The Orthodox Leader

Spiritual Leadership, Part II: The First Sphere of Influence

[Read the previous section, Part I, here.]

Where to begin?

It is axiomatic to say that the spiritual leader does not have the same influence everywhere. We know this intuitively. For the sake of this presentation, I’ll say that our influence is strongest starting with ourselves. From there, we see a still strong influence within our family, particularly among our wives and children, but the addition of wills begins to complicate things, occasionally attempting to frustrate our leadership. Stepping beyond that we reach our parishes, those communities of believers who have willingly placed themselves under our pastoral care, but by no means submitting themselves absolutely or blindly to our leadership. Finally, we reach our community, the broader areas where we live and work, where we are known perhaps as pastors and preachers, but without any kind of acknowledged leadership for all.

The remainder of this presentation is going to attempt to address some of the issues of leadership that arise in each sphere. I’ll give advice, but solely from the standpoint of personal experience (i.e., “this has worked for me”) or of personal weakness (i.e., “I really struggle with this problem.”). If anything strikes you as odd, I ask you to weigh it carefully, and, if necessary, I ask your forgiveness if what I say rings completely untrue to you.


Our spiritual leadership has to start with ourselves. I think each of you knows this already. Personal spiritual leadership has to start with personal discipline. However, I’ll suggest to you that this personal discipline must go beyond “spiritual” discipline (which is to say “mental” discipline). After all, were we to focus on this spiritual dimension while deprecating the rest would make us dualists of a sort. Rather, I’ll be even bolder and suggest that personal discipline must really start with physical and general “life” discipline.

If you doubt this, consider St. Paul’s requirements for those who desire the office of bishop, for those who desire to lead the people of God.

A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence…not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. 1 Tim 3:2-7

It is notable that this list doesn’t make mention of vague notions of spirituality, and even piety is only mentioned obliquely (“having his children in submission with all reverence”). Rather, it describes someone who “has it together.”

Further, I suspect most of you have had the experience of the young man who desires to advance in service to the Church, perhaps pursuing tonsure as a reader or subdeacon, and clearly desiring ordination to the major orders. He loves participating on the Orthodox internet, and perhaps delights in differentiating between worthy and unworthy priests. Yet, even a cursory inspection reveals his life to be in absolute disarray. He can’t hold a job. His bills are past due. There is general foolishness and perhaps even sexual sin in his life. His spiritual life is best served not by mastering the finer points of the Jesus Prayer, but in ordering his life according to the standard we set for the mature Christian. St. Paul asks the critical question here: “If a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?” (1 Tim 3:5)

Christian leadership, then, is often best served by the application of discipline to our daily matters. We should begin with physical care, being circumspect about our diet, not as a matter of fasting but as a matter of respecting our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit, battling temptations to overeat, to junk food, to excessive alcohol, and to sweets. We must maintain our hygiene, including dental care, so that this is never a stumbling block to others. Regular exercise. And, barring an exceptional calling such as that of St. John Maximovitch, getting enough sleep to avoid illness and an irritable disposition.

We should bring our finances into good order. Again, recall St. Paul’s exhortation that we be held in high regard by those around us. We should seek to live within a budget, knowing how much we spend and where.

Then there’s the matter that hits rather close to home for me: personal organization. If you’ve failed to contact someone because you lost their phone number (as I have), or forgotten something important because the random slip of paper wasn’t recorded on your calendar, this is something to take up. Missing an important appointment for reasons like this is more than a trivial mistake, but is rather a failure of leadership.

Likewise, time management is key. We must maintain the balance in our lives: allocating time for family, for wife, for sermon preparation, for shut-in visits, for services and confession. Too often, we run around doing things at the last minute, and, yet the responsibility for this lies with only one person, whom we can see in a mirror. Each of these represents stewardship of what God has entrusted to us. This life discipline is a fundamental aspect of spiritual leadership.

I would be remiss, though, if I never touched on spiritual discipline as a matter of personal spiritual leadership. We must lead in this way, too. We must first be diligent to avoid falling into the universal vision of piety trap I discussed at length just a bit ago. Doing that is guaranteed to make us feel inauthentic and hypocritical, because the result of it is that we are inauthentic when we try to present some kind of image of piety that we do not possess. Worse, it leads to despair and spiritual suffering for the leader who becomes mired in that narrow image.

Our spiritual discipline is to be a discipline rooted in the liturgical cycle of the Church. There is an opportunity to pray according to the designated times for communal prayer, even if abbreviated and done in private. The specific nature of how we do this will vary depending on our specific circumstances.

This is also an area where technology can help. We can make use of phones and calendars to give us those periodic reminders to pray throughout the day, for ourselves, and for specific people. I’ve made use of this to remember to pray for individuals and their physicians as they go into surgery, for example. One can buy recorded prayers (or record them yourself using your smartphone or computer) to use at various times during the day, especially when commuting.

Finally, at the level of the self, I want to emphasize the importance of accountability. Confession is a big part of this. Its role is easily summarized: Give confession and receive absolution regularly. But our need goes beyond a sacrament we often receive less than we really need. Rather, we require more frequent “check ins” with those who can ask us about our lives, both in those matters of life discipline as well as with regard to prayer. I have two or three people in my life who have a magnificent spiritual gift. That gift is the ability to deliver a carefully considered, and well-placed kick to the side of my head. In other words, they have the ability to hold be accountable to the standard of this holy office and to that of the mature Christian. I daresay we all need such people, and, as painful as it is sometimes, to rejoice when they carry out their gift for our benefit.

Next time: The family

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Written by Fr Basil Biberdorf

October 29th, 2011 at 5:00 pm

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