MAN OF THE WORLDLY MIND:
THE CHALLENGE OF CHURCH LEADERSHIP
by Guido de Villa Rosa
Whispers of Marley’s Ghost
“Scrooge fell upon his knees and clasped his hands before his face. ‘Mercy!’ he said. ‘Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?’ ‘Man of the worldly mind!’ replied the Ghost, ‘do you believe in me or not?’ ‘I do,’ said Scrooge. ‘I must…’” (Stave I, A Christmas Carol)
Marley’s Ghost wrings from a reluctant Ebenezer Scrooge a faith that is at best grudging. We like to think, you and I, that if it were, not Jacob Marley, but the risen Jesus, asking us “Do you believe in Me or not?,” our “yes” would be more emphatic and unequivocal. But the evidence of our lives indicates that the only truly honest answer most of us could give the Lord would be “Yeah…kinda, sorta…” For surely, if you and I truly and unreservedly believed in Jesus; if, as we are bidden in Proverbs 3:5, we actually did trust in the Lord---and in His commandments, and in His teaching---with all our heart and without leaning to our own understanding, our lives as unique persons and our life together as the Church would be quite different to what they are.
The Ghost of Leadership Past…and Present
“…This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased!”
(Stave III, A Christmas Carol)
However loathe we may be to admit and face it, all too often we---clergy and laity alike---are “men of the worldly mind” in our conception of leadership in the Church. The symptoms of our malaise are depressingly familiar:
the priest playing “pope of the parish”… the grim-visaged hierarch who, especially in dealing with his clergy, mistakes “scared” for “sacred”… the parish council president who rules as tsar and supreme autocrat…the parish council as secretive oligarchy that gives the rest of the parish the mushroom treatment…the parish that repeatedly erupts into vicious games of “Swallow the Leader.”
In all of these worldly (and fundamentally dysfunctional) models, “leadership” is defined as gaining, holding, and exercising power; and “power” is defined as the ability to get/make other people do what the leader wants. In every case, the Church becomes schizophrenic, split into ruler and ruled, the boss and the bossed.
But such notions of “leadership” are blatantly anti-Scriptural and inherently blasphemous. Our blesséd Lord is uncomfortably clear about what leadership in His Church must look like: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave---(and here is the kicker) just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matt.20:25-28, NKJV).
Further, Sacred Scripture teaches plainly and clearly that the Church—if it be truly the Church---is not first and foremost a human organization, but rather a divine organism: the Body of Christ (cf. Rom.12:5; 1 Cor.12:12-13, 27; etc.). In it, the risen Jesus Himself, and He alone, is the Head of the Body (cf. Eph.1:22-23; Col.1:18).
In this, as in any other healthy body, it is the Head, the
brain, which directs the rest of the body. The task of the body’s members/parts is to discern and implement the direction given by the head via the nervous system. Any other way of functioning is sickness, disease. In exact parallel, it is Christ’s responsibility to decide for and to direct His Church according to His perfect knowledge and perfect will; it is the Church’s responsibility to discern in conciliar fashion and to deploy the decisions already made by the Head. Any other way of functioning (and that includes “church as democracy” as much as “You have to do what I say!”) runs flatly contrary to the teaching of Sacred Scripture and, in that it implicitly seeks to supplant the authority and place of Christ in the Church, is blasphemy.
Shadows of Things That May Be
“’Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,’ said Scrooge. ’But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change…’”
(Stave IV, A Christmas Carol)
Is there, then, to be no real or effective human leadership in the Church? Hardly. The ministries of bishop, presbyter and deacon are not only mentioned but, at least to some degree, described and defined in the New Testament (cf. Phil.1:2; 1 Tim.3:1-10, 5:17; Titus 1:5-9). Indeed, “leadership” is explicitly mentioned as a spiritual gift in Rom. 12:8; there is no indication that the gift is given only to clergy; and many lay leaders are mentioned (e.g., Rom.16:1-15). Ah, but what is to be the relationship between the leader and the led? That we find in Hebrews 13:17a, which bids us “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves, for they watch for your souls... ”(KJV).
