Dominating or Leading from Within?

A FEW YEARS ago an Orthodox priest quipped, on being ordained a bishop, that his spiritual life had been challenged as never before. “You put me on a throne, dress me up like the Byzantine emperor, call me ‘Master’ and expect me to be humble!”

When the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in the fifteenth century they named the Ecumenical Patriarch as “Ethnarch” of the Greek millet or nation. Each non-Muslim group under Ottoman rule (eg Armenians, Copts, Jews, etc.) was considered a subject “nation” and had its own national leader. It was at that time that the Ecumenical Patriarch took on some of the old emperor’s regalia. In time other patriarchs, metropolitans and bishops did the same. They started wearing crowns, being called “most eminent lord” and assuming all the trappings of state still used today. One temptation confronting Church leaders, then, was to see themselves as civil rulers rather than churchmen.

When St Paul was writing to the Christians of Corinth in the first century such magnificent trappings were unknown. This did not prevent some Christian leaders and their followers from putting on airs. In the Apostle’s First Letter to the Corinthians he criticizes the divisiveness in their community: “…there are quarrels among you,” he wrote. “What I mean is this: one of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ’” (1 Corinthians 1:11-12).

Christians – both clergy and laity – still succumb to this temptation when they attach themselves to one or another important person to show themselves as superior to others, confusing greater responsibility with higher status and honor.

St Paul confronts such attitudes with the principle he spells out in 2 Corinthians 1:24. “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, because it is by faith you stand firm.” He contrasts “lording over” others in the Church with “working with” others to assure a joyful spirit in the community. Church leaders are not meant to dominate from above but to lead from within the community they serve.


Clericalism and Laicism

A frequently cited example of domination in the Church is clericalism, where all responsibility in the parish is in the hands of the clergy while the laity is expected to simply “pray, pay and obey.” Similarly parish clergy complain that people from the bishop’s office tell them how to run their parish while bishops point their finger at higher-ups who interfere in their diocese! There is often the feeling among Christians that leadership in the Church means domination rather than cooperation.

The troublemakers in Corinth were not the Apostles, Paul or Cephas; they were the followers who stirred up antagonisms in their name. Similarly many Churches have suffered from what has been called “laicism,” where groups of parishioners attempt to dominate the parish and exclude others or limit their participation, perhaps on ethnic lines. Sometimes the parish “elite” have felt that the priest is merely their employee, supposed to do their bidding. Others have resented the bishop for enforcing diocesan policies (particularly financial ones) on their parish. How often do parish bigwigs pressure the priest to bend the rules for them or their relatives? It is not only clergy who may try to dominate the Church.

Church life as envisioned in our Tradition calls for a model different from either clericalism or laicism. It presumes that laity working together with clergy of all ranks –bishop, priest, deacons, chanters, etc. – each fulfilling their proper function. None of these roles is simply an honorific. Each of them is, first and foremost, a service to the Body of Christ, the Church, and therefore to the Lord Himself.

In the past the parish clergy were the only educated members of the community, particularly in villages and rural areas – perhaps the only parishioners who could read! They were the acknowledged leaders in the community, the keepers of good order. In the parish their word was law.

Today, in many if not most parishes, the priest is not the most educated person in the community, except in religious matters. The laity are recovering their rightful place in the life of the Church. In an attempt to involve more laypeople in Church life, however, some clergy have put men and women in leadership positions without proper training. A parish council member or a catechist, who has not been trained in the Tradition or in the vision of our Church, will not be able to contribute positively to the Church’s mission. Their secular education may make them leaders in their own fields, but they may remain children in their understanding of the Church and its ways. A yearling lamb does not make a good shepherd.

The Smell of the Sheep

Since becoming Bishop of Rome Pope Francis has encouraged important churchmen to lead from within rather than remaining at a distance from their flock. He told an archbishop whom he had just appointed papal almoner (charity director) not to sit in an office writing checks but to go out to the streets and serve the needy found there. Shepherds, he insists, should smell of their sheep because they are in their midst.

The pope’s injunction forces Church leaders to ask, “Where are the sheep to be found?” In some places they may congregate in coffee houses or the local pub – the shepherd’s place would be there with them. In many parts of our society the sheep rarely stray from in front of the TV or the computer. Shepherds have gone there as well, whether by visiting homes or making a presence for Christ in the media. Some suburban churches have opened chapels or stalls in their local shopping malls because that’s where the people may be found.

Sheep Know the Difference…

The movement toward greater lay involvement in the Church has led some parish priests to live so much like their parishioners that people might not know that they are priests at all. Some avoid any type of clerical dress in their desire to be “one of the boys.” For others their parish life consists in rounds of meetings rather than in leader people in prayer.

Sheep, however, know that their shepherd is not just another one of the sheep. They would be frightened if the shepherds started acting like sheep. Similarly Christian laypeople know that their priest has a different calling than they do. They should be able to detect in their pastors a greater commitment to prayer and the service of the Church as well as to fellowship with their parishioners.

A Model Shepherd

St John of Kronstadt served as a priest in a big city parish near St Petersburg in Russia from 1855 to 1908. He came to be known throughout the Russian Church for his devotion to the holy mysteries. He served the Divine Liturgy daily, unusual outside monasteries, and often heard confessions for hours on end. It was the witness of his prayer life that made people throughout Russia recognize him as “their” shepherd. One observer described the effect of serving the Liturgy on St John: “An extraordinary spiritual joy, extraordinary peace and heavenly rest, extraordinary strength and power were now reflected in each trace of his features. His face was as if glowing, was as if giving off some sort of light.” As St John himself said, “I die when I am not celebrating the Liturgy…”