Perhaps, when Abraham sought to save Sodom by interceding on behalf of the city, his attempt was rooted in the Hebrew tradition of trusting in the presence of 50 righteous men to provide salvation. But he was not assured that the full count of righteous ones could be found, so he negotiated down: “Suppose 5 of the 50 righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of 5:” And he (the Lord) said, “I will not destroy it if I find 45 there.” Pressing his advantage, Abraham negotiated further, asking for reprieve if only 40 were found, then 30, then 20, and then finally 10 until the Lord answered, “For the sake of 10 I will not destroy it” (Gen. 18:22-33).
A number of voices in the American religious landscape would suggest that Abraham might be the model for what has happened in congregational leadership over the past years as we have negotiated our expectations down to minimal levels. Indeed, have we negotiated our expectations of congregational leadership down to such a minimal, or at times and in places, less than functional level that the leadership no longer serves our congregations well?
In recent months, the Alban Institute has surveyed the landscape and uncovered a good deal of episodic research that suggests that the news is not good. In many quarters major clergy shortages are being reported, and the stream of seminary graduates who actually intend to serve as parish leaders will be insufficient to replace those planning to retire.
Questions are also being raised about the quality and competence of those, both clergy and lay, who are serving as leaders in our congregations. When compared with applicants to other graduate professional academic programs, seminary applicants register some of the lowest test scores, Even our healthiest leaders do not feel equipped to address the spiritual questions and concerns of their people; a large percentage of professional clergy evidence symptoms of burnout or depression. Our most gifted lay leaders often feel a stronger call to serving on community boards and participating in non-faith-based programs where they fell a clearer sense of purpose and accomplishment.
More complete reports on the state of congregational leadership and our processes for preparing people for leadership are offered elsewhere in this issue of CONGREGATIONS and in the Alban Institute Special Report on Leadership. I propose simply that we consider our own loss of the meaning of spiritual leadership as a contributing factor to the current situation. I would argue that we, like Abraham, have negotiated our hopes and expectations down because we have not been assured of the high calling of leadership in a faith community.
Diminished Leadership Roles
The feared and frustrating description that I learned early in my own parish leadership was the trap of being “over-worked but underemployed.” Do we have people who do not rise to the challenge of congregational leadership because they understand that “busyness” is not an indicator of importance? More troubling, do we have people who do respond to this call because they understand that nothing of measurable importance will be asked of them, and the congregation therefore feels like a safe place to step forward in the leader’s role?
I would suggest that the role of leader in the faith community has been diminished in several ways, of which I would point quickly to three. First, spiritual leadership has been trivialized into institutional management, a role beleagured by the multiple preferences and factions that exist in congregations unable to find satisfaction. Second, we have placed our spiritual leaders in a false intermediary position between our own needs as we have defined them and a God whom we assume to be available but increasingly insignificant in a world dominated by the promises of technology. And third, we have limited our spiritual leaders by expecting them to be the models and personification of civil behavior and cultural moderation that others feel free to choose or reject in their daily lives.
Our expectations about spiritual leadership have become unclear; we project onto them, as we do onto the therapist’s professional neutrality, all our individual wants, needs, preferences, and complaints. This lack of clarity regarding our expectations of leaders becomes mirrored in the confusion of those who feel called to that role. Reflecting the experience of other faith traditions, the recent report of the Reconstructionist Commission on the Role of the Rabbi notes,
A decreasing number of rabbis and rabbinical students, in all streams of North American Judaism, intend to seek positions in congregations. They cite concerns about schedule, boundaries in personal and professional life, employment security, compensation, the complex nature of the diverse responsibilities that comprise congregational work, and the consequences for physical and emotional health of being on-call at all times… The work of the congregational rabbi has evolved in ways that make the job simply overwhelming and unworkable for many rabbis.1
Unclear roles and expectations make our leaders subject to everything without significant responsibility for anything.
Valuing Spiritual Leadership
Have we negotiated our expectations down because we have not known what to ask of importance from our spiritual leaders? We have asked for trivial, unrealistic things. We have not valued spiritual leadership and therefore have rewarded our leaders poorly. We have ended with calls for leadership in which the workload is great but the challenge is small.
Perhaps the adventuresome, worthwhile response would be to negotiate our expectations of leadership up, not down. What if we risked an assumption that spiritual leadership is important? What if we believed that faith centered on a relationship with God has something significant to say to us in our work lives, families, marriages, friendships, and communities? Such a belief would certainly be countercultural—it would mean standing independent from many current cultural assumptions and adopting a perspective different from the prevailing scientific worldview.
Truth With Meaning
“There is arguably no more important and pressing topic than the relation of science and religion in the modern world,” says philosopher Ken Wilber in the opening lines of The Marriage of Sense and Soul. “Science is clearly one of the most profound methods that humans have yet devised for discovering truth, while religion remains the single greatest force for generating meaning.”2 Yet ours is a moment when we seek ways of holding both truth and meaning. This then, is a time to assert clear expectations that leaders who can frame meaning have a word of importance to say.
