On Religious Leadership
As Election Day nears in the United States, I am thinking about the religious leadership society will need in the days ahead whatever the results.
My friend and mentor Mahan Siler, a pastor of pastors, sees a dual role for clergy: hospice chaplain and midwife. The former, Mahan says, is about inviting people to “grieve the loss of what was”; the latter is about inviting people to “trust the new that is yet to be formed.” This dual role is critical amid the death and dying of religious and public institutions, and critical as we ache for hope.
Clergy have played other roles no less valuable for their congregations and society: prophet, activist and community organizer, for instance. But now, when we face “the radical uncertainty of our time,” as Joanna Macy puts it, we need the primary capacity of pastoral leadership, which is to accompany individuals and communities through death to new life.
Macy, a scholar of Buddhism and systems thinking, calls this time the Great Unraveling. We face the collapse of institutions we thought permanent; we see the exposure of human and planetary wounds caused by industrial growth built on slave labor and the theft of Indigenous lands, and we feel the shame of deepening inequities brought on by the grinding down of globalization; we know the fraying of the ties that bind, the undoing of our common life. Yet within the Great Unraveling lies the possibility of the Great Turning, which Macy says is the acknowledgement of our “mutual belonging” and “the emergence of a life-sustaining society.”
The Great Unraveling and the Great Turning prompt me today to think of religious leaders rather than elected leaders. I realize my focus is odd given Election Day's stakes, even odder given the decline of religion, but I invite you to reflect with me.
Religious institutions have lost much of their relevancy for society. Why? Because they could not reckon with our time's uncertainty except by denying it through absolutism or by trading in values for quick gain.
Religious communities of all stripes have hunkered down amid the Great Unraveling, used resources for their own protection, and told self-preserving stories to defend withdrawal from societal commitments.
Religion has lost much of the power implied by its name — from the Latin religare, “to bind” — yet society may still need religion, or at least religious leadership.
The vocation of religious leaders is to “bind up the brokenhearted,” as the Jewish prophet Isaiah said. To bind is to bandage a wound, to bring together fragments, to wrap tightly something precious, as a mother swaddles a baby.
The binding work — the care of the hospice chaplain who holds a container for sorrow; and the care of the midwife who holds together the experiences of pain and promise — is essential for the sustainability of community and society. So the place of brokenness beckons religious leaders. The place of brokenness is a sacred/civic space.
When our religious leaders stand in this space, they will not pretend the hurting world is otherwise. They will model truthful presence for all of us, including our politicians, inviting us to stand as well in truth, to speak the truth of our broken hearts, the very act of which “brings down the walls between us,” Macy says, “drawing us into deep solidarity.”
In this sacred/civic space we will know the blessing of life amid death. Then, with courage and creativity, we will take up our roles in the Great Turning.
P.S. For an update on Sympara's projects, click here. We recently welcomed two new board members: former Google executive Mitali Dhar and religion reporter Yonat Shimron. Learn more about our leadership here.
P.P.S. If you are interested in joining a conversation circle on sacred/civic placemaking, please email me.