Tuesday, January 17, 2023


Rev. J. Ronald Knott

"With what rashness then, would the pastoral office be undertaken by the unfit, seeing that the government of souls is the art of arts. Although those who have no knowledge of the power of drugs shrink from presenting themselves as physicians of the flesh, people who are utterly ignorant of spiritual precepts are often not afraid of professing themselves to be physicians of the heart."
St. Gregory the Great, “On Pastoral Care”

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves.” Matthew (7:15) reflects a problem of St. Gregory's own time, bad leadership even in the early church. Even today, not all who seek spiritual leadership in the church do so for the best reasons. Some are motivated by money and some are motivated by a need for the approval and the respect of others. Failing to understand or acknowledge the scars of their own past, some end up being more motivated by anger than by love, and still others seek positions of spiritual authority as a means of personal edification rather than an avenue to serve God.

“The quality and strength of one’s motivation are vital to any lifelong vocation. The temptation to seek priesthood motivated by power, privilege, status and security or to create a feeling of identity can be strong. Other effective motives would be to seek such forms of self-enhancement as comfort, exhibition or unearned affirmation. Likewise are the desire to do social work, to make a reparation for an alcoholic father, to satisfy maternal expectations, or to cover up a confused psychosexual life.  None of these deficit motivational patterns will sustain one for a long time.” (Rev. Desmond O’Donnell, OMI, “The Anatomy of a Vocation,” Seminary Journal,  NCEA, Winter 2003)

Emotionally needy people are especially drawn to the status and practice of ordained ministry. Since it takes humility and vulnerability to do so, some never examine what lies behind their desire to be a leader and are driven by unnamed demons. For this reason, the Church should take great care to screen out needy people who don’t understand who they are or who have no insight into their own motivations. If not, their neediness can derail even the best parishes in a very short time. This neediness can manifest itself in an insatiable need to be the focus of attention and affirmation, an authoritarian leadership style, hasty liturgical changes based on their personal preferences, an inability to listen and a disrespect for what has been done before their arrival.   Most, thank God, are driven by a genuine desire to do God’s work. 

The church today craves and needs good leaders, but at a time when society at large is displaying a growing interest in spiritual issues, there is an acute shortage of real spiritual leaders. The problem is not with people willing to present themselves as leaders, in fact “At the heart of America is a vacuum into which self-appointed saviors have rushed.” (Warren Bennis, ft 2 in Blackaby) People are so desperate for leaders that they are susceptible to following destructive and delusional gurus, would-be messiahs, almost anyone who promises miracles, signs and wonders and those who claim to know the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Most, however, simply endure and wait-out run-of-the-mill incompetents, many of whom are arrogant as well as ignorant. 

The first caution for beginners in “spiritual leadership” may be: “a designated leader, may or may not be, “a real leader.” People seem to know intuitively that claiming to be a leader or holding a leadership position does not make someone a leader. Even seminaries are bewildered that so few real leaders are emerging from their graduating classes. Designated leaders are not necessarily real leaders. God’s call and ordination makes one a designated leader, but whether one becomes a real leader is additionally a matter of intention, skill and practice. Good will is not a substitute for competency. A true leader has the ability to unleash the power of individuals and direct it toward the goals of the community. The Good News, and its communication through word and deed, is what spiritual leadership is all about. Indeed, an ordination, a collar and a title do not necessarily make one an effective spiritual leader.  Indeed, the best scenario is when a designated leader is also a real leader.

One of the most painful lessons I had to learn as a new pastor was having the title of a leader did not necessarily mean that I was, in fact, a leader. I had accepted the title of pastor, but I was ambivalent and unprepared for all that a pastor of an important and visible church like a cathedral needs to be. As a result of my indecision and lack of focus, the associate pastor “took charge” and left me in the dust. Our constant clashes came to a head one day when one of the musicians screamed out at a tense meeting, “The trouble around here is that we have two “pastors!” It hit me like a ton of bricks: I had the title and the associate had the power. Instead of being angry at him, I decided to step up to the plate and commit myself to becoming a pastor not just in name, but also in fact.

