Friday, April 25, 2008

The Cult of Personality

As we watch the redevelopment of the Diocese of San Joachin it is refreshing to see the energy among the laity. I believe it was with great wisdom that the Presiding Bishop did not enter into the diocese and impact that diocese until the laity and clergy had risen to the chore. It was finally the laity and some of the clergy who brought that wounded group of people together for healing and reclaiming the vision that Christ gives the Church. Yes, there was help from folks like Bob Moore and finally Bishop Lamb, but Episcopal leadership does not work in a vacuum. That was what John-David Schofield never understood. One cannot be a bishop unless there are laity and clergy willing to work with you. If one becomes “all things to all people” leadership devolves into a cult of personality

All too often in this imperfect Church of ours, we elect people to positions of leadership, rector or bishop, who have “made” it on their personality rather than on their talent or ability. We church-types are often drawn to those personalities that make us feel safe, or whose unction salves our uncertainty rather than those who can challenge us to be more than what we were. Having a protector is fine when we are weak or infirm. Often when a parish is in transition, we love the rector who can come in and heal our wounds. But that “protection” becomes paternalistic when healing has taken place. The same goes for a diocese that has been without a leader. To have someone fill that vacuum at the beginning is quite thrilling. But leadership in the Episcopal Church is a shared leadership. No one order can dominate the other.

The present cult of the personality of the bishop that is often touted these days does a disservice to the role of the bishop. Some of this ideology comes from our Roman Catholic neighbors rather from our Episcopal resources. Some may even come from our Anglican roots. But it is not in keeping with the wisdom of those who formed our Church when we separated from England. And what it creates is a type of dishonesty in the interactions between orders. It raises the role of the leader—bishop or rector-- to some sort of holier-than-other. It sets up expectations of the leader that cannot be met or maintained throughout the whole of one’s life in the church.

One thing that watching the Roman Catholics should do for us in the Episcopal Church is to see that putting anyone on a pedestal can have disastrous results. It means that their decisions and actions cannot be questioned, or their motives held up to scrutiny. Religious leadership cannot be based on one’s being “a nice guy” or “she’s the bishop, she has our best intentions in mind.” Religious leadership needs to be based less in spirituality and more in the ability to work with people of varying positions in the parish or diocese. The parish or the diocese cannot devolve into a cult of personality and still preach the Gospel because too much energy is being used to maintain the image of the leader rather than being about preaching the Gospel. Ultimately the cult of personality is used to perpetuate the myth of the leader rather than connect the congregation or the diocese with the God of Truth. And the efforts of those lay and clergy alike, who enable such myths are left like San Joachin—with dust in their mouths rather than the fruit of the Gospel.

I am grateful to the work of the Spirit that is now being affirmed in San Joachin. I pray that this same kind of faith can be found in Ft. Worth and Pittsburgh. But the problem of the cult of personality is not just a problem in those dioceses that are leaving the Church. They are found in dioceses and parishes through out the Church where “being safe and undisturbed” is more important than living out the Gospel of Christ.

Christian leadership must be about speaking the truth as Christ spoke it. It must be about a kind of transparency that demands our best and yet does not demand that we be holier than others. Leadership in the church does not demand perfection; it demands humility and a willingness to work with all kinds in the community for the furtherance of the Gospel.


Cany said...

Nice post, and I could not agree more. We have to remember we are, indeed, WE.

clumber said...


Wise words indeed... I've also been struck locally in seeing 2 parishes follow similar paths out of TEC that there's a leadership failure that occurs in the laity as well when they decide to walk away rather than stand up to bad leadership. A search committee and a vestry that do not listen to all the voices, who are willing to have folks quit rather than be ignored means you've got trouble. Sometimes the cult of personality results in the train going off the tracks. Unless we have laity that can stand up and effect change to get it back on course, we are in trouble.

I also dare say that too often, if asked, our laity will say the reason they go to St. Whatshisname's is because of the priest. That's nice, but eventually that changes, and cloning is not an option. So all too often, the folks who came because of Pastor X will move on, not grasping the essential meaning of living in community.

Sorry, this might be a bit rambling, still swilling down my morning dog bowl of coffee and kibble.


gerry said...

Lovely essay Muthah, didn't know you had this Blog also, I'll have to thank the Mad One for the pointer.

We all, Bishop, Priest and especially the Laity need to be vigilant and stand fast against the cult of personality, as well as the creeping clericalism of the Church.

FranIAm said...

Muthah+- I am here via MP. I am a Roman Catholic (albeit a reluctant one at times) awash in friends from TEC. I too am upstate... wonder where you are.

In any event, I often hold back from saying much as the events in TEC unfurl, but I read, I watch, I pray with you all.

Today I must speak up as I am very moved by your post. It is really so well put in so many ways, and I say that as an RC observing the TEC.

Thanks for this great post and I am so glad that MP sent me this way.

You have much wisdom, I wish you peace.