Leadership is essential for a healthy and holy Church. From St. Peter to Pope Francis where would our Church stand today without the great and gifted leaders through the centuries?
Leadership in the Church, including local parishes, is not immune from the kinds of temptations leaders face in any institution. Based on my experience, I’d like to consider three temptations many leaders face framed by J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings series. It is my hope that understanding and being aware of these temptations will lead to a stronger, more unified Church grounded in the love of Christ.
The Pursuit of Power
“The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet it is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: Small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.” (The Fellowship of the Ring)
Tolkien’s story relies on some rather homely and “weak” characters—hobbits—to carry out a great task: destroying the magic ring to save Middle Earth. We normally identify leaders by their exceptional strengths and talents. We use popular tools like strength and personality finder tests to help us identify our unique gifts. Using our gifts and talents to build up the Body of Christ is prudent and life-giving, but we should not too quickly assume God only wants to use our human strengths to bless or lead his Church. In fact, God often builds up the Church by using our weaknesses. He entrusted the building of His Church, afterall, not to the rabbis and scholars of his time, but to simple men, fishermen. As St. Paul frequently preached, cross-shaped leaders learn to live first out of their weakness and dependency on the power of the crucified Lord:
“Consider your own calling, brothers. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong… I came to you in weakness… so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:26-27; 2:3,5).
Knowing our weaknesses helps us as leaders to not fall into the temptation of the pursuit of power. Christ is glorified in our human weakness and can transform it for the building up of His kingdom.
The Allure of Ambition
“You are so wise and powerful, will you not take the ring?”
“No!” cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. “With that power I should have power too great and too terrible.” (The Fellowship of the Ring)
The allure of the ring is the promise of control, but the great wizard Gandalf understands the power of the ring inevitably ends up controlling the wearer. True leaders develop habits of cooperation and collaboration in ministry and are quick to deflect praise and thanks onto others. Because leaders are in a position to influence outcomes and events, however, some can be tempted to an unhealthy ambition.
Sometimes, it can be tempting to view parish ministry as a stepping-stone to a bigger, better career in the church or name recognition. Unhealthy ambition can also feed a spirit of competition and criticism between churches that undermines our call to communion.
One of my go-to prayers to combat this attitude is called the Litany of Humility. It is a good practice to periodically check our focus and drive. Does our work stem from a love of Christ and His Church? Are we seeking God’s greater glory or our own?
“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”
(The Fellowship of the Ring)
I had a friend who out of college was given the responsibility of the youth ministry program at his home church. Unfortunately, early on he made a financial mistake that ruined a popular trip and drew harsh criticism from parents and staff alike. Unable to cope with such treatment, he resigned from ministry shortly after.
Rather than seeing failure or mistakes as reasons to give up, these can be seen as important opportunities for growth and maturation. A young church is surely a sign of a healthy and growing church, but that doesn’t make it a mature church. While the freedom to take risks and make mistakes is an indispensable part of learning, leaders should surround themselves with team members who are varied and diverse in their ministry experience.
For those who are relatively new to working for the Church, I suggest finding a faithful mentor or spiritual director with whom you can share struggles and receive encouragement. As Tolkien notes above, the Church needs wise, mature men and women to walk alongside its young, teaching patience and perseverance in order to grow deep roots.
Thanks to many gifted and faithful leaders, our Catholic Church indeed has deep, strong roots. By knowing and understanding a few temptations leaders can face, we can help our Church become more faithful and stronger. Pray for our church leaders, that God may give them the grace to be wise, humble, gracious, and joyful examples of the call to be more obedient followers of Jesus.