The second caution for beginners in “spiritual leadership” may be:  “know thyself.” Father William Moorman, coordinator of spiritual formation at St. Luke Institute, a treatment center for priests says this about some of our leaders-to-be, as spiritual leaders “we are entrusted with the unique responsibility of embracing the sacred intimacy of another’s spiritual life. Can this be possible if we are unable to embrace the mystery and the sanctity of our own identity? Too often candidates are looking for the identity of priests/religious as a vicarious personal identity, which is always a formula for disaster. Most often these individuals insist on external order to balance their internal chaos, and they never achieve the inner peace they long for in their spiritual lives. Spirituality for such persons reside outside themselves in spiritual practices, as opposed to embracing the mystery of God, others, and self.” Any formation program for “spiritual leaders” must assume reasonably integrated individuals, but Father Moorman notes that because of the shortage of seminarians, screening and formation programs are accepting and tolerating candidates with demonstrable personality traits such as dependency, avoidance, narcissism, and obsessive/compulsive behavior. (Pp.36-37 HUMAN DEVELOPMENT, vol, 27, no. 2 summer 2006) Priesthood, even today, offers seductions of power, prestige and flattery. This attracts those who are drawn to the status and practice of ministry along with their need to be the focus of attention and affirmation. This focus becomes even more pernicious if it is couched in the religious language about being servants.

Saint Gregory the Great, in his remarkably applicable work “Pastoral Care,” warns of those who “investigate spiritual precepts with shrewd diligence…but teach what they have learned, not by practice, but by study, and belie in their conduct what they teach by words.” As if writing about recent events in our church, he observes, “For no one does more harm in the Church than he who, having the title or rank of holiness, acts evilly.” 

He goes on to warn those who enter into ministry with a divided heart, “The mind cannot possibly concentrate on the pursuit of any one matter when it is divided among many. It is as though it were so preoccupied during the journey as to forget what its destination was; with the result that it is so great a stranger to the business of self-examination as not to be aware of the harm it suffers, or to be conscious of the great faults it commits.”

Saint Gregory the Great, again with remarkable application to today’s reactionary young priests, warns of those “who…busy themselves with a variety of inquisitions, more than is needful, and fall into error by their excessive subtlety.” Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Rather, he says, “When the ruler prepares to speak, he must bear in mind to exercise a studious caution in his speech, for if his discourse, hastily given, be ill-ordered, the hearts of his hearers may be stricken with the wound of error, and when perhaps, he wishes to appear wise, he will by his lack of wisdom sever the bond of unity.”  Many unseasoned new pastors have done great damage to the church in their zeal for, but limited understanding of, “orthodoxy and truth.”

The third caution for beginners in “spiritual leadership” may be: “Nemo dat quod non habet.” “No one gives what he does not have.” Saint Gregory Nazianzus put it another way. “Before purifying others, they must purify themselves; before instructing others, they must be instructed; they have to become light in order to illuminate and become close to God in order to sanctify.”  Indeed, as Father Howard P. Bleichner wrote, “Lofty prose is easily mouthed.”  It is easy to recite high ideals, but very difficult to live them.

 A fourth caution for beginners in “spiritual leadership” may be: “Integrity is essential to leadership.” Gregory the Great says, “For one who is so regarded that the people are called his flock, must carefully consider how necessary it is for him to maintain a life of rectitude. It is necessary, therefore, that he should be pure in thought, exemplary in conduct, discreet in keeping silence, profitable in speech, in sympathy a near neighbor to everyone, in contemplation exalted above all others, a humble companion to those who lead good lives, erect in his zeal for righteousness against the vices of sinners. He must not be remiss in his care for the inner life by preoccupation with the external; not must he in his solicitude for what is internal, fail to give attention to the external.” He goes on to say, “For one who by the exigency of his position must propose the highest ideals, is bound by that same exigency to give a demonstration of those ideals. His voice penetrates the hearts of his hearers the more readily, if his way of life commends what he says.”

A fifth caution for beginners in “spiritual leadership” may be: It’s not about you!” It has always been true for newly ordained priests, but one of the many downsides of a priest shortage is that the traditional “headiness” that comes with ordination is being exacerbated. Newly ordained priests and priests-to-be are so often “made over” and “focused on" during their days in the seminary and especially during their ordinations and “first Masses” that they begin to feel special, maybe too special. This powerful surge of special treatment can, unmonitored, lead quickly to the cocksure arrogance of clericalism and entitlement.  As Pope John Paul II put it, priests are not above the laity or alongside the laity, but for the laity. It’s not about us, but them!

The best advice to those who want to prepare themselves for “spiritual leadership” is to insist that they do serious inner work to see if they have the “right stuff” to practice the art of arts, to be physicians of the heart. Otherwise, they ought to be arrested for false advertising or dismissed as a menace to the People of God, even if they do mean well.    





1 comment:

  1. An informative and illuminating article which should be incorporated into the mission statement of every seminary.