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Posted February 1, 2005

A Radically New Style of Church Leadership

By Father Eugene Hemrick

Most sociologists define a leader as a person who is task oriented, has a strong sense of duty and is sensitive to people -- a visionary who is creative, prudent and disciplined.

In current discussions of church leadership, the one quality more than any other that critics call for is docility, an attribute of prudence. Docility advocates taking counsel, employing research and formulating the right questions about important situations.

Asking church leaders to adopt a docile leadership approach is not “business-as-usual” for them. More often than not they get into the habit of being answer-givers instead of question-formulators. [Leaders aren’t solely at fault for this trait. The people who surround leaders create the expectation of leader-answer-giver, by playing the role of a subservient questioner --- a role that, more often than not, plays up to the vanity of a leader and weakens his or her docility.]

Unfortunately, many in leadership positions also feel that the research that might aid them in responding to important situations is too cumbersome, costly and time-consuming. These leaders don't like to puzzle about things, but prefer the good old American pragmatic approach. Unfortunately most of the time [and perhaps fortunately sometimes] the American pragmatic approach loves a “quick fix.” It is an essential part of our culture that often guides a leader’s decision making.

Francis Bacon would counsel leaders to remember that "a prudent question is one half of wisdom." He would add: “And it takes time and patience.”

How might this apply to everyday church life?

No doubt parish leaders have a "good idea" of their parishioners' backgrounds. But if they periodically conducted serious studies, they undoubtedly would have "a much better idea" -- one that opens eyes, increases sensitivity and leads to change. [I might add here, that research doesn’t always have to be “serious”, meaning the use of survey instruments and interviews. A leader can do an in depth study of a particular issue just by better using his or her powers of observations, keeping a journal of those observations, and comparing the notes he or she has made. The key to research is disciplined reflection in order to better understand an issue.]

Through research, leaders might learn that many more parishioners than they suspected have sheepskins and don't like to have the wool pulled over their eyes. Or these leaders might find that all the new books and movies on biblical stories are confusing people about what to believe and that they are searching for sound explanations. In other words, they hunger for substance in their homilies and continuing education programs.

Research generates knowledge and is a disciplined means for avoiding common-sense approaches to problems and challenges. It encourages a leader to take a more educated approach to understanding parishioners. And when conducted properly, it speaks to their educational pride.

Research, especially psychological research, helps leaders understand the very soul of those they serve by providing a better fix on their anxieties and concerns. This, in turn, enables them to address these concerns more meaningfully in homilies, counseling situations, casual conversations, or through discussion groups.

We still do not have good studies that probe the spirituality of a parish and help leaders to serve in this area -- enabling the parish to flourish. Ironically, spirituality is what church leadership should be most concerned about.

Embracing a research approach encourages leaders to balance contemplation and mediation with being “on-the-go”, reactionary, and extemporaneous.

Leadership today is extremely difficult and complex. These travails can be lightened if leaders would reserve more of their time in doing meditative, reflective, research.