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Will Christian Leaders Do What is Most Needed?

June 12, 2011

 What Christian leaders see as their role is tied intimately to themes we cover here, such as the future of Christianity and the “identity crisis” that the faith finds itself in.  What is pastoral leadership, and other forms of leadership in religion and spirituality about? Having used the title “…What is most needed,” let’s expand that to what is clearly vital, of high importance, if not the most important, which might be debatable. 

I am concerned about what people–kids and adults–are experiencing “in the pew,” along with, and springing partly from what leaders are being and doing.  Actually, many pew-sitters are now longer found there, but are still exploring or hoping for something from their Christian heritage, from models or leaders within the Christian community.  Surveys these days show that many traditional beliefs are in question, perhaps more so by at least young Evangelicals now than for decades, if not a century. 

And for good reason.  Whether you call societal movement Postmodernism or something else, and view it as positive progress or not, our views of truth, religious truth, and broader “worldviews” have been in rapid flux.  This has understandably called much of traditional theology and religious assumptions into question.  But it doesn’t automatically mean that something with more “truthiness” (thank you, Stephen Colbert) always takes the place of traditional concepts.  Nor something that is more helpful to finding meaning and spiritual “reality.” One thing I believe we all need is a spirituality well integrated with the rest of personality and aligned with how things really are, here and beyond.  That is something developed beyond the exercise of the postmodern “hermeneutics of suspicion,” or questioning everything. 

So, what do Christian leaders need to do today? Among their many nurturing, organizing and other tasks, they can seek to truly walk alongside their parishoners in the exploration process.  I refer to the growth process of not only applying their faith to life, work and everything else, but of maturing the nature of that faith itself.  (We can boost that maturing actively.)  Now this sounds easy enough, right?

Well, maybe not.  Pastors live in fishbowls. They are “supposed” to be further along the spiritual growth path than at least most in their congregations.  There are a multitude of expectations and church-politics forces they contend with.  For most of them, there is precious little time or impetus to focus on their own inner development, between the intellectual focus and high demands of seminary training, seeking a suitable appointment, adjusting to one once there, perhaps starting or continuing to raise a family, etc.  

Now, most effective pastors do seek to be a positive example and many share vulnerably about at least the safer aspects of their own struggles. But when it comes to doubt, questioning, or belief changes that are core to a particular brand of Christianity, very few dare to be truly honest.  Many have had their questioning and “liberalizing” (usually, vs. “conservatizing”) period during seminary or ongoingly through their reading or other input.  As a result, areas where they may continue to have disturbing doubts or where belief changes have been made that they know are not harmonious with their Christian niche, they generally remain silent about.  In many of these cases (which I keep hearing are more common than almost anyone realizes), I believe important growth has begun but it tends to get stalled, and the benefits of it not passed along.  The stalling is partly because the leader believes (rightly or wrongly) that he/she cannot be open and share about what is truly going on in head and heart. 

In another scenario, the leader does share and in the process may stimulate the learning and growth of others around, or may find it necessary to go to another congregation (or seminary to teach, etc.).  In these cases, growth will probably continue one way or another, as well as more genuine and deeper opportunities to minister and help others.  I can’t say how bold I myself would be in this type of situation.  I have faced circumstances of this nature in relatively minor ways and not with an entire career at stake.  Certainly church leaders feeling binds of this type need to know, at minimum, that they have much company, and that support is available. 

To summarize what church-goers and society at large need from our church leaders, and what they need for themselves, is first to be honest with themselves, then to be as honest as possible, to the point of risk and discomfort, with their congregations…. Is anything more basic to  Christian faith?

I’m sure readers here would love, as I would, to hear stories of what you, as a Christian leader of one type or another may have faced, how you dealt or are dealing with it, what you observe among leaders (whether you are one or not), etc. Please share.

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