What we learn from our spiritual leaders

  1. Why we need leaders and specialists.

  2. How the system of specialisation works.

  3. How is this system implemented in religion?

  4. What are the characteristics of a good leader?

  5. Expertise in one aspect of life is associated with expertise in others.

  6. Where do the religious insights of our leaders come from?

  7. Are these skills unique to religious leaders?

  8. The faith of religious leaders.

  9. Why it’s hard to question our leaders.

  10. How do religious leaders gain their skills?

  11. What happens when leaders hit a spiritual low?

Why we need leaders and specialists.
Life is short.

So, to optimise the volume and quality of contributions made by each individual to society, many of us become specialists in a particular area, burrowing deep and gaining understanding of complex principles, eventually making decisions and evaluations on behalf of all who lie outside the field.

We assume that time and practise have moulded people into experts who are truly skilled at what they do. The fruits of their knowledge and hard work diffuse among the rest of us in a pre-digested, simplified, more palatable form.

Respect for authority and obedience to carefully-laid out regulations and customs confers many benefits- it saves the vast majority of us from having to go through the arduous task of understanding an enormous variety of subjects in excruciating detail.

How the system of specialisation works.
Let’s examine the advantages of this system in more detail.
  • Specialists dedicate time and energy to their job. The concentrated effort and application of human minds to a specific task tends to yield deep understanding, clarity, and shrewd judgements, honed by experience and practise.

    Imagine that you assign someone to work on a task for a given amount of time and energy. This individual builds on the knowledge acquired from previous stages, to develop an understanding of more complex layers and issues, which demand prerequisite knowledge of simpler concepts.

    The level of complexity reached, for the expenditure of the given amount of time and effort, is higher than that reached if the task is divided between two individuals, all things being equal, because the second person necessarily spends time and effort going through the process of duplicating the understanding achieved by the first.

    This is why we leave surgical procedures to surgeons and bring our cars to mechanics. The advances in a field are greater when individuals dedicate themselves to honing their expertise in it.

  • When non-specialists are confident in the abilities of the experts and can leave them to do their job, the non-specialists can dedicate their resources towards other areas, namely their own field of specialisation.

    We save time and energy that would otherwise be unnecessarily spent making duplicate copies of pieces of knowledge in multiple individuals.

  • The non-expert majority can't fully understand the details, ambiguity, and subtleties of logic that go into the making of decisions, and need to accept this state of partial ignorance.

    Many of us may not be interested in learning the details of certain specialties anyway, and would rather allow someone else to get acquainted with the nitty-gritties. This system allows us to pick the areas to which we are drawn, and, on the whole, avoid those with which we’d rather not grapple.

  • Thus, this system only works if specialists are trustworthy and care about the common good. They need to do a thorough job of gathering and analysing data, and arriving at sound conclusions.

    To judge how well they perform, some efficient, effective system of regulation and oversight is necessary. Non-specialists must be given opportunities to grow acquainted with the inner workings of the system, to satisfy themselves that it’s founded on sound data-gathering, analysis, and judgement-making, and is continuously updated and evaluated.

    Such evaluation systems cost time, money and labour- these costs cannot outweigh the benefits derived from labour division and specialisation- otherwise, we’d be no more better off than if there was no specialisation in the first place.

How is this system implemented in religion?
Traditionally, religious leaders are charged with the solemn task of divining God’s will and spreading their insights to their congregations.

For some leaders, products of this dedicated effort include enriching, vibrant sermons, useful advice and insights which can be applied to daily life, and welcome reminders to govern one’s behaviour and maximise one’s potential.

From other, somewhat less-inspired leaders, come painfully dull sermons, repetitive proclamations that are cloaked in religious metaphors, and superficial interpretations of passages from religious texts that have little basis in reality. This latter type of religious leader may be thought of as an ‘expert,’ as long as one gives him or her latitude and graciously refrains from being critical.

However, the abilities of the latter type are clearly inferior to those of the former, so we'll focus our discussion on the religious leader whose skills and expertise we recognise and appreciate- the leader whose insights demonstrate his wisdom and God’s.
What are the characteristics of a good religious leader?
  1. Dispense practical advice

  2. Know your audience

  3. Deliver well
Dispense practical advice
Believers are naturally drawn to leaders who deliver insights that are relevant to everyday life. Sermons often contain sound advice, tight logic, and persuasive reasoning. Doctrines that can be applied both within and beyond the religious context, and for which convincing rationale is provided, are easier to grasp, implement, and maintain.

Note, however, that the wisdom offered in religious contexts is made equally available from secular sources.

Insights regarding human behaviour, emotions, interpersonal relationships, and practically any topic, emerge from deliberations within the human brain.

