Monday, January 19, 2009

Religious Leadership

Joan Chittister has come up with another wonderful story to define what leadership is. It is a story from the Hasidim:

“The Jews of a small town in Russia, the story recalls, were eagerly awaiting the arrival of the rabbi. Since this was such a rare event the townsfolk had spent a great deal of time preparing the important questions they were willing to put to such a holy man. When the rabbi finally arrived and met with them he could sense the tension in the assembly as they froze in place to listen to his words. But, sensing the situation, the rabbi said nothing at all. He simply gazed into their eyes and began to hum a very haunting melody. Soon everyone there began to hum. He started to sing and they sang along with him. He swayed and danced in solemn, measured steps. And the congregation swayed and danced as well. Soon they were all so involved in the dance, so absorbed in its movements that they were lost to everything else on earth, completely centered on that moment, and, at the same time, completely lifted up beyond it, as well.

It was nearly an hour before the dance slowed down and came to a halt. Then the rabbi spoke the only words he pronounced that entire night. “I trust,” he said, “that I have answered your questions?” And then he disappeared into the dark, not to be seen in that place again for years. But it was all right that he was gone because those people had learned that there was a great dance in life that they could dance themselves.”

Most clergy are not given much education in what it means to lead. Part of it is because leadership is not a quality that can be studied and learned in an academic way. Religious leadership is even more difficult to learn because the line between religious leadership and demagoguery is so fine. It is so easy in the pastor/parishioner relationship to end up being parent, especially when we call our clergy “Father” or “Mother”. It is title I have always been uncomfortable with because it has so often fostered parent-child transactions between rector/pastor and the laity.

When I was newly ordained, I though it was incumbent upon me to set the rules for the community. I was too blinded by my newly-confirmed authority to see that the congregation already had some order already in place. There is also a temptation to think that a parish needs to start at ‘square one’ with each new pastor. Good leadership is to take what is working well and use it even if it is not familiar and to give attention to the areas that are not working well.

After a life-time in religion, I am willing to recognize that I have very little to teach my parishioners about God. They already know God and God makes God’s-self known. Most of the time they want to know how to dance, how to use their experience of God in their daily lives so that their faith can serve the transformation that Christ is calling them to. The rub comes when clergy have lost touch with the dance themselves—when the ministry has become a job rather than a gift from God. I have met many clerics who have tried to pattern their ministry after the jobs of their congregants because it is so hard to define what they do. We make contracts to appease ourselves, our judicatories and our parishioners. But it doesn’t say anything about the dance.

The emerging Church that is coming into being at present is going to provide the world with new ways of relating to God and society. There will always be a need for a type of clergy. There will always be people needed to invite others to the dance with God. How that Church is going to be configured, I don’t know. Hopefully it will not be rule makers which forces faith into the observance of law rather than living in a spirit of gratitude and joy. But the dance will continue. Sometimes it will look like STOMP, sometimes it will be Bolshoi, and sometimes it will be a mere shuffle. But the life of God-with-us can only be lived out when we are willing to be free enough to dance.

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