Admittedly, this verse has been used (or, more accurately, misused) in Holy Orthodoxy, pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism, Calvin’s Geneva, Puritan New England and, more recently, in the Protestant “discipling movement”---in short, wherever there is a living, breathing human suffering the “lust of power”---to justify a totalitarian control that would make Hitler sigh with pleasure. But such abuse merely highlights the dangers of eisegesis and validates the Italian proverb tradutore, traditore (“a translator is a traitor”).
The Greek text of Hebrews 13:17a reads: “Peithesthe tois hegoumenois hymon kai hypeikete, autoi gar agrypnousin hyper ton psykhon hymon…” The New King James renders the text as, “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls…” The Revised Standard Version, the English Standard Version, and the New American Standard, somewhat more accurately, render the text, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls…,” while the New International Version translates the verse as “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you…” In each instance, the picture than emerges from the translation is essentially “authoritarian” in the pejorative sense of the word: instant, blind, unquestioning, mindless obedience to even the most peculiar, arbitrary and/or irrational whims of one’s superior. In parish life, for example, the text has too often been understood as a simple directive to the laity: “Pray; pray; obey…and shut up.”
But that is not at all what the Greek text says, means, or implies. Let us look, firstly, at the verb peithesthe, translated as “obey.” In the active voice, peitho means “to win over, to persuade, to prevail upon;” in the middle and passive voices, it means “to be won over, to be persuaded, to be prevailed upon;” hence, “to listen to, to obey, to comply with.” Thus, the sense is “be teachable and comply with what you are taught; be the opposite of a know-it-all.”
Similarly, hypeikete, translated as “submit,” comes from hypeiko, which means “to withdraw, to retire; to yield, to give way,” and hence, “to submit to.” Here the sense is “to be open and cooperative;” it is a word-picture of someone who is not stubborn as the proverbial mule, insistent only on his own way, but who, precisely because he is teachable, accepts the wisdom of what he is taught, cooperates with it, and lives it.
Therefore, this Scripture places upon “subjects,” upon those who are led, the obligation to be humble enough and honest enough to be open, to be teachable, to be cooperative. Nowhere does it require people to be mindless and to use their heads only as a hat-rack. But this obviously knocks into a cocked hat the soul-destroying evil attitude (already warned against in 2 Timothy 4:3) of, e.g., some parishes who, with “itching ears,” demand that their priest be a teacher “according to their own desires” (usually expressed as “We pay you; so you have to say and do whatever we want.”). This Scripture also reminds those who are led that the sign of our Faith is the Cross---not a bull’s eye.
As for hegoumenois, translated as “those who rule over you” or “your leaders,” the primary meaning of hegeomai is “to go before, to lead the way, to show the way;” hence, “to lead, to command.” The image is quintessentially military. The hegoumenos is the soldier who takes the point on patrol. His job is to find out where the booby-traps and other dangers are, to find out where the safe path lies, and to lead his platoon along that safe path. His right to command (“Go here!” or “Don’t go there!”) comes, not only from external rank, but also and more importantly from personal knowledge and experience.
Our holy father Benedict of Nursia shows his grasp of this principle of Christian leadership when, in chapter 2 of his Rule, he writes that “…anyone who receives the name of abbot is to lead his disciples with a twofold teaching: he must point out to them all that is good and holy more by example than by words, proposing the commandments of the Lord to receptive disciples with words, but demonstrating God’s instructions to the stubborn and the dull by a living example. Again, if he teaches his disciples that something is not to be done, then neither must he do it, lest after preaching to others, he himself be found reprobate…” (emphasis added). But what applies in the microcosm of the monastery applies equally in the macrocosm of the Church as a whole: the true leader---bishop, presbyter, deacon, parish council member, church school teacher, and so on---is one who, having already walked the way, knows and can show the way.
