Religious Leadership and the Religions

You aren’t a leader if you can’t lead across cultures in a complex religious environment.  . . . I continue to muse on a read through three years of the HBR.

In the last blog I suggested that the classical liberal arts university and its dedication to leadership got distorted by the demands for technical knowledge,  vocational training, and faculty self-interest. What about seminaries?

I suspect that a similar process has occurred in theological education.

To go back a bit, Richard Baxter’s “The Reformed Pastor” was more than a little bit a psychology-based leadership manual for the 17th century. Reading him one is reminded that people skills have always been central to pastoral leadership.

But the American environment posed some special challenges to those who prepared people for Christian leadership. American Christianity was born in doctrinal controversy and disagreements about proper Christian practice. A pastoral leader, from the very beginning, had to be a robust apologist for his (and later her) denomination. Proselytism was always the favored method of evangelism, and pastoral leadership involved more than a little bit of theological martial arts.

Modernity brought new challenges. The pastor not only had to fend off the attacks of other denominations. The pastor had to keep Christianity relevant to those folks who found it increasingly old fashioned and were drawn to other forms of social, intellectual, and spiritual engagement. New religious options only added to the pressure. The pastor as denominational apologist had to also be the pastor as master of marketing the Christian brand in a market where (largely Asian) imports and plain old religious indifference were increasingly attractive.

Nor can we forget how modernity turned the world of religious authority upside down. Pastors now needed to learn new ways to authoritatively interpret scripture, ways that required high levels of technical expertise across several fields. And they needed to defend that authority from attacks in every direction. Or thought they did.

And of course, as in the university, demands for technical expertise increased as the employers of pastors – both denominations and churches – morphed into organizations far more complex than their forebears. Fixed liturgies and hymnals gave way to a demand for liturgical experimentation and ever more contemporary music. Multiple, and different, and even unprecedented worship forms were required. Pastoral counseling became a specialized field demanding psychological training, even as preaching became as much the science of rhetoric as exegesis and exhortation. After all, preachers now competed with standards of entertaining speech set by radio and television. Church finances, once managed through a single checkbook, turned into small business (or even large business!) management. The ever growing denominational demands for statistics and measurable results turned pastoral leaders into ecclesial accountants.

In the midst of all these demands the essentials of preparing leaders for churches may have been forgotten. Indeed I think it has been forgotten. For leadership, however important the various forms of technical expertise, is fundamentally about understanding humans, human nature, and human relationships. And in the seminary as in the university, this understanding is cultivated best through both continual engagement with fellow humans in an organizational setting, the actual practice of leadership (which is not the same as being in ministry) and the study of literature, history, philosophy, and more recently human religions and culture.

This is even more the case as increasing numbers of incoming students to our theological seminaries do not have a liberal arts education or any extensive experience in managing people. Their biggest problem isn’t their oft-lamented lack of background in literary criticism, philosophical reflection, or historical knowledge. It is their lack of understanding of themselves and their fellow humans. It is easy (especially for bishops) to forget that running a successful business isn’t the same as being a leader.

So it might be a good thing if pastors in training read the Harvard Business Review. Not because being a pastor is the same thing as running a business, but because the HBR understands that leadership is all about gaining a practical understanding of yourself and those around you. Something too easily forgotten by those of us in the God-quad.

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