6 October 2012


Those of us, who have lived as religious even before Vatican II, may have seen it as a static and stable reality in the Church. Our society itself was static. In fact, the perfection of God was seen in his "immutability" and "change" was considered an imperfection, both in God and Nature. We all lived in a firm framework of thought with little space for novelty and change. Leadership in this context was chiefly concerned with maintaining the status quo according to treasured traditions. The "Fiddler on the roof" registered this mindset in the song "Tradition, tradition".
In the church and therefore in religious congregations, Leadership fossilized and fidelity meant "no change" and novelty or fashion was frowned upon. The expansion of apostolic works was mainly a relocation of what already existed and recruiting vocations was primarily to staff such institutions. A good leader was judged by his ability to maintain traditions. This pattern of leadership existed for many years in a “never-changing" Church in a stable society.
Pope John XXIII woke the Catholic Church to an emerging reality when he told us that "the world is on the threshold of a new era...... God is leading mankind to a new order of relationships" (Humanae Salutis). As we know, the one great thrust of Vat. II (1962) was to call for a paradigm shift, reminding us that God works and reveals himself in history. Now on, attention is centered on the total human scene. For instance, no longer is the emphasis in evangelization solely on saving a person's soul. Rather, everything that concerns human life now becomes the concern of the people of God and as Pope Paul VI had stated: We are at a turning point in history (EN4). We are at the cross-roads open to new points of reference.
We live in a time of transition and it is a difficult and painful process. Today, Change defines the world of and every leadership is challenged to cope with the great changes taking place in our thought patterns, in the way we see life, in the meaning of human existence and in the development of our world. We live in a post-modern period today and it is a mistake to believe that the challenges we face today may still be tackled with the solutions of yesterday. The great temptation is to deny this “Change” and to constantly revert to the past, canonizing our experiences and shutting the door to better solutions by branding them as vain novelty.
Perhaps many of us, religious leaders may not deny the change factor but are certainly slow to part ways with old solutions (we always did things this way) Truly, Change is irksome. Deep down we try to believe that the "winds of change" will blow over, the chaos will settle soon and we can return to the way we always thought, worked and lived. We need to be convinced that this will never happen.
In the context of Religious life itself, Change is affecting the existence and structure of consecrated communities of men and women. Dwindling numbers and scarce new vocations are ringing the death knell for not a few religious congregations. To cope with change in this time of transition we need leaders who will lead us through a process of re-vitalization. Leadership is vulnerable and insecure because the path ahead is no more a beaten track. There are no blue prints for success. Leaders today must first of all help their members to deal with loss on a number of levels: the loss of old revered traditions and value systems, a loss of faith in the rapid changes, a loss of former leadership role models, thus leading to anxiety, depression and even resentment. The period of transition and change has caused an aftershock and caused an exodus from congregations and even out of the Catholic Church. The urgency for new leadership is obviously vital.
The New Leadership
The great leaders of history have been those who have been open to life, immersed themselves in it and come face to face with their own vulnerabilities. We need to go back to the greatest of leaders, Jesus Christ and draw inspiration from his leadership pattern which we may term a gospel-centered leadership.
Let us look at the scene of Jesus' Baptism in the Jordon. St. Luke traces the setting in picture prominent people of the times (Tiberias, Pilate, Herod, Annas, Caiphas), together with a cross-section of people (Pharisees, soldiers, and tax gatherers). Into this real human scene Jesus arrives for his baptism. He chooses to become part of his people, to immerse himself into the community with it's need for repentance and expectation of a Messiah. This is to be his Calling. He achieves the status of a leader because he deeply experiences the heart of sinful and suffering people. The temptations that follow try to distort his identity by offering him wealth, power and glory. But Jesus remains true to his Call and reaffirms his identity as Son of God, Saviour of the world. So he embarks on a new path as Isaiah points out, to become one with his people to lead them.
When Jesus preached on the Kingdom of God, he clarified the role of leadership as Service and not domination. "You know that among the pagans their so-called rulers lord it over them, and their great men make their authority felt. This is not to happen among you. No; anyone who wants to become great among you must be you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be a slave, to all. For the Son of Man himself did not come to serve but to give his life as ransom for many” (10, 42-45). It is a power, not to be served or before which a person must bow or cringe. It is a power which has an enormous influence in the lives of people by being of service to them.” (Albert Nolan, Jesus before Christianity)
Thus the leadership ministry of Jesus is characterised by the release of God’s power as he expels demons and heals those who believe. The woman with the issue of blood touches Jesus and power goes out from him. When Jesus sends out the disciples two by two he confers power on them to heal and cast out demons. Religious leaders are empowered by the same spirit and called to develop ways of making decisions, organizing life and harmonising gifts so that this holy power is realised in each of us and in our communities. Like the disciples however, many of us keep mixing up the two types of power: wanting to rule and lord it over others rather than releasing the power of serving others.
Leadership is in crisis the world over, and authority is in shambles. This is very pressing situation even for leadership in religious life.  Bookshelves are today filled with publications on the art of leadership. There is a new range of terms for leaders, eg. “heroes of innovation, servants in leadership, hands on value driven, transformational leaders”. In all this books, the following points may be noted;
a.       Change is a fact of life and leadership for change must be an integral part of all organization today
b.      Leaders must be able to share and shape a vision with others.
c.       Leader must have the ability themselves or through others to strategise their vision into concrete plans for action.
d.      Leaders must realize that people belong to cultures that tend to resist creativity and change.
e.       Leaders must call people to be accountable for their behaviour according to the vision and strategies they have accepted.
In our age of transition three important factors contributes to effective leadership:
1.      The importance of providing a “Vision”.
For a Leader the only constant in today’s world is change and the ‘only stability possible is stability in motion’. No business firms no organization of any kind, including the Church, can ignore the reality of radical uncertainty at the heart of all change. Innovate or die. There are no exceptions. How different this is to the role of a manager! For managers, systems and structures are all, and change is not integral to their role. Like Jesus a Gospel-centered leader challenges the status quo. Management is doing things right, leadership is doing the right things. Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall. (Stephen Corey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People).

