No one can predict the future, but we seem to be moving into a period of crisis that will put unusual burdens on leaders. Cultural and institutional changes (and in many cases failure) will call for leaders grounded in a broader, deeper perspective. Our institutions of faith and spirituality could play an important role in helping us prepare for this future.
The reader can pick his or her most likely scenarios for the future. Mine reflect the insolvency of major governments and with it sovereign debt default, currency fluctuation, and the painful end of the entitlement state; social strife, both domestic and foreign; the loss of credibility by many of our cultural elites and institutions; and the results of the corruption of our political class and their cronies and enablers. War, technological breakthroughs, or other unforeseen events could easily create new and greater stresses.
Some readers will reject aspects of my scenarios, but most of us can agree on at least one point — that our organizations, whether public or private, will experience a degree of crisis and restructuring not seen in many decades. The challenge of leadership, and the social cost of ineffective leadership (as we are seeing), will be magnified. This could put all aspects of leadership at risk; to be successful, leaders will need to find a way to act with wisdom and courage in the face of fear and uncertainty, maintain and reinforce moral and relational values despite the temptations to do otherwise, and provide hope and meaning to potentially dispirited organizations.
Resources of Faith and Spirituality
The rich resources of our faith and our faith institutions can help us develop the depth of perspective, character, and equanimity necessary to function effectively in the midst of crisis. I would include in these resources the following:
- Spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation can help us turn our attention to God and over time develop a deeper sense of mission and purpose. They can energize and focus our work, help us work with a greater sense of purpose and effectiveness, and in times of crisis calm our anxieties and help us stay focused. It is important for leaders to develop some sort of regular practice of silence and theological reflection that suits their predispositions and circumstances and helps them connect with the greater reality.
- Theology can provide a broader, deeper perspective that transcends our current difficulties. By its nature theology directs our attention towards God and transcendent reality and reminds us of who we really are. Having a sense that there is indeed a reality beyond the current crisis can play a key role in helping us stay calm and make good decisions.
- Faith can help us develop what we think of as character. Contrary to what we might hear sometimes, effectiveness in business and most other fields usually depends heavily on collaboration. The values usually promoted by the church (and by most other religions) are key to collaborative relationships. Honesty and good will, courage, equanimity and humility are all important in the workplace – especially in times of crisis — and are all virtues promoted and encouraged by our faith and by our faith institutions.
- Our faith can help us find meaning and purpose in our lives and in the current crisis. Faith and theology are to a large extent a meaning making enterprise; discerning the deeper meaning in a crisis can help us find the strength to persevere and the wisdom to act with clarity.
The Role of Religious Institutions
Churches, seminaries, and other religious entities can obviously help us in this, if they chose to do so. They can offer opportunities to engage in spiritual practices (especially contemplative practices, in my view) as preparation for action. They can help us develop a transcendent perspective that supplies meaning to our active work. And they can help us see the positive, practical value of what we think of as the traditional virtues such as courage, honesty, patience, and compassion.
Religious institutions themselves are not always well led, and religious leaders have certainly offered opinions regarding the direction of society that turned out to be tragically wrong. Nevertheless, when it comes to their most important function – helping people encounter the sacred, find deeper meaning, act with compassion, and develop character, they can play a uniquely valuable role in developing leaders who act with wisdom and effectiveness.
Lessons from the Bible
Informing and supporting practical leadership is a more natural function for churches and seminaries than might be initially apparent. The Bible after all is full of stories and insights about leadership, many of which were developed during times of extreme crisis. Think of the great Elija in the wilderness finding strength and courage in the face of exhaustion and fear; of the virtuous David becoming a powerful leader, committing great sin, and finally groping his way forward towards redemption; or of Ezra, Nehemiah and the later Isaiah leading their people through the challenges of rebuilding a ruined civilization.
Or think of Jesus facing the ultimate existential crisis and in the process launching his previously fickle followers on a radically new course.
Successfully meeting the oncoming challenges of crisis and uncertainty will require deeply grounded leaders. How our theological institutions respond to this challenge will be important.