Spiritual Leadership and Self Reliance

by J. N. M. Wijngaards


published in Vidyajyoti July 1987, pp 319-324.

Jesus wanted his priests to be leaders. But he did not want them to follow the wrong example given by politicians and ruling classes. “You know that the pagan rulers exercise power. Their leaders have complete authority over their subjects. This is not the way it should be among you. If one of you wants to be a leader he must be the servant of everybody else” (Mt. 20, 25-26). Money is a tool of power. Priests were not to use it in this way. “You have received without paying, so give without being paid” (Mt. 10,8). They were not allowed to claim a special status. “Notice how the Pharisees love the best places at feasts and the reserved seats in the synagogues. They want to be greeted with respect in the market places and to be called 'teacher'. You must not be called ‘teacher', because you are all brothers of one another and have only one teacher. And you must not call anyone here on earth ‘father', because you have only the one father in heaven. Nor should you allow yourself to be called ‘leader’, because our one and only leader is the Messiah. The greatest one among you must be your servant“ (Mt. 23,6-11).

Yet Jesus wanted his priests to be leaders. What kind of leadership did he expect from them? This is the question we shall examine now, paying special attention to St. Mathew’s Gospel in which Christian leadership is a dominant theme. We will also see how Jesus’ principles are confirmed by new management theories discovered in recent years.


Matthew brings out Jesus’ healing power by a double miracle. The Master raises Jairus’ daughter and cures the woman suffering from a haemorrhage while on the way to Jairus’ house (Mt 9.18-25). For both these people life had finished. Jesus gave it back to them. This kind of healing is obviously connected with spiritual salvation. Jesus heals the paralysed man after forgiving his sins (Mt 9,1-6). Jesus brings the fullness of life.

It was Jesus’ intention that his priests should bring life in a similar way. They too received authority “to drive out evil aspirits and to heal every disease and sickness“ (Mt 10,1). To them Jesus said: “Heal the sick, bring the dead back to life!“ (Mt 10,8). Like Jesus, priests too are called to bring people life, in its totality of spiritual wholeness and material wellbeing. Priests are life-givers.

From priestly experience they know well what this means. By administering baptism and the other sacraments, they are there when people are born into a new life and they can help them grow in it. By the advice and encouragement they give them they can also help them in many other ways that concern their material and social happiness. They may rightly, therefore, be called “father“, because they have a parental function. They understand how Paul could say: “My dear children! Once again, just like a mother giving birth, I feel the same kind of pain for you until Christ is formed in you“ (Gal 4,19). Only God, of course, gives life in the direct sense of the word. But like parents, priests too mediate in giving people life.

The function of good parents, however, is not to hang on to their children. They must look after their children until these can stand on their own legs. They must aim at making their children free and autonomous persons, able to cope with the difficulties of life on their own. Children should be allowed to grow and become adults. The mistake of “paternalism“ which priests commit all too often is that they try to keep their spiritual children dependent on them. They don’t give them a chance to become true to their full stature of autonomous and free Christians.


But many people need paternalistic guidance, priests say. They are confused, they are poor, they are helpless. Unless they are directed t and told what to do, they will not manage. Did Christ not say: “Look after them as a shepherd tends his flock?“

They are quite right. The image of the “shepherd“ was dear to Christ. In fact, he saw the need for priestly successors, because people were so confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Mt 9,36). Christ tells his priests that they should go out and look for that one sheep in a hundred that gets lost (Mt 19,12-14). When Christ sees that the crowd are hungry, he turns to his disciples and says, “you should give them something to eat“, obviously thinking of their shepherd role (Mt 14,16). Yes, priests have to be shepherds. They have to protect and guide, to bind up wounds and fight off the attack of wolves.

But the scriptural image does not stop there. The purpose of the shepherd’s task is to make the sheep grow and be healthy. Whatever the modern context of the shepherd role may be, the scriptural image of the shepherd is that he should consider the sheep more important, their welfare more urgent, than his own.

The shepherd has achieved his purpose when the sheep has everything it needs, when it can graze in green pastures and drink at safe water pools (Ps 23 1 -2). God himself who says he will be the shepherd of his people, promises: “I will lead them back to the hill country and the rivers of Israel and will feed them in green pastures. I will see to it that they can graze in safety in the mountain meadows and the valleys and in all the green pastures in the land of Israel“ (Ez 34,13-14). The shepherd image aims at the promotion of growth, not at control.

What does this mean?


It is here that the findings of management science can be useful. I will describe them here briefly, in a summary form that may suffice for our purpose.

