are the key events in your life that led you to being a teacher and/ or principal?
  • Can you see any pattern, or providence, in these events?
  • Is it possible to see these events as the clarification of a personal call?

Jeremiah showed some resistance to the call, saying ‘I don’t know how to speak. I am a child’. .

  • How is this true of your sense of being a Christian leader in the school or the classroom? Which areas of Christian leadership do you feel confident? In which areas do you feel less confident?
  • What elements of your own journey to leadership have contributed to this balance?

God points out that he will be with Jeremiah, and will prompt him and protect him.

  • Are there any times in your experience as a teacher or as a principal that you have happened to say the right thing at the right time, and had an unexpected influence on a situation you were dealing with?
  • In what way can you cultivate the experience of ‘knowing the right thing to say’?
  • How can you cultivate the experience that God is with you, to protect you in difficult times?

The final part of the passage tells us how Jeremiah understood the call or role of prophet:

Set over nations and kingdoms
to tear up and to knock down
to destroy and to overthrow
to build and to plant

  • Do you see any areas of your work which has a parallel in these four areas?
  • Which area is the dominant aspect of your role as teacher / principal?
  • In which of these roles are you most comfortable?

Applying the role of prophet to that of school leader.

  • How do you understand the role of prophet in today’s world?
  • How does the leader as prophet differ from the leadership role displayed by Moses in the previous passage?
  • In what way can the school principal be a prophet to each of the following: teachers, students, parents, wider community?
  • In what way can the teacher be a prophet (a) among his/her colleagues, and (b) to the students?

The Call of the Disciples

He now went up into the hills and summoned those he wanted.
So they came to him and he appointed twelve. They were
to be his companions,
to be sent out to preach,
with power to cast out devils
Mark 3:13-15 (2).

As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee he saw two brothers, Simon, who was called Peter, and his brother Andrew: they were making a cast in the lake with their net, for they were fishermen.
And he said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fishers of men’.
And they left their nets at once and followed him.
Going on from there, he saw another pair of brothers, James, son of Zebedee, and his brother John; they were in their boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them.
At once, leaving the boat and their father, they followed him.
Matthew 4:18-22


Jesus summoned those he wanted to be his disciples.

  • What do you think were the criteria Jesus used in selecting his disciples – academic ability, teaching skills, good interpersonal skills, personal holiness?
  • What does Jesus’ choice of disciples tell us about the important part of his mission?
  • How does this apply to the mission of education today?

The disciples were to be companions of Jesus, sent out to preach and to cast out devils.

  • What does each of these stand for in education today?
  • How is the invitation to be a companion given to leaders, teachers, parents, students?
  • How does the work of preaching take place in the school or classroom?
  • What are the’ devils’ that are cast out through teaching?

When Jesus invited Peter and Andrew, he told them he would make them ‘fishers of men’.

  • What image do you have for your work as a teacher or leader?
  • What does this image reveal about your deepest desires for education?
  • What is the common ground between your image and that used by Jesus with the apostles?
  • How has God used your talents and interests to inspire you in your work?

The apostles are depicted as leaving everything to become disciples.

  • What do you think was the attraction that allowed them do that?
  • What is the main vision that makes your commitment to education worthwhile?
  • What are the things that help you stay in touch with that vision?
  • What are the things that distract you from that vision?

In the second passage, Jesus makes the distinction between disciples and apostles. The role of apostle was described as having three functions – to be a companion of Jesus, to preach and to cast out devils.

  • What aspect of your work as teacher, principal or board member correspond to each of these aspects of apostleship?
  • In which role do you think you achieve the most?
  • In which activity are you most comfortable?
  • In which activity do you feel most a Christian apostle?
  • Which is the most difficult role for you?

The Call of Mary

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the House of David: and the Virgin’s name was Mary.
He went in and said to her,
‘Rejoice, so highly favoured! The Lord is with you’.
She was deeply disturbed by these words and asked herself what this greeting could mean.
But the angel said to her,
‘Mary, do not be afraid; you have won God’s favour.
Listen! You are to bear a son, and you must name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High.
The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David;
He will rule over the House of Jacob for ever and His reign will have no end.’
‘But how will this come about, since 1 am a virgin?’
‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you’ the angel answered, ‘and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. And so the child will be holy, and will be called Son of God.
Know this too:
Your kinswoman Elizabeth has, in her old age, herself conceived a son, and she whom people called barren is now in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible to God’.
‘I am the handmaid of the Lord’, said Mary ‘Let what you have said be done to me”.
Luke 1:26-38


The angel tells Mary she is highly favoured.

  • What was the root cause of this favour and the basis for her call?
  • How does this compare with the’ call’ to be a teacher or school principal?

In the calls we have seen up to now, there is a definite mission for the person called to do something, to be involved in some action. In Mary’s situation, she was asked to facilitate God coming into the world. The action and glory was to be with God rather than Mary.

  • Does this contrast have any parallels in the way we think about teaching, or school leadership?
  • In what way is teaching or running a school like giving birth to and nurturing the ‘Word of God’?
  • What do you find attractive about this type of leadership?
  • What in this type of leadership do you find difficult?

On receiving the call, Mary was afraid, and she wondered how this would come about.

  • What was the source of Mary’s fear?
  • In what sense does a similar fear or puzzlement attach to teaching or running a school?
  • How do you think the angel would reassure a teacher or school leader in a similar situation to Mary?

At the end of this passage, the angel says ‘Your kinswoman Elizabeth has, in her old age, herself conceived a son…’

  • In terms of the drama of God being present with humankind, what lessons can be drawn from comparing the stories of Mary and Elizabeth?
  • Where was the greater drama taking place – in God’s dealing with Mary or with Elizabeth?
  • How did other people see the importance of the two pregnancies?
  • What effect did the respective ages of Mary and Elizabeth have on other people’s perception of events?
  • How was the drama perceived later – at the birth of John the Baptist and of Jesus?
  • What was it enabled some people to understand the real drama of what was happening, and others to miss the point?
  • In the world of school, what are the dramatic events in which people find it easy to think of God being present?
  • What are the events in which people might easily miss God present in their lives?
  • What is it that prevents some people from seeing the presence of God in their lives?
  • What do we learn about true leadership in the life of Mary?
  • What are the things that distract us from this model of leadership?

1. Shakespeare, W. Twelfth Night. Act II, Scene V.
2. This same passage is to be found in Luke 6:12-16 and in Mt. 10:1-4 where it is followed by a fuller explanation of the work of being an apostle.

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