Prayer, for instance, is a form of mental activity that simply happens to be associated with the perception that God exists- our mind mulls over a topic or problem, searches for outcomes and possible solutions, and arrives at a decision. Sermons may focus on God’s will and how to lead a godly life, but their content need not be drawn exclusively from religious texts.
Know your audience
Many leaders recognise that their followers are multifaceted in their interests, and eager to listen to practical advice.

Rather than preaching about eternal damnation and fire and brimstone (concepts that tend to be metaphorical to contemporary believers at best), religious leaders can pick themes that resonate with their listeners, from the state of the economy to the latest international news topics.

People are often very attracted to religious institutions that advocate such practical, healthy attitudes.
Deliver well
We want leaders who are close to God, and whose faith, devotion and wisdom will inspire and influence the rest of us. When leaders are confident and outspoken about their love for God, we feel that we can trust them to carry out God’s will and do what is best for the congregation, and God’s plan in general.

(For more about the characteristics of the devoutly faithful, refer to the section on Conviction. For a description of how delivery style influences our perceptions, refer to the section on Presentation.)

Note that these attractive characteristics apply to all aspects of religion.

For example, we want the activities organised by religious institutions to be engaging, relevant, and well-organised. We want to listen to sermons that are informative and enriching.

Many religious institutions adopt an inclusive approach and address topics that are not directly tied to religion. They send their believers the message that it’s possible and desirable to derive pleasure from activities that are traditionally rooted in the secular domain.

Their members are given guilt-free opportunities for physical and mental development and need not feel compelled to spend their entire lives on bent knee in direct conversation with God.

From this point of view, it's sufficient to maintain a subconscious awareness of one’s deity during such activities, and then resume more direct forms of contact at appropriately-spaced intervals.

Expertise in one aspect of life is associated with expertise in others.
When religion institutions offer advice that is applicable to aspects of life such as finance, health, and relationships, believers recognise the wisdom and discernment of their spiritual leaders. Religious leaders who are able to dispense sound advice about non-religious matters appear more authoritative and knowledgeable.

When congregation members trust their leader’s advice in tried-and-tested secular domains, this confidence extends, by association, to their leader’s judgement in all other aspects of life. This includes religious topics that are relatively subjective and ambiguous, and where congregation members are less well-positioned to assess the judgement of their leaders.

By offering solid advice, for example, in areas such as marriage counselling and money management, religious institutions draw on knowledge gained from non-religious research and analysis, acquire an aura of authority and expertise, and use that image to promote concepts and beliefs in the spiritual realm, which cannot be tested for their accuracy.

This may be (and often is) done with perfectly good intentions. The fact remains that all advice regarding practical, non-religious issues is available in (and typically originates from) secular settings, in the absence of any attribution to the existence of God. Regardless of how authoritative one’s religious leaders are on subjects such as finance, technology, or relationships, their ability does not automatically confer reliability upon the advice given regarding all other subjects.
Where do the religious insights of our leaders come from?
The answer given by believers is that leaders are God-inspired. This is a well-accepted and commonly-held explanation within religious communities.

So, how exactly do these insights enter the mind of their leader? Let’s examine the process in detail:
  • The leader gleans ideas from various sources- divine (religious texts, interpretative texts, conversations with other believers), as well as comparatively secular ones (observations of everyday events, non-religious texts, conversations with non-believers).

  • The leader goes through some introspection, reflects on the material gathered, elaborates on ideas, and explores themes for sermons. Considerations include: Who are the audience members? What topics are they likely to be interested in? How receptive would they be if I covered the topic from a certain angle?

  • The leader composes a sermon, selecting the best ways of conveying underlying ideas, to make the content as relevant as possible to as many people as possible. Further research furnishes examples which are used to illustrate concepts in an engaging, chord-striking manner.

    A sermon has to strike a fine balance- religious principles must be clearly stated, but in such a way that enough room is left for individuals to interpret and assimilate them into their personal framework of knowledge. The leader attributes all glory to God, and emphasises God’s role the creation of the sermon.

  • Spiritual leaders usually pray for advice, ask questions, pause, reflect, and then eventually arrive at answers or decisions.

  • Some variety in delivery style is necessary.

    If believers are perpetually held to impossible standards, they’re likely to grow discouraged, so preachers occasionally ease up on the moralising rhetoric. Instead, they aim to reduce stress and guilt in their congregations, by cutting them some slack and throwing in humour and self-deprecation.

    At other times, however, a change in attitude is needed, and leaders adopt an iron-fisted approach, talk seriously, and berate their followers to make them squirm.

    Audiences enjoy this variety, and the leader has to set his or her tone of delivery appropriately.

Are these skills unique to religious leaders?
Each stage of the process described can be carried out by anyone who feels motivated enough to do so- whether that person is a believer or not.