There is one kind of leader who is mainly concerned with maintaining order. This leads to what is called “management by control.“ To understand this kind of leadership, we have to recognise that it starts from certain basic assumptions. Let me try to outline them. This is what the assumptions are: most people are weak and inclined to make mistakes. Therefore, in order to help people to stay on the right path, some use of force will be necessary. They need to be controlled, directed, yes even threatened with punishment to make sure they reach their goal. Moreover, the average human being prefers to be directed, wishes to avoid responsibility, has relatively little ambition and wants security above all. It is the task of the leader, therefore, to shield these people from as much harm as possible and to guide them step by step with regard to their duties and responsibilities. At all costs the established order should be maintained and this can only be achieved by effective control from above.

There is, however, another kind of leader who sees his function more in the line of encouragement and stimulation. His model is management towards dynamic growth. This leader too has assumptions he bases his leadership on. They can be characterised as follows: it is natural for people to be creative and good if they only get a chance. External control and the threat of punishment are not the most efficient means of motivating people to great achievements. People will naturally exercise self-direction and self-control in the pursuit of objectives to which they are personally committed. And why will people be committed to such objectives? Mainly because they will be attracted by the rewards associated with their achievement. The average human being will be much happier if he or she can truly grow and is given proper responsibilities. Many more people than we might think at first are capable of carrying such responsibilities in a creative and productive fashion. In fact, the potential of most people is only realised partially. The proper way of guiding people is therefore to help them work out things for themselves.

In short it comes to this: the first leadership model has a low opinion of people; it is defensive and paternalistic. The second model has an optimistic view of what people can do; it is dynamic and creative.

When priests examine themselves honestly, I believe that they have to admit that in many cases they have fallen victim to the paternalistic strategy. I realise that extreme conditions of social backwardness and poverty among the people entrusted to them may have driven them into this corner. But is it the right leadership model for priests? Is this the kind of leadership, Jesus had in mind? I am sure it was not. If we examine Jesus’ basic attitudes we see that it contained all the elements of a leadership aiming at growth. Jesus had a very positive view of people and his whole purpose was to make happy and free children of his Father.


Jesus’ dynamic view of leadership is confirmed by what he says about the priest’s prophetic role. We remember that throughout St. Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is presented as the prophetic teacher. That is why Matthew gathers Jesus’ main teaching in five sermons. That is why he shortens narrative detail, but never Jesus’ words of teachings. “The heavens and the earth will pass away but my words will never pass away“ (Mt. 24,35)

Jesus prophetic function cost him his life (Mt 26,64). Like John the Baptist, he was not a reed shaken by the wind (Mt 11,7-14). As priests we too are sent to be prophets. “Go and preach that the kingdom of heaven is near“ (Mt. 10, 7). “What I am telling you in the dark you must repeat in broad daylight. What you have heard from me face to face you must announce from the housetops“ (Mt 10,27). “Go out to all the nations everywhere and make them my disciples: baptise them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you“ (Mt 28,19-20).

There should be authority in teaching and strength in prophetic witness. But note well: this teaching is to persuade, not to coerce; to make people understand, not to make them stupid. Like in Jesus’ own case, the purpose of prophetic teaching is to open people’s eyes so that they can see, to open their ears so that they can hear, their minds so that they can understand (Mt 13, 15). In other words, priests have to help people think for themselves. We will have reached our aim if we have helped our Christians to acquire their own convictions, convictions on which they can base an adult life of faith.

Every Christian has to become like the householder who can bring from his storeroom things new and old (Mt 13, 52). `Every disciple of Jesus has to be the salt of the earth, a city built on a hill, a lamp that lights up the whole house (Mt 5,13-16). This last image is very meaningful. A mirror reflects light; a lamp produces light from itself. In this way every Christian should receive, through priestly administration, the ability to become a power house for his own surroundings.


To talk about leadership in theory is easy; its practice is quite another thing. There are, obviously, many obstacles and hindrances to living up to one’s theoretical ideals, to translate one’s vision into practice.

All the same, it is very important to realise that a lot depends on basic attitude. Here are some standard questions managers are told to ask themselves. Would they not apply equally, or more, to priests?

Do you have a rather negative view of people’s abilities and good intentions? Do you find it difficult to delegate responsibility to others? Why? Is your lack of confidence based on fact? What is it you are afraid of?

Are you paternalistic in the way you exercise your leadership? Do you impose decisions without explaining why? Do you consult all parties involved: assistants, colleagues, employees? Can you accept their advice even if it goes against your own personal opinion?

To how many people in your responsibility have you given a anew