Previously, I outlined what I would call the anthropological imperative for respect (which I described as “contemplative openness” to the work of God in self and others) as the foundational virtue of leadership. What I will do in this post is sketch out the broad outline of a respectful relationship.
With my own parishioners I am clear (well, I think I’m clear, they are the better judge of my clarity on this issue than am I), I do not want, nor do I deserve, their obedience. What I ask for—and I’ve discussed this in an earlier post, to read it click here—is deference. By deference I mean that, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I want the benefit of the doubt for my views about the direction the parish should take. Of course, in phrasing the matter the way I have, I am also inviting criticism and debate of my views. And why not? I can be—and often am—wrong.
My asking for deference is another way of saying that I wish my parishioners to respect my position as the parish priest. As the pastor, I often have access to information that others in the parish do not. Beyond this, however, even if it is more specialized than is the case with most priests, like most Orthodox priest, I also have a very specialized graduate training that (I think) gives me a particular expertise that most of my parishioners simply do not have.
All that said though, as I think about my own role in the parish, I am mindful of the advice I often give people with critically ill children: Your child’s doctor is an expert in all children; you are an expert in your child.
Thought of in this way, pastor and parishioners bring different, and usually complimentary, knowledge sets and skills. While I may be expert in this or that aspect of parish life, I do not have the kind of expertise or depth of knowledge as does someone who has lived his or her whole adult life in the parish. One form of expertise is not necessarily better than another, they are simply different.
What should be clear is that respect cannot simply be a one way street. Clergy must not simply ask for respect, we must also offer it to the laity (and to one another, but that is a topic for another day). But this is difficult if the priest (just to look at one side of the relationship, but what I say is equally applicable to the laity and bishops for that matter) if his relationship with others is not proximately ground a self-respect that finds its more remote ground in appreciative, but critical, self-knowledge that it itself ground in a trust in God and His work in the life of the priest.
More often than not the absence of a healthy sense of self-respect reflects not so much the presence of a psychopathology, but a developmental lack. Self-respect is not spontaneous or natural, but rather learned. Since this learning process necessarily includes moments of failure, it is difficult to grow in a healthy regard for self in a social context that (as I’ve pointed out earlier) equates leadership with a relatively arbitrary collection of skills.
And again, this doesn’t mean the skills are not important, just not primary. And again, no list of skills are exhaustive and any attempt to create one is more likely to foster anxiety and a nagging, but nevertheless debilitating, sense of insufficiency.
How then might we foster respect in self and others?
Developmentally, we come to a sense of our own competency through the twin socialization mechanism of conformity to the expectations of our tradition as mediated by our parents AND the willingness of our parents to affirm us even when our behavior fails to measure up the standards of our tradition.
Between children and parents, this largely happens spontaneously. Where things often go wrong is when the relationship between parent and child grows in complexity and so the possibility of real, substantive, but nevertheless legitimate divergence and disagreements. At this point, the natural, more biologically based relationship, needs to be itself re-oriented through critical reflection.
Put another way, we need to think about why it is acceptable to continue to be affirming and respectful of others even when the exercise of their freedom is an challenge to what was once our undisputed authority in their lives.
Using early childhood development as our model, what we see is just as the parents must continually limit themselves in the face of their child’s growing sense of self-mastery and freedom, so too the parish priest needs to see his relationship with his parishioners as an act of kenosis as they become ever more capable of directing their own personal and communal spiritual lives.
At this point I need to introduce the concept of subsidiarity, an idea I am borrowing from Roman Catholic social teaching. I find in subsidiarity a helpful insight in coming to value the different expertise that are brought to the parish. Or as St John the Baptist says of himself relative to Christ, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Jn 3.30)
While such a program of leadership is personally challenging, I would like turn my attention to a more theoretical justification of such an approach. For this reason I will in my next post try and offer a bit of an apology for the principle of subsidiarity as a useful adjunct to Orthodox theological reflection on Church leadership.
Until then, and as always, your comments, questions and criticism are not only welcome but actively sought.
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- More Thoughts on Trust and Obedience (palamas.info)