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Friday, July 11, 2014

Building Empire

I am discouraged at how often Christian leaders seemed more concerned with building empire than with doing actual spiritual teaching and ministry. I don't believe they start out that way, I believe most begin by discerning an authentic call to ministry in some form or other but then quickly succumb to the American fascination with size. Earlier in my ministry I was caught in that trap as well. How many clergy could we have, how large an organization could we build, how many could we serve? On the surface these seem like legitimate questions, but when we stop to consider that more than eighty percent of America is not in a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple on a regular basis the only conclusion we can come to is that while many may claim massive ministries and some may actually have them, the vast majority of us do not and will not have them. In fact, as Lyle Schaller pointed out in his 2003 book Small Congregation, Big Potential, the vast majority of American Protestant congregations worship less than one hundred people on any given Sunday. In that book he argues that the optimum size for a congregation is between eighteen and forty people. That would be enough so that everybody could know everybody else fairly well, that people would notice if someone was missing and check to see that they were okay, that intimate relationships would develop between people - and less than half the number of people necessary to afford a full time clergy person's salary. It's hardly the stuff empire is made of, but it's exactly what's needed at our time in history.

Despite that, I have known more empire builders in all forms of ministry and spiritual leadership - and in all traditions - than I have known people who want to serve those who are actually in front of them asking for spiritual leadership! They want the stuff of building campaigns, sabbatical and continuing education funds, fancy cars supplied by those they serve, membership drives, repaving the parking lot, and building a large staff to do their work for them. In short, they may as well want a brand new Edsel because those other things belong to the same time as that car does. I have seen bishops look to their clergy to shower them with money and fail to pay attention to them when they cannot, apparently blind to the fact that none of us has the kind of revenue stream that allows for such questionable practices any more, and then become angry when their clergy move on for lack of leadership from the bishop. It's not just Christians, however.

It seems there isn't a Zen tradition in America that hasn't been rocked by sexual scandal, most often at the hands (or other parts) of the teacher - whether the teacher is American or Asian. The other Buddhist traditions aren't without their scandals, either, and what astounds me is that the teacher is often highly thought of even after his misbehavior comes to light. It's as if they say, "oh, sure, he screwed half of the women in the Temple, but he was enlightened and so it was a privilege to be abused by him and, besides, his teachings are still valid." What this says to me is that we are so hungry for authentic spiritual teaching and leadership we will even allow ourselves to be abused if we believe there is half a chance we might get a morsel of truth from the exchange. That's pretty dismal, if you ask me.

The first thing we need to do is abandon this idea that we are somehow deficient and in need of secret information that someone else possesses. That's not to say that there aren't people who are further along our particular path who can help us as we traverse our path, but it is to say that they don't have anything we need them to give us to reach the goal of the path - because we possess the goal within us already, just waiting to be uncovered. What's more, there are one hell of a lot of people out there who can help us along the way. In fact, in any one person's journey they will have several teachers - from their romantic partners to their coworkers to dedicated spiritual professionals and others - and so if this particular person either doesn't want to help us or is asking something from us that is unacceptable in return for helping us, we can just walk away. The truth is that they need us much more than we need them, and the price they want us to pay will actually set us back on the path, not move us ahead.

There will most likely always be frustrated empire builders. They, too, like the perpetrators of other transgressions and injustices upon the faithful, are asking from us something we cannot give and have nothing of value to offer in return that we don't already possess within ourselves. When we walk away we can expect that they will throw little tantrums just like the spiritual children they are, but it is not our job to placate them. In fact, by resisting their manipulation and control games we may just call them into psychological health. Whether or not they answer that call is completely up to them. Our responsibility is to our own path, and nothing more.

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