In order to lead effectively we need to create the future from the mass of existing facts, hopes, dreams, dangers and opportunities. This created future we call ‘vision’. ‘Without a vision, the people perish.’ (Prov. 29:18)
Look at Jesus. He shows us how a leader should act today. He constantly had his eyes on the future and knew where he was going. He had discovered the exact role he had been called on to play and this he would unhesitatingly, no matter the cost. He tells the assembly at Nazareth:

The spirit of the Lord has been given to me;
He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor,
Liberty to the captives and to the blind new sight;
To set the down-trodden free, to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour. (Lk. 4:18ff)

This is Jesus’ role and this is what he must constantly preach through word and deed. This vision of the Kingdom of God is always before him and he sees it at every step and turn: in the lilies of the field, the widow sweeping out her house, the corn growing, the merchant buying a pearl, the vision is rooted in the experience of his people, it pervades his whole being and he cannot stop talking about it. The very essence of leadership is for you to have a vision. It’s got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.

Where did he get all this? Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Asked his astonished towns people. We know that Jesus received his vision through his communion with his Father and his reflection on the human scene. It is written in the prophets, ‘they shall all be taught by God’.

Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me (Jn. 6:45). This is why Jesus can add, “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full. I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn. 10:10-11). Laying down one’s life means making one’s own faith and doubt, hope and despair, joy and sadness, courage and fear available to others as ways of getting in touch with the Lord of life. The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.

It is very important for us who claim to be leaders today to be in touch with the Father’s will and yet we allow so many other tasks to take priority over the time we have set aside for communion with the One who alone can give flesh to our vision. We need to ask whether lack of contemplative prayer and constantly changing involvement in what seems most argent are signs that the Spirit is gradually being suppressed. Are we leaders, truly men of God with an ardent desire to dwell in God’s presence, to listen to God’s voice and look at God’s beauty, to touch God’s incarnate Word and to taste fully God’s infinite goodness? Dealing with burning issues without being rooted in a personal relationship with God leads to divisiveness because, before we know it, our sense of self seeks the upper hand. For Christian leadership today to be truly fruitful a movement from the moral to the mystical is required. Only in this way will the vision burn itself into our imagination and propel us to action on behalf of the kingdom; only in this way will have that zealous energy in us, which may be misunderstood for madness (Mk. 3: 21)
2.      Collaborative leadership and consultative decision making
Today, we need both, Managers and Leaders, since to be over-led and under-managed is just as dangerous as being under-led and over-managed. The manager and leader need each other and express this openly in dialogue. Vatican II highlighted the need for us to look at authority as service exercised through subsidiarity and co-responsibility. The principle of collegiality runs like a thread through the Council documents at the level of the universal Church (through synods and episcopal conferences), and in the diocese (priest and parish councils). Today in many religious congregations we speak about a leadership team. The emphasis in all these is “shared responsibility” which comes through mutual respect and the collective seeking of God’s will. This movement is in the right direction, because it is the Gospel way. It calls for a letting of our strength, a readiness to trust others and to work with them, a willingness to break God’s Word with all people of good will.