Does that mean that the leader must be a “finished product” in order to exercise leadership? Obviously not. In 2 Corinthians 3:18 the holy apostle Paul explicitly says that “we all with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (NKJV, emphasis added). Each of us is still walking the path of
continual repentance in the process of theosis, of becoming fully “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet.1:4); so none of us has “arrived.” But some level of spiritual maturity in Christ, as discerned by the Church in the process of preparation for ordination or nomination to office, must be a sine qua non.
“I am not the man I was!”, Part I
“’Good Spirit,’ he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: ‘Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life.’” (Stave IV, A Christmas Carol)
What, then, does godly leadership look like? Given space limitations here, we cannot do as full a treatment as may be desirable. But we can say, firstly, that because it takes the yoke of Him Who is “meek and humble of heart” (Matt.11:29), it is a leadership that is humble and lets God be God. That begins with something we humans “get” only most reluctantly: that “the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). Leaders cannot and are not supposed to make anyone “behave” or “be good,” especially by temper tantrums, hissy fits, and/or torquing canons into clubs with which to beat others about the head. But further (and particularly hard for us North American types), we must break our addiction to the notion the kingdom of God cometh by clever marketing, dizzying parish programming, and generally working ourselves to a frazzle---in short, by our efforts. While 1 Corinthians 3:6-9 insists that we do have a role to play as “God’s fellow workers,” nonetheless it is “God Who gives the increase.” That is not a call to laziness, but rather a call to recognize our limitations, to embrace our creatureliness. So we workaholic North Americans need to back off and give a good listen with our hearts to what the Lord tells us in Ps. 46:10, “Be still---cease striving---and know that I am God” (emphasis added). The true leader is not, first of all, one who actively and visibly does much, but one who hiddenly prays much, asking especially for wisdom from the God “Who gives to all liberally and without reproach”(James 1:5).
Genuinely humble leadership also follows the Master by asking questions rather than imposing “solutions.” A godly leader has a healthy disbelief in his/her own infallibility and omniscience; while a “leader” whose favourite craft is making assumptions and whose favourite sport is jumping to conclusions, is a disaster in the offing. Note in Luke 18:35-43 that even the Lord Jesus Christ does not just “zap” blind Bartimaeus into sight; rather, the Lord humbly asks him, “What do you want Me to do for you?” (v.41). Similarly, in John 5:1-9, the Lord refuses to make assumptions about what the paralytic’s needs may have been; rather, He asks, “Do you want to be made well?”(v.6). St. Benedict begins his Rule with a single word, “Listen,” which applies to all the brethren, novice and abbot alike. In the same way, effective leaders in the Church are people who listen with their ears, their minds and their hearts fully engaged and other-centered, respecting others enough to let them articulate their own needs and concerns and fears and gripes…if for no other reason than because out that articulation may arise disclosure of the deeper need. Four friends ripped up a roof to get their paralyzed pal to Jesus because they thought his greatest need was physical healing; but the Lord listened with His heart to a man whose greater need was to hear “Son, your sins are forgiven you” (cf. Mark 2:1-12). Not that godly leadership necessarily gives people what they want; sometimes one simply has to hew to what is right precisely because it is right, regardless of how bent out of shape someone else may get (e.g., the rector refusing to commune non-Orthodox guests, or insisting that little Paphnutius’ principal baptismal sponsor must be a practicing Orthodox Christian, rather than an Easter bunny, Christmas elf, or agnostic Anglican). We still must distinguish clearly between “the spirit of truth and the spirit of error,” (1 Jn.4:6). But more often than not, the wisdom the leader needs and for which he prays, comes, not by direct revelation, but through listening to other human beings.
Godly leadership marked by genuine humility is also stubbornly transparent. Almost 40 years ago, this writer came across the Russian verb shamanit’, “to be/act the shaman.” Now there is a temptation, especially when it comes to pastoral leadership! To be the shaman, the professional holy man, tempts clergy by pandering to their delusions of adequacy.