In order for meaning to stand equal to truth we need to call, prepare, support, and reward leaders who can speak the word of meaning in the midst of multiple, and often competing, truths. This is, in fact, the role of prophetic leadership in the Old Testament sense of seeing what everyone else sees but identifying and pronouncing the hand of god where others seek simpler explanations.
Using Wilber’s culturally forced dichotomy of science and religion—of truth and meaning—we can see also the related but distinct leadership roles of specialist (science) and generalist (religion). If we are to negotiate up our expectations of our spiritual leaders we will need to call and respond to people who are “deep generalists.” Corporate consultants Jagdish Sheth and Andrew Sobel define a deep generalist as “someone who has a core expertise onto which he or she layers knowledge of related and sometimes un
related fields.”3 while that may sound a bit dry and detached, it speaks of having a very deep knowledge of one’s own truth but also having sufficient insight, maturity, experience, and wisdom to be able to maintain an informal, generalized approach to complex situations. For a spiritual leader it means being able to stand deeply in one’s faith while functioning broadly across multiple areas and experiences of life to bring new understanding, direction, and hope to those who are led.
Seeing New Realities
I consider Harrell Beck, who taught Old Testament wisdom literature at Boston University School of Theology, to be such a deep generalist spiritual leader. A friend and mentor to me in my early years of ministry, Harrell taught classes for which one needed to be a middler or senior at the seminary in order to gain a prized place on the roster. But despite the limit to the number of class participants (usually around 20), the room was routinely filled with an additional 25 to 40 students who would come simply to hear Harrell’s opening prayer before the teaching began. The prayer would focus on the life of the seminary but reach out to include issues of the city and events of the nation and world. At the conclusion of the prayer a few moments would be given to allow non-class members to file out, and then the teaching would begin.
Always amazed at his prayers and the response that he evoked in so many of us, I remember asking Harrell how he understood so many things so clearly that he could address not only our own community but also issues and events that it took whole newspapers to chronicle. His response was the simple but disciplined truth of the deep generalist spiritual leader. Harrell quickly admitted that he did not understand all that I ascribed to him. “But I do understand wisdom literature,” he said. “And I can talk about what the world looks like when you look through the lens that God has given us in the Old Testament.” He stood deeply within the discipline of his faith, but he was able to move broadly across life experience. I wonder what our congregations would be if we had more such leaders who stood deeply in their understanding of the faith and had the ability to help us see new realities in our own experience of life.
Valing New Gifts
What if we negotiated our expectations up and called deep generalists of faith as our leaders in congregations? Costs and challenges would be involved. We would need to move outside of cultural norms to value the strange gifts our new leaders would bring. Those leaders would need to be exceptionally mature and able to stand outside of cultural norms, knowing that their gifts are valuable.
For example, our culture gives time, place, and speech to the specialist who holds some word of truth. Consider how one must go to the office of a physician even for visits requiring none of the equipment at that office, and how waiting rooms are often filled with people whose time is assumed to be less important than the physician’s. In a recent visit to a medical specialist, I was interrupted whenever my answers did not go where the physician felt necessary, and the physician only gave clear information when challenged. Clearly, speech was assumed to belong to him.
To the contrary, deep generalist leaders must be mature and centered people who understand that they are to listen as the more important part of conversation and that speech belongs to the one who has the need. Deep generalist leaders understand that they must go to the place where the person is faced with need—to the hospital bed, the home, the lunch meeting, the committee meeting, the unexpected confrontation in the community. Deep generalist leaders understand that timing belongs to the other and that the word of meaning cannot be spoken until the time is ripe for listening.
There is a personal and relational cost to be paid by deep generalists of meaning who can stand maturely and securely in a culture that more naturally rewards specialists of truth. There is also the cost of preparation that must be paid by those called to this most unique of leadership roles.
Seminary training for clergy and adult Bible and faith study for laity are only the entry points for these leaders. They learn the faith deeply not just to teach others but, more importantly, to be able to stand deeply within a perspective that allows them to see and announce the world from the very different perspective of faith.
But the learning must continue. Leaders must learn the culture in order to speak to it, a task with purpose much deeper than market research and sensitivity. They must learn the particular congregation in order to vision with the people. They must learn the lives, the professions, the events of their people in order to bring faith meaning to their experiences. Perhaps most difficult, they must learn themselves in order to stand in relationship with, but free of limiting dependence on, others. To call, prepare, and support such spiritual leaders bears the heavy cost of rethinking and redesigning the ways in which we will train and evaluate them.
Abraham negotiated his expectations down in the hope of saving Sodom. We too have tried this with our expectations of congregational leadership, only to discover that we too have lost what we hoped to save. Hope comes not in negotiating down to meet minimal requirements. Hope comes in raising our expectations of spiritual leadership. Hope lies in challenging gifted and risk-taking people to a place of leadership of meaning based on faith. Hope lies in our own willingness to receive and reward leadership that may, in fact, change us.
1. The Rabbi-Congregation Relationship: A Vision for the 21st Century (Philadelphia: Reconstructionist Commission on the Role of the Rabbi, 2001), pp.1-2.
2. New York: Random House, 1998, p.3.
3. Jagdish Sheth and Andrew Sobel, Clients for Life: How Great Professionals Develop Breakthrough Relationships (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), p. 87.