An Encouraging Word – The inability to convince

Father J. Ronald Knott

Father J. Ronald Knott

Listen! Wailing from the shepherds, howling from the leaders of the flock! Jeremiah 25:36

For the last eleven years, I have been running around the country — even other parts of the world — talking to priests and bishops about spiritual leadership.

When I was teaching in the seminary and was looking around for a good textbook to use, I was shocked to find out that there has been very little written about spiritual leadership since St. Gregory the Great’s “On Pastoral Care” in 590. Noticing this vacuum, I tried to write one myself for seminarians. It is called “The Spiritual Leadership of a Diocesan Priest: On Being Good and Good At It.”

I noticed there are many books on church management (mostly Protestant efforts), but very little on “spiritual leadership.” In my little book, I define “spiritual leadership” as “the ability to influence people to move from where they are to where God wants them to be through invitation, persuasion and example.”

The goal of “spiritual leadership” is an internal change of heart that leads to changed behaviors. Related to “spiritual leadership” is “pastoral leadership,” the skillful use of the church’s tools (designated positions, laws, rituals and organizational structures) in influencing people toward that internal change of heart and ultimately changed behaviors.

When designated spiritual leaders only have postestas (power that comes from position), rather than auctoritas (authority that comes from character), they move from being good shepherds with convincing voices that people want to follow to barking sheep dogs from whom people run away. The Scribes and Pharisees had postestas. Jesus has auctoritas.

Even Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI noted once that it was easier to define the truth as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith than it was as pope to inspire people to want to live those truths that he helped define.

What I try to tell seminarians, priests, deacons and even bishops is that when people do not listen to us, it is tempting to blame the sheep. Our condemnations make us feel righteous, but they are cheap and cowardly responses. I believe what we need to do is to step back and take a good hard look at our “ability to influence.”

What I see coming from our church these days is a series of spiritual leadership failures. What good is it to “have” the truth if we are incompetent in our ability to “sell it?” Instead of blaming the sheep, we need to take a good hard look at the shepherds!

Some church leaders are burning up the Internet, howling about recent “setbacks.” I, for one, hope that we do not fall further into the trap of becoming barking sheep dogs with more rants about “moral relativism,” but rather step back, stop talking so much and start asking ourselves some hard questions about our spiritual leadership abilities — our ability to influence people.

The real test of spiritual leadership is to turn around to see if anyone is following.

To read more from Father Knott, visit his blog:

Father J. Ronald Knott

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