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Published on Monday, August 21, 2017

Q/A: Is spiritual leadership different for priests?

The identities and functions of spiritual leadership, and the transitions in between, are relevant for priests as well ... but there are differences as to how that is lived, structured, and shared.

Much of my work has been with various kinds of Protestant, Pentecostal, New Age, or other kinds of faith-based non-profits; but I have also been privileged to work with Catholic and Orthodox priests. The different functions and categories of spiritual leadership have been very helpful to them personally, and understanding lifestyle preferences has helped them pastorally and missionally. However, I think there are important differences in how this self-understanding or lifestyle sensitivity is applied and received in their ministries.

 

The first difference, of course, is that a priest’s function and identity is shaped around the sacraments. Catholic and Orthodox churches carefully protect the sanctity of worship with consistent liturgies, and while these may change to follow the Christian year, consistency and uniformity are important. Many priests find my book Worship Ways both interesting and puzzling. They recognize that the “one size fits all” approach to worship from Christendom has contributed to declining or less diverse worship participation; but continuity with ancient apostolic tradition is just as important (or perhaps more important) than relevance to any particular time, place, or people.

 

Depending on how flexible their bishop might be (and the current post-Vatican 2 trend suggests less and less flexibility), some priests have tried to introduce more contemporary language, symbols, and technologies into the divine liturgy. The area of greatest flexibility has been with the content and style of preaching (which may take place during or after the rite itself); or be associated with less formal baptism homilies for families and children.

 

But Sunday worship is not (or should not be) a “stand alone” experience for a Christian during the week. And priests among whom I have worked have found that understanding their identity as a spiritual leader has strongly influenced how they model and teach the spiritual life itself. The sacrament may be the same, for all, but the spiritual life can be customized for lifestyle segments for whom the priest’s heart bursts. Eventually, the relevance of spiritual life colors worship itself. The structures, and even the words of the liturgy are the same, but the person, presence, or shall I see the charisma of the priest helps the sacrament to be particularly relevant and timely for particular people. For there is a sense in which both priest and sacrament reveal the presence of Jesus Christ.

 

Viewed in the context of spiritual life, I think the evolution of Constant, Organic, and Extreme leaders is still apparent in the lives and careers of priests. Some priests are “wired” differently than other priests. Their default habits may be different. All priests may seek to function as caregivers, but only some priests are caregivers by nature. The same can be said for priests who function as family church leaders, or CEO’s of a large church or diocese. A bishop who is sensitive to lifestyle expectations for spiritual leadership can try to appoint the right priest, at the right time, in the right community; and a priest can intuit where and with whom they will be most effective.

 

So far, the evolution or radical re-shaping of what it means to be a spiritual leader has played out in some common patterns among priests. Priests who are shaped to be Faith Tutors gravitate to more traditional educational functions in the wider church; and those who are most comfortable as mentors and pilgrims gravitate to more monastic or social service roles in the church.

 

However, I think a great deal more diversity is emerging, and this is stressful for the church. The most difficult leadership transition for a priest, for example, is to function as a visionary or become a “relentless futurist” and still remain inside the formal structures of the church. It may be so stressful that priests feel called to leave the formal priesthood in order to live and work as a “priest” in a different way in the post-Christendom world. That may be in the for-profit or non-profit or even political sectors. In their self-understanding, they are still priests, and continue to link their identities with the profundity of the sacraments. And this, in turn, may lead these “priests” to experiment more radically with worship styles.

 

There is considerable angst among Catholic and Orthodox (and Anglican and Episcopal) as candidates for priesthood have declined. One solution has been to import priests from other countries and cultures where the church is stronger, but in many cases this strategy has only accentuated the gap between tradition and relevance in local parishes. It’s not just that the priest may speak a different language than the one indigenous to the community; but they unconsciously behave in ways that seem foreign to the cultural mores of the community. On the deepest level, the anxieties that drive the quest for God for the “foreign” priest may be different that the existential anxieties of the lifestyle segments around them; and the kind of courage modeled by the priest may not be the kind of courage lifestyle segments long to see. The Orthodox church has many national versions, and a priest from one national version often cannot be effective in the church of another national version. Now explode that “minor” diversity of national heritage and language into the “major” diversity of lifestyle segmentation today.

 

Ironically, despite the angst about the decline of candidates for priesthood, I think the Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, or Episcopal traditions actually have more opportunity to be relevant to the postmodern world than the Protestant church precisely because of the link between priesthood and sacramental experience. Emerging lifestyles are looking for spiritual leaders who not only function in “ministerial” ways; but who themselves are transparent to the Holy, or mediators for the divine, or open to mystery and miracle.

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