If you've sufficient familiarity with the standard texts, a desire to create messages for one’s congregation, and the willpower and ability to undertake the responsibilities that come with the position, you may achieve success as a spiritual leader.

Examples of religious figures who engage in corrupt practices and are caught abound. The fact that such individuals exist should not mar the reputations of other leaders who lead virtuous lives.

It does, however, go to show that individuals with motives that are far removed from those they are assumed by their followers to possess can indeed perform their duties as leaders, adequately and competently, until the time they are exposed, if ever.

Can the rest of us ‘non-specialist believers’ derive the insights delivered by religious leaders, given enough time and motivation? Can non-believers achieve comparable results without invoking the idea of God and attributing insights to divine inspiration?

They can indeed- as long as they’re motivated enough to do so. Religious leaders have to brainstorm, deliberate, formulate, reconsider, and finally, deliver.

The same process occurs in the minds of managers as they make a decision on behalf of their company, or parents who evaluate a course of action that affects their children.

Priests, pastors, and secular public speakers of all kinds engage in similar forms of mental activity and report their results to their audience, members of which trust that their leader took all relevant matters into consideration and approached the task with an altruistic, balanced mindset.
The faith of religious leaders.
We look up to our leaders. When we think about the heads of our religious institutions, the priests and pastors who mediate between us and God, and the faithful individuals who run our meetings and study groups, we usually feel a strong sense of admiration and respect. They've decided to make their relationship with God a top priority, and to devote their life in service to the Almighty.

At the same time, we know that religious leaders, no matter how humble, kindly, and God-fearing, are fallible human beings.

Religious leaders, like all believers, fall somewhere along a spectrum when it comes to the strength of their faith:

Some firmly believe that God exists. They strive to uphold the doctrines of their religion.

Some believe that God exists, but much of the time, they aren’t God-fearing enough to abide by religious doctrines. For many, the strength of their belief in the existence of God fluctuates from one moment to another, as does their motivation to adhere to religious moral codes.

Others neither believe in God, nor make any particular attempt to obey the tenets of religion, but persist in calling themselves believers. Such behaviour is hard or impossible to prevent, as the definition of the concept of belief is subjective, and inconsistent across individuals, and we have no sure way of reading other people's minds and intentions. (Refer to the section on Conviction for more about varying levels of faith.)
Why it’s hard to question our leaders.
  1. Structure of the system

  2. Subjective methods of evaluation

  3. The power invested in religious leaders
Structure of the system
Religion is a domain in which the questioning of authority and its doctrines is typically infrequent and uninvited. Compared with institutions in academia, the corporate world, and even the military, public evaluation of leaders of religious institutions is kept to a minimum.

Most institutions are required to submit to various checks by independent bodies. Their leaders are assessed based on performance and held accountable by members of the public, shareholders, and tax payers.

Religious organisations tend to lack a defined, regulated system that’s open to scrutiny by members of congregations. Religious leaders are evaluated by their peers within the institution, to a degree, but most believers have little legally-enforceable means of voicing their opinions, giving feedback, and raising complaints.

This hinders believers from evaluating it thoroughly, and discourages non-specialists from asking questions to ascertain that their leaders are competent and can be trusted.

It is quite unacceptable, in many religious settings, to speak badly of one’s leaders, and actively discouraged at the least. (Click here for more on the climate of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ that pervades some religious institutions.)

Unhappy members may vote by decreasing the amount of money they contribute, or might transfer membership to another institution. If the religion dictates that a set sum of money be donated for God’s purposes, however, then the first option is not ideal.

Most religious organisations discourage their members from flitting between institutions to guard against the second option. Members are taught that it's far healthier to stay attached to one spiritual community and be surrounded by a stable group of fellow believers, than to transfer one’s allegiances too frequently.

Members who heed this advice reap the benefits of receiving support from familiar sources, while their institution draws funding and volunteer labour from a reliable set of believers.
Subjective methods of evaluation
Religious institutions have corporate responsibilities to deal with, like any other well-run business. They handle funds, juggle human resources, and manage people. The health of the organisation is measured in terms of factors such as the emotional and spiritual wellbeing of its members.

Such measures are largely subjective and hard to quantify, as each member has his or her own personal standards of satisfaction.

Believers expect their institutions to offer good spiritual support, but realise that the organisation cannot guarantee a strong relationship between God and the individual. The quality of a believer’s spiritual life depends greatly on how much effort the individual puts in.

Even with access to the best religious institutions, and the godliest communities, a non-committal fails to develop spiritually. Thus, the spiritual state of members is not a perfect measure of the quality of an institution.

