David Brooks tells the Civil War story of Colonel Robert McAllister, determined to “improve the moral fiber of his men”. A Presbyterian, McAllister did all he could to convince his men that profanity, drinking, prostitution and gambling were not the way a true man and soldier behaved. His best efforts sparked a reaction. Line officers from what Brooks calls a “less genteel background”, formed an organization they called the “Independent Order of Trumps”. They “championed boozing and whoring, cursing and card-playing” – a kind of antithesis to McAllister’s Presbyterian leanings.
There’s nothing wrong with setting a high moral bar. The problem comes when that bar is attached to functions which have nothing to do with morality. Obviously, you don’t want someone driving a tank in a military operation if they are drunk; as for cursing, I suspect many a good soldier has let some foul language fly under fire from the enemy.
Something seems to have happened in politics between JFK and Bill Clinton – we went from public indifference to media obsession with regard to the personal behavior of our leaders. Whatever your assessment of their presidencies, were they made any worse in their role by their personal escapades? If you don’t drink, curse, gamble or frequent a brothel, is that any guarantee that you are called or equipped to govern? Sobriety is no assurance one will govern well. The list of moral requirements is tricky when it comes to leadership and politics. It is even more so when talking of leadership and religion.
The first New Testament letter to Timothy has a list for would-be bishops (overseers) and deacons that includes being “above reproach, once married, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money.” While no one wants a quarrelsome pastor or a drunkard for a deacon, there have been effective priests who were never married and very effective pastors who have had more than one spouse as a result of divorce. Spiritual leaders of every denomination have struggled with alcohol. The problem with the list is the implicit assumption that effective spiritual leadership is somehow bound to these specific qualities.
How do we know who is – or who will be – an effective spiritual leader? Jesus manages to use an image that puts a pretty fine point on it without getting too specific. Who is greater, he asks; the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? He answers his own question. Obviously, the one at the table is greater; but this is not the leader. The true leader is the one who serves. (See Luke 22:24-30.) In this passage Jesus moves his disciples back and forth – from sitting at the table to waiting at the table to sitting at the table again.
Jesus doesn’t aim at our morals. He aims at our heart. Do you have a heart to serve? This is where religious people so often get it wrong. We keep trying to reduce spirituality to a list of morals. That would make it so much easier to know who is faithful and who isn’t, who is qualified to lead and who is not.
Several decades ago Robert K. Greenleaf wrote that the power of governments is most useful to restrain. But religion is supposed to use its power to set people free. The criteria Jesus offers for spiritual leadership is two-fold: Believe, and Serve. We can’t really judge the quantity of one’s “belief”. We can observe how often and with what attitude a person serves. Spinning off Greenleaf, we can say the challenge to leaders in the church is to continually inspire trust and belief in the “rightness” of Christ.
Fr. Richard Rohr writes of the constant temptation for Christians – to “whittle down the great Gospel to some moral issue over which they can feel totally triumphant and superior.” (Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps.) Whatever else leaders in our churches do, it is imperative that they not reduce the grace of God to a list of behaviors or attributes that can be checked off. We need leaders who can get us to admit to our pain and powerlessness and bring us into the Presence of the One who can set us free from our most formidable foe – ourselves.