Religious Leaders: From Answer Givers to People Who Try Stuff

Religious Leaders: From Answer Givers to People Who Try Stuff June 7, 2023

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What makes for a religious leader? / Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash

One of the key ways my thinking on religious leadership has changed is this: I’ve moved from looking for Answer Givers to looking for People Who Try Stuff. (Related to, but not quite the same as, getters-of-stuff-done.)

The Answer Givers

Many of us have found ourselves drawn to the kinds of religious leaders who seem to have all the answers. After all, most of us have questions. We have difficult questions. 

Often we haven’t quite come across answers yet that completely work for us. Or that work for us all the time. Or that work for the experiences of those around us, or the experiences of people we read about in the news.

And so, when the preacher stands up there in front of her large congregation, or the author spells out his views in an authoritative-sounding book, or we sit down for coffee with the pastor and ask her all our questions and she answers them and sounds confident about it, this can feel like good leadership. It can feel like what we’re looking for.

(After all, as Jemar Tisby has astutely observed, evangelicals are often “the people who don’t have any questions.”)

But here’s the problem. (Or one of the problems, anyway.) There is much that is mysterious about life. There is much that resists the kinds of straightforward answers often given from the pulpit. Or in the pages of those much-loved Christian books. Or in a conversation that’s more of a one-way question-and-answer session than two finite, fallible, equal humans trying to figure stuff out together.

Everyone Has Different Answers

The answers to our Big Questions tend to resist one-size-fits-all explanations. And the kinds of answers that feel meaningful to us may change over time. 

The answers that work for me may be very different from those that work for someone else. That doesn’t mean either person is right or wrong. It just means we’ve had very different experiences, and so different things feel right to us. Different ways of thinking help us process our lives and make sense of them. And that’s okay.

As Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis reflects in Fierce Love: A Bold Path to Ferocious Courage and Rule-Breaking Kindness That Can Heal the World (Harmony 2021), we are “all making assumptions about God shaped by the testimony of others, texts we’ve studied, fears, experiences, yearnings, and hopes. How we talk about God is informed by snippets of memory, song lyrics, and how we were parented” (199). 

The theology that makes sense to us is shaped by our assumptions. And our assumptions are shaped by all sorts of things—from the songs we’ve been exposed to and whose lyrics we have (often unthinkingly) internalized, to the ways our parents interacted with us when we were kids. (Which impacts how we imagine God as a father/mother/parent.)

Mystery vs Control

As Rev. Dr. Lewis goes on to write, when it comes to God, “We’re impatient to know what the mystery is, and, not knowing, we try to find ways to connect. Maybe if we devour it, conquer it, we will have its characteristics. Maybe if we make sacrifices to it, pray to it, dance for it, we will be blessed” (199).

Sometimes we’re looking for—or we think we’re looking for—the kind of transactional relationship where, in Lewis’ words, we “make sacrifices” in exchange for “be[ing] blessed.” Or we’re looking for the kind of controlling relationship where we “devour” or “conquer” God. Perhaps by trying to have all the theological answers. 

And yet, still, there is mystery. We do not control God. Religious leaders do not control God. 

For most of us, as soon as we think we know something, something else happens that—if we’re willing to acknowledge it and reflect on it—changes everything. 

This can be disorienting. It can be uncomfortable.

But maybe it’s also how faith was meant to be: A journey more than a destination. A path marked by openness to change, eagerness for transformation. A giving-up of our need for control, and an embrace of mystery instead.

The People Who Try Stuff

And so, in this murky world we live in, what’s the place of a religious leader? I don’t think it’s exactly that they don’t have a place. I think it’s more that they just don’t have all the answers. 

They aren’t the infallible Answer Givers. And we don’t need them to be.

Maybe, instead of being the people who are supposed to know all the things—and therefore control all the things, or give the illusion of controlling all the things—religious leaders are meant to be, simply, the people willing to try stuff. The people who do things others might want to do but need someone else to go first.

Like all of us, the People Who Try Stuff will make mistakes. Some of the things they try will go well; others, not so much. But the point is that they’re trying things. They’re actively seeking out what it looks like to live a life of faith, and inviting others to join them. 

As one example, recently my pastor gave public comment at a City Council meeting on a highly contentious community issue. In so doing, she helped me see what it can look like to engage in that space as a person of faith. To advocate for decisions that affirm the humanity of every person in our community. To speak up for and with those who are not being heard. 

The situation didn’t require all the theological answers. But it did require a step of faith. My pastor led the way—not by pretending to know everything, but by doing something.

I used to think religious leaders were the Answer Givers, the people to whom I could ask my questions and they would help me know what to think. Now, I think there are many questions we will never quite have the answers to—or at least not the same answers for everyone. As we all figure out what faith looks like together, religious leaders can be the People Who Try Stuff, the people willing to go first. This is the kind of leader I want to follow.

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