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Published on Monday, June 26, 2017

Q/A: Is spiritual leadership in the US more stressful today than in the 1960’s or 1980’s?

Spiritual Leaders in the US have experienced stress from cultural shifts before … and have made significant contributions to civil debate and policy development within the church and beyond the church in the public arena. They have survived these stressful times … but it seems to me that their influence in culture has diminished overall. Each cultural shift seems to have reduced rather than enhanced the reputations of churches and the credibility of spiritual leaders.

 

As the Civil Rights movement seemed to make progress in the 70’s, church membership actually dropped precipitously. (Membership in many denominations peaked in 1968 – 1975). The National Council of Churches seemed to lose its raison d'etre. The baby boomers at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement discovered that justice and religion did not necessarily go together, and that in many places religion was getting in the way of justice.

 

Moreover, I think the boomers of that era had enough “moral imperative” to last a lifetime, and turned their attention back on themselves (self-fulfillment, self-improvement, self-whatever). The church functioning in loco parentis got in the way of their pursuit of self.

 

As the Gay Rights movement seemed to make progress in the 80’s (and will almost certainly continue to make progress in the US regardless of what church denominations say about it), churches lost their voice (or at least developed a severe case of laryngitis in their conversation with culture). The news media ceased asking their opinion. Spiritual leaders from diverse spiritualties became more influential through internet and other methods of communication. Fewer people really cared much about what preachers preached, or what denominations declared, or what Spiritual Leaders thought about commonwealth and community.

 

Moreover, I think the emerging busters and millennials of the 90’s and naught’s had enough institutional overhead to last a lifetime. Religion was no longer public. It was private. Spiritual leaders had less influence on the practice of religion itself as personal accountability for values and beliefs was lost in a wave of individualism.

 

So now we come to the next stressful culture shift: globalization and immigration. And yes, this period may be even more stressful for churches and spiritual leaders of all kinds than ever before.

 

1)       Spiritual Leaders today have less companionship. They have fewer colleagues and deal with more competition. There are fewer people to share their spiritual disciplines, fewer people in the pews to say “amen” to their leadership, and fewer social service agencies ready to partner with faith-based organizations.

 

In past culture shifts, clergy were able to link arms with their comrades and lead the Civil Rights march or even the Gay Pride parade; stand in solidarity on the street corner to protest. They could rely on the denomination to back them up. They could rely on the police to give them a break.

 

2)       Spiritual leaders today must speak multiple languages at once. Communities and neighborhoods are multi-lingual, and English may no longer be the first language. And language is not just about communication. It’s about empathy. Spiritual leaders who cannot freely communicate in at least one other language are not seen as genuinely sympathetic to the culture of origin of others.

 

In past culture shifts, spiritual leaders could tacitly rely on relative cultural homogeneity in community and church. Diversity just wasn’t that diverse. Even if people disagreed with you, we still shared much in common by race, gender, age, income, or language. Today culture is fragmenting into more and more lifestyle segments.

 

3)       Spiritual leaders today are more vulnerable to martyrdom. Their denominations or so politicized that bureaucracies are unpredictable or perhaps hostile. There are far fewer churches capable of financially supporting a full time pastor … especially if they cause disharmony over their particular points of view. Other public sectors (e.g. education, media, government, law) are more hostile, scrutinize every aspect of religion, and quick to judge.

 

“Martyrdom” can take many forms. The pressure for conformity comes from many sources. I think spiritual leaders today are more vulnerable to marriage breakdowns and family conflicts, addiction and substance abuse, dismissal and blackballing, and bankruptcy and arrest than in previous culture shifts.

 

4)       Spiritual leaders today find it harder to be role models for peace. The rehearsed word (sermons and public statements) and professional practices (education or counseling) are no long that influential on the public. It is the spontaneous word (off-hand remarks and rapid-fire emails and texts) and personal habits (behavior patterns in real life) that confirm or undermine credibility.

 

This is particularly challenging when spiritual leaders try to be peacemakers in the midst of cultural diversity. No one will listen to them! But many will observe them! They must reveal the “Fruits of the Spirit” every minute, every day, to everybody. It’s not just about spiritual function … it’s about spiritual identity.

 

So I think the emerging culture shift of globalization and immigration will be more stressful for spiritual leaders than other eras.

 

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