We look at the early Church and its mode of acting. St. Paul saw at once that not everyone had the same gifts. Some were called to be apostles others teachers, others prophets and so on. But everyone works to knit God’s holy people together for the work of service. (Eph. 4. 12) For the apostles, collegiality was a reality. One has only to see how they operated at the first Council of Jerusalem. Or how Paul accosted Peter in Galatia.
But at the same time we religious must be aware of a counter trend prevalent in our Church today to go back to hierarchical and high-centralised ways of operating. We need to shrug off every vestige of authoritative action and domineering attitude. Our decisions need to be open, consultative and wherever possible, transparent.

Finally as this is a time of transition, we need to remember, “when change is driven from the top of the organization …without significant across-the –board participation—it is a recipe for failure….participation empowers the vision.” (James Belasco, Teaching the elephant to dance)

3.      Leadership for prophetic dissent
Interestingly, Religious life historically flourishes at times of deep change when the hierarchical Church does not adequately respond to the needs of society. In such a situation the prophetic figure appears. Today there is a form of authority corruption encouraged by certain elements within the Church, for example, the unwillingness of the hierarchical Church to balance its exercise of authority with the demands of collegiality. Prophetically, one should expect individual religious and communities challenging this abuse. But “where today do the religious orders exert a shock -effect within the church? Where are they passionately concerned to make prophetic criticism within the church something that counts? (Johannes Mets, Poverty of Spirit)

When leaders in the church or other organizations are concerned for the future they foster a reasonable degree of diversity and dissent. Dissent is a confusing and at times a highly emotive word, especially for those people who are irrevocably wedded to the status quo or who fear any form of change whatsoever. The reality is that there can be no constructive change at all, even in the Church, unless there is some form of dissent. We need to remember that dissent is not simply criticising what is happening, but the proposing of alternatives, and no system can evolve creatively that is unwilling to consider alternatives.
Jesus was that great dissenter. With patience and love he challenged the religious and cultural status quo of his time by proposing an alternative way of life. We see throughout the Gospel how he confronted some of the most cherished and emotional issues of his people. He was able to show that Sabbath was made for man and not the other way around. He put people in the centre of the picture and relegated the law to the periphery. He showed that God cared for sinners ant that they were not abandoned. His Vision of life was so clear that he could get to the heart of things. All this again was possible because of his closeness to the Father. “I and the Father are on”.(Jn 10,30)  

Not only should religious leaders today be voices of dissent themselves, but they should encourage similar voices from the members of their congregations or those they work with. Pius XII saw the need for this when he said, “there would be something missing from her (Church life) if there were no public opinion within her, a defect for which pastors as well as the faithful would be responsible”. John Paul II as Archbishop of Krakow, also insisted that an organization must ‘not only allow the emergence of the opposition, give it the opportunity to express itself, but also make it possible for the opposition to function for the good of the community’.
Our option for the poor and our solidarity with them means that we have to speak out when the need arises. Our love for our Church should cause us to gently, yet fearlessly, confront those issues that need addressing, particularly the centralized control, the clericalism and patriarchy that hinder her growth. We need to look within our own congregations at outmoded structures, institutions that have outlived their apostolic thrust, practices that have lost their relevance. This will lead to suffering – much suffering and rejection. The grain of wheat must die in order to be a source of life. Courage is in short supply today. May we hunger for it. This is the ‘zeal for Thy House’ which consumed Jesus.