Spiritual Leadership, Part I: Preliminaries

I’ll be returning to the parish website topic shortly. However, I gave a talk entitled “Spiritual Leadership: Extending Spiritual Influence” at the 2011 ROCOR Western American Diocese pastoral conference earlier this week. I will post successive sections of the presentation in the coming days. Please note that parish clergy (priests in particular) were the intended audience. Your comments are appreciated.

I want to express my thanks to the fine clergy of the Western American Diocese, especially His Eminence, Archbishop Kyrill, for blessing me not only to speak at the clergy conference, but also for inviting me to participate in the rite of revesting the relics of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco.

Defining the topic

Having introduced myself, I should say that this talk is not about me, but only observations and reflections concerning this topic of spiritual leadership. When I first began preparing this, I struggled somewhat, because, while I am a priest, a preacher, a servant of the Mysteries of God, and an intercessor for those around me, I do not see myself as particularly spiritual. In fact,an attempt to be what I held in my own mind as the image of “the spiritual person” led to a particularly acute period of spiritual malaise, anger, cynicism, and frustration in my own life.

Thus, I really want to emphasize that this presentation is about spiritual leadership, not spirituality. This is a good thing, as I’m sure there are at least a dozen people in this room who exceed my “spirituality,” if such a thing could ever be quantified.

Up front, we really have to address the idea of what spiritual leadership is. Defining “leadership” is always thorny, but the best general definition I’ve come across is that leadership is influence coupled with the expectation that it will be used. Leadership is what we observe when, at a parish council meeting, a question is asked and, after a short pause, all eyes fall on a single person. The others want that person to influence them, to show them where to go. Leadership is what we observe when our kids, having gotten into trouble or otherwise needing assistance, call us first, trusting that we can fix what they can’t. Leadership is what we see when the faithful come to us confessing their sins and seeking guidance and, even more importantly, those precious words of forgiveness.

Leadership becomes the ability to guide others into taking your lead, and, particularly in these moments of dependence, good leadership means that words must be carefully chosen so as not to violate the trust implicit therein. For those of us who serve as clergy, our desire should be that our spiritual leadership be, first, leadership coming from Christ and, secondly, that it be expanding. That is, true spiritual leadership naturally seeks to extend itself, not in order to puff itself up, but in order to manifest Christ in the world. Spiritual leadership is about mission and evangelism, which is nothing less than the spread of the Gospel of our Lord.

Leading with a flexible mind

Before going into specific spheres of influence, I want to make a simple assertion: There is no spirituality that is universal in its applicability. Put in a colloquial way: there is no “one size fits all” spirituality. Orthodox leaders in our particular context face a great temptation to see one particular kind of spiritual life as preferable to all others and, therefore, as the kind of spiritual life that all Orthodox Christians should seek. I am unsure of the exact reasons behind it, but there seem to be two general ways it works.

For some, they have a profound sense of the suffering of Orthodox Christians over the past century in particular, and the awareness of those priests and bishops who led under terrible conditions, praying, gathering, baptizing, and communing in secret. Such men labored mightily to avoid falling into sins of hatred and vengeance, and rejoicing at every tiny blessing. Thus, some fall into this view that all spirituality is to look like that spirituality. This, of course, fails to take into account that the myriad other charisms that established other forms of spirituality were significantly minimized if not persecuted out of existence entirely for a time.

For others, they either come to the Faith, or grow to maturity in the Faith, in the awe of saints such as St. Seraphim,or of St. Herman, or in the wisdom of the various monastic fathers from the famous places: Optina, Valaam, Athos, and so on. The vision of a patient, holy silence that has no need for earthly humor or family life takes hold.

I hold my suffering brethren, the martyrs and confessors, and the pious monks and nuns—spiritual warriors all—in the highest of regard, and realize that my own spiritual life pales absolutely in comparison with theirs. Their lives and writings are worth reading, for the edification and building up of the faithful of Christ.

However, as spiritual leaders we err greatly if we allow these fairly narrow visions of sanctity and piety, especially to the extent that our popular understanding makes them caricatures of the real thing, to take hold as the sole legitimate spiritual path.

St. Paul writes:

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