Dissatisfaction with God and one’s spiritual standing may be partly the fault of the institution and its leaders, but in any case, it rarely reflects well upon oneself.

To a certain extent, this insulates religious leaders from direct criticism. Few of us would like to point out flaws based on our subjective opinions, only to be told that we need to repair our relationship with God.
The power invested in religious leaders
The high levels of respect accorded to religious leaders lead many followers to believe that their leader has a special relationship with God, which ordinary members do not quite achieve. Similarly, the insights given by God to their leaders are purer, clearer, and more incisive and meaningful.

Younger members in particular often believe, quite naturally, that their elders and religious leaders possess deep insights that are currently beyond their understanding but which will hopefully eventually be revealed, given enough diligence and time- by the grace of God.

The truth is, sadly, that leaders do not possess any insights or spiritual talents that cannot be obtained in the absence of a belief in God. The research undertaken, the cognitive processes, the conclusions reached- all are as attainable by a non-believer, or a believer who occupies a non-leading position, as by a religious leader.

Time and devotion may yield further insight than what one already possesses, but spiritual leaders do not have an innate, or God-given, hidden advantage over other people.

The wisdom preached and conclusions reached may be extremely lucid and intelligent, but they are not whispered gems from an external god- rather, they originate from the creative mental processes within the brains of ordinary human beings.
How do religious leaders gain their skills?
How, then, do some leaders achieve such impressive levels of introspection and come up with compelling sermons week after week, if they are not inspired by an external god?

The same way that allows people become experts in any other field- they hone their skills through practise and experience, and become more resourceful, more knowledgeable, and better at understanding human psychology and interpersonal relationships.

Political leaders, managers of corporations, teachers, lawyers- anyone who engages in public speaking develops similar skills, while applying them to non-religious contexts.

Religious leaders invest time and energy in reading religious texts, they talk to members of the religious community and their staff, and set time aside to meditate and generate ideas for sermons from their pool of accumulated knowledge.

Furthermore, they're faced with a deadline for the delivery of their insights each week, just as teachers have to prepare the material for classes. It's their job to come up with topics, turn them into coherent arguments, and present them convincingly. The human mind is capable of producing speeches with religious themes if it applies itself.

Whether or not we attribute this process to an external entity that we think of as ‘God,’ practise, experience, and hard work will eventually turn almost any one of us into an expert.
What happens when leaders hit a spiritual low?
The job of a religious leader can be a lonely and challenging one. Religious insights are thought of as being from God, and even though sources of inspiration may appear anywhere, leaders are ultimately expected to draw on their personal relationship with their deity, rather than rely on advice from other people or non-God-related forms of inspiration.

What happens when religious leaders have mental blocks, when their sources of inspiration run dry, or when they go through periods of uncertainty in their belief in God?

Well, they'd better do something about it, fast. All believers go through perids of turmoil, so congregations tend to be understanding and patient if their leaders encounter a spiritual block- but only up to a point.

After all, we believe that our leaders receive special guidance and support from God. Surely God could expedite the process of recovery, and get His appointed representatives back on track before others members of the institution suffer the consequences?

Thus, leaders must search for new sources of inspiration, try out a different selection of reading material, draw ideas from other leaders’ sermons, and devote renewed energy to their meditative efforts.

Leaders ask God why they aren't receiving clear instructions from Him. They console themselves with the belief that everything that happens is part of God’s higher plan, and tribulations are opportunities for personal growth.

Some leaders are quite frank with their congregations, and turn their lack of inspiration into a topic in itself- ‘Where to turn when God remains silent,’ for instance. This may work for a few weeks, but not much more than that- after all, not all members of their congregation are facing similar difficulties, and they wouldn't want to listen to the same theme over and over.

Religious leaders who have run out of ideas need to obtain new, interesting input, as fuel for their creative process. If a leader who has exhausted prior stores of knowledge neglects this necessary step, and relies solely on an external God to offer novel channels of advice, for example by holing up in a room with nothing to read or listen to, then divine inspiration, understandably, may not be forthcoming.

This is one reason why believers rely heavily on religious texts and interpretations- without a source of input, one tends to eventually run out of ideas. Equipped with a text that is quite long, and contains ambiguous passages that are open to multiple interpretations, it is much easier to generate new ideas and find acceptable answers to one’s questions.

When a leader experiences a dip in faith that is relatively severe, and which prevents him or her from performing duties satisfactorily, that signals a crisis for the religious institution, and the leaders have to work out the issue together.

The congregation seeks its regular dose of God-inspired knowledge, and if its leaders can't get their act together after a certain amount of time has lapsed, then followers start to feel that there must be something seriously wrong with the leader's relationship to God.

If such difficulties are not resolved within a short period, uncertainty trickles down to the rest of the members and the institution could split apart.
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