Rod Dreher, a writer who left Catholicism for Orthodoxy in the wake of the sex abuse scandals only to find himself caught in even more imbroglios in the Orthodox church, discusses the cost of corrupt and foolish leadership on the faithful.
Dreher, who has seen his leaders explore the full range of folly and corruption, is uniquely qualified to discuss the consequences of bad leadership on the church. From Dreher’s perspective, foolishness in leaders discourages the faithful enough to precipitate such events as, say, the Protestant Reformation (the title of Dreher’s piece is “Nobody Expects the Protestant Reformation”). The Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), of course, is in the midst of its own reformation resulting from the folly of The Episcopal Church. But it would be wise to remember that ACNA’s holy desire to preserve orthodoxy does not guard it from the same pitfalls besetting leaders in the Catholic church and the Orthodox church.
Dreher highlights the cultural problems in the U.S. that make the consequences of bad leadership greater than otherwise. Cultural standards and the positive social pressures to remain faithful have eroded, with church leaders being the few remaining harbingers of the gospel. As Dreher says:
In the past, religious leaders could have depended on certain factors to keep the sheep within the fold regardless of their own clerical follies. Much scandal remained safely hidden, and even when it stumbled into the public square, theological conviction and social pressure kept most believers within the fold.
Nowadays, though, changing mores and ubiquitous online media make it hard to suppress scandalous news.
While it is true that the scandals revealed by new media has held leaders to account in an unprecedented way, it also makes the consequences of our foolishness much greater than before. So great, in fact, that Dreher believes the church courts failure through its folly:
When a culture of corruption comes to dominate churches, which depend heavily on moral authority to fulfill their mission, these institutions are in danger of failure. Bishops and other leaders who remain oblivious or indifferent to the effect their actions have on the faithful, who stupidly assume that they are at the center of the church’s real business, and who think that they can afford to reform at a leisurely pace because God won’t let their church die are dangerously deluded.
While Dreher focuses on bishops and institutional leaders, his call to avoid folly and corruption is relevant to all who have any position of influence in their church communities. The influence of the vestry member or small group leader is significant enough that carelessness towards Dreher’s warning could cause the kind of spiritual confusion and apathy that would lead to death in our own communities, no matter how large or small. Whether in basilicas or Bible studies, foolish leadership demoralizes the faithful.
Dreher’s prescription for folly and corruption is to root out the bad weeds and remain ever vigilant in tending the garden:
Wise leaders will be aware of this weakness [human folly], and will not only remain vigilant against it, but also act to remedy manifestations of it before they can metastasize into threats against the very viability of the institution.
It is important for leaders to take immediate action against the problems in themselves or others that could potentially overwhelm the church in scandal, like a diseased plant that could poison the entire garden. Sometimes it’s better to simply uproot and discard the entire plant rather than simply wishing the problem would go away.
Additionally, the disciplining of listening–to God and his church—is vital to leadership. Listening for God’s still voice in prayer and obedience is necessary for leadership; unfortunately, the exercise of listening is too often taken for granted as we confuse our desires for ourselves or the church with God’s desires. It is much easier to listen to the errant compulsion within than the righteous command from without.
Listening to God’s voice in the people of the church is also vital. Keeping their fingers on the pulse of the communities they lead prevents leaders from becoming a governing elite that deliver people into the non-Promised Land. The temptation to influence a community in a certain direction to fulfill an aberrant vision or wish-dream is far to intense and susceptible to corruption to not be checked by listening for the wisdom of the people. We should remember that leaders are the servants of servants, always ready to lend an ear to the Master’s call, whether it comes directly or from his messengers.
Listening, of course, is not simply acknowledging the meaning of what is heard; rather, real listening acts upon what is heard and received from without. Listening recognizes the wisdom received directly from God or through others and then works immediately to bring about the necessary qualities and elements that fulfill the vision stipulated by God or his church.
Folly, corruption, and incompetence are part of human nature, and so they will always be a part of the church on this side of eternity. But, like a constant gardener, we can remain ever vigilant to root out problems before they destroy the garden, so that, someday, we can enjoy the fruit that comes from a bountiful harvest.