THE PROBLEMS OF RELIGIOUS LEADERS

When I was in seminary I lived in a large old house where students were each allotted a bedroom, plus common use of the bathroom and kitchen. One of the other people living there was Teruo, who was a Japanese priest of the Konkokyo “religion.” When we met in the kitchen at odd hours when taking a break from studying, we visited. I asked him what his services were like.

He did not address groups. He went to the temple and sat waiting until someone came who had questions and gifts. They presented both and then he told them what they should do. He was a direct descendent of Konko, the originator of the line of practice. In Japan and China one continuing thread is allegiance to ancestors and continuity of the culture, so what Teruo told his parishioners was based on continuation and conformity. They accepted it and did as advised.

In the Western world, esp. the Christian variety of thought, hierarchy and transcendence are the most important values, at least until the Protestant movement began to valorize the individual and rational. The ultimate leadership was that of the Inner Light as with Quakers, so no one was clergy.

Then the idea of immanence, an inner impulse and drive, began to take hold, not just in religion as a defining and organizing force, but also for art and other kinds of organizing so that authority that either jumped straight to “God” through literature or opposed authorities as wrong on the basis of rationality, like arguing against the Trinity. But God still displaced both Pope and Emperor as a higher power, therefore more important. The idea of Platonic abstracts and reasoning according to them was somewhere in the middle, depending on how theist the thinker was. Or God dissolved.

So the echoes of these developments are with us now, exp. in the Protestant-of-Protestant denomination of the Unitarian and Universalist brands. It’s useless to ask them what they believe because the gathering point is simply the process of the believing, which can change over time and place.

So how is one supposed to lead such congregations? My impulse is to say by pursuing belief in plain sight thus talking about it on Sundays in the pulpit. This can be done both by the justification by excellent education or the conviction from experience, embodied in a life. A minister in the PNWD was a brilliant preacher and a dedicated institutionalist, which were sometimes in sync and other times not, but what I want to say is that a member of his congregation remarked that the pastor had married the commenter to his wife, had dedicated the children, and had finally buried the wife. “He is part of my life and I cannot reject him.” Yet this minister was a major part of an opposing thread, which was that by organizational design and tolerating zany doctrines, a congregation could persist as a functioning body.

This morning I was reading about the CUC and UUA and the contrasts in their cultures (one Canadian and one American) which have separated them. One element I had not really thought about was that in Canada there had not been enough ministers to serve all the congregations even when admitting fellowships with no building nor minister, so a system of chaplains developed, something like Catholic deacons. They can do the rituals and comforting that some ministers consider nuisances because they interrupt their study and meditation as well as the machinery of the denomination. I found when I was serving in Canada, that the chaplain often became more respected and loved than the minister because of the power of the rituals.

Anyway, clergy tended to come and go, while chaplains were immanent in the congregations. It was suggested that the congregations in the West of both countries were more content to function without ministers, more anti-authoritarian and more susceptible to the forces of growth but less sophisticated about how to do it themselves. Ministers were “sold” to fellowships by the UUA claiming that they could make growth happen. (Missionizing Mormon style) but when no growth came (mostly because of economics) it was easier to say they could not be afforded and send them on. Or reduce them to “mommies” in charge of potlucks and building maintenance.

In the West an anti-intellectual movement has developed, esp. among working people and as resistance to “credentialing” as an indicator of value. Indeed, my seminary never considered organizational design for growth, though they joked a lot about tithing. This sentiment not only thinned out the ministers but also could snuff out the congregations who felt themselves elite because of education. The West in both nations often felt that it was based on innovation, a “new world,” and natural intention. But the demographics of resource development — boom and bust — are hard on all groups in the West.

The Unitarian list of purposes and values comes almost directly from Enlightenment thought, which was logical, technical, and progressive with a smaller component of romantic regard for nature. A basic conflict between hierarchies and sharing has never been resolved, even in academia. Therefore, order created by a leader with a vision — or at least aspiration — is always in conflict with self-determination by individuals in congregations.

This was brought home sharply to me by a congregation that I described as an entity on a table with wheels that turned in every direction. At the time the UUA wanted us to produce a unified statement of intention, but it was impossible. Group discussion went in opposition, sometimes passionately. There was no Teruo, the priest to tell us what to do and indeed we’d left our ancestors behind, sometimes defiantly. I remarked that if ever all the wheels went in the same direction, the entity would plunge off the table. But the phenomenon leaves a minister with either charismatic seduction or seeking another line of work — which is easy when the job is low-pay and some politicized parishioners like to say “ You are merely our employee.”

There’s no possibility of saying what is objectively the “right” way to manage leadership because all assumptions are so tightly connected to the cultures in which they live. As I muddle through the new vision of existence that science throws open, I begin to wonder whether any congregation based on this overwhelming culture could exist and what sort of leadership it would have. But no organization can exist apart from its culture. Can any organization exist without leaders?

Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.