An Encouraging Word — A priest’s leadership

Father J. Ronald Knott

He walks ahead of the sheep and they follow him because they recognize his voice.
They will not follow a stranger. They will run away from him because they do not recognize the voice of a stranger. John 10:4,5

Forty-two years ago, today, I celebrated my first Mass. I like to think of it as the opening day of my ministry as a spiritual leader in the forefront of the church. I define spiritual leadership as the ability to influence people to move from where they are to where God wants them to be.

For me, the key to spiritual leadership has always been “the ability to influence people.” After all, I did not become a priest for my own benefit, but for the benefit of others. “Priests are given a particular gift so that they can help the people of God exercise faithfully and fully the common priesthood which it has received.”

Forty two years in, I am convinced that one of the most serious problems facing Catholicism today is the quality of its spiritual leadership in the face of deteriorating religious practice. Instead of owning the fact that we are not all that good at our “ability to influence people” in moving from where they are to where God wants them to be, we are becoming more known for our silly and counter-productive rants about “secularism” and “moral relativism” than our ability to inspire people spiritually. When we end up having to insist on how we ought to be listened to, is that not the surest sign of our spiritual leadership failure?

As priests, our model is Jesus the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd has a convincing voice that sheep want to follow. With “convincing voices,” good shepherds are able to walk in front of their sheep and lead them where they need to go. When we shepherds lack “convincing voices,” we tend to turn into “sheep dogs” who bark and snap at the flock from behind.

When we shepherds lack the “ability to influence,” we inevitably start to blame, criticize and condemn the sheep. When we shepherds lose our “convincing voices,” we have nowhere to turn except to engage in desperate attempts to force the sheep to go where they are supposed to go. We are left, finally, to engage in increasingly shrill public denouncements until nobody is listening. As Alexis de Tocqueville put it, “Pretensions increase as power diminishes.”

The more years of spiritual leadership experience I have behind me, the more I am convinced of the wisdom of these words from the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. “Let us stop thinking so much about punishing, criticizing and improving others. Instead, let us rather raise ourselves that much higher. Let us color our own example with ever more vividness.” In my 42 years as a priest, I have always found that when nobody is listening to me as a shepherd, it is always wiser to question the credibility of my own voice than the sheep’s commitment.

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