But shamanit’ also tempts laity to think that their priest can be holy for them, instead of them (“’Cause that’s what we pay him for, isn’t it?”). Such attempts at playing dodge-ball with God stem in large part, not from laziness or any other obvious vice, but from a fundamental discouragement, a disbelief in the truth that theosis is God’s call to and goal for every Christian. Somehow, all too many layfolk think that clerics are made of stuff different from other humans; that clergy emerge from the womb fully vested in sanctity; that assimilation to virtue is, for the clergy, as easy as falling off a log; and that they, as layfolk and ordinary flesh-and-blood human beings, are simply not capable of living up to and living out the call “to be saints” (Rom.1:7; 1 Cor.1:2). What makes shamanit’ so tempting to laity is precisely a hunger for that holiness they feel is beyond their reach.
While the ultimate cause of such discouragement and disbelief is the evil one, one proximate cause is lack of humble transparency on the part of church leaders confused about what it means to “be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim.4:12). It was the holy apostle Paul who wrote those words to the young Bishop Timothy; and it is plain from elsewhere in the New Testament that the apostle did not mean that as an exhortation to perch on a pedestal. It means, rather, not only to set a positive example in virtue but also to set an honest example of the struggle involved.
Consider, for example, Romans 7, especially verses 14-25. These intimately autobiographical verses, in which the apostle confesses that “the good that I will do, I do not do; but the evil I will not do, that I practice,” show a Paul humble enough to let the faithful see that in his own life the apostle has experienced the same spiritual struggle, the same frustration, the same longing to be more than he is, that his readers suffer. Similarly, in 2 Cor.12:7-9, the apostle speaks of his persistent “thorn in the flesh,” of his wrestling with God in prayer over it, and of how God answered his prayer, not in the way he wanted, but in the way he needed. In neither case does Paul get into the “gory details;” but within the limits of prudence he encourages the faithful to persevere in their struggles by daring to let them seem him without his halo.
Consider also how one of the wise desert fathers dealt with a young brother “goaded by lust,” who repeatedly comes to the old man for help in the struggle and eventually gets discouraged by repeated temptation. The young brother pleads “Show love to me, my father, and give me some word.” The old man’s response? “Believe me, my son, if God permitted the thoughts with which my own mind is stung to be transferred to thee, thou wouldst not endure them, but wouldst dash thyself headlong.” It is precisely this humble transparency which “did quiet the goading of lust in the brother.” By refusing to be Pharaoh’s taskmasters, but instead by a prudent and humble sharing of their own struggles, godly leaders encourage their brothers and sisters to keep going and keep growing.
Lastly, godly leadership is humble enough and loving enough to be self-sacrificing. In the translations of Hebrews 13:17a noted above, agrypnousin is rendered as “keeping watch.” But the word agrypne? means “to be wakeful, to lie awake;” thus the noun agrypnia means “sleeplessness, waking, watching.” The image is obvious to any parent of any teen out past curfew: it is a keeping watch that is not primarily supervisory or disciplinary, but a wakefulness lovingly invested in concern for the kid’s safety and well-being. The holy apostle Paul certainly experienced that. In 2 Cor.11:22-29, he notes that among his sufferings for the Gospel is being en agrypniais pollakis, “in sleeplessness often,” in part because of “what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. Who is weak and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation?” (vv.28-29). That, too, is the challenge of church leadership: to reject flatly the kind of “professionalism” which worships the 40-hour week and to become so invested in each and every person committed to the leader’s charge, that there is a losing of sleep over them, not with the sleeplessness of worry, but with the watchfulness of love and prayer.
“I’m not the man I was!”, Part II
“Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more…Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms.”
(Stave V, A Christmas Carol)
Replacing worldly-minded forms and patterns of leadership in the Church with the biblical form and pattern always meets with initial resistance. The squawk of “It’ll never work!” will be the first, second, and third antiphons yowled at more than one parish meeting. So it requires courage, persistence, patience, love, and a decidedly thick skin to lead a parish or diocese through the desert of change. But the One Whom we serve did say something, after all, about taking up one’s cross daily; and it is in so doing that authentic Christian leadership is seen.
“Guido de Villa Rosa” is the nom de guerre of a misanthropic old misery who does his best to live by that beatitude from the apocryphal gospels: “Blessed are the cranky, for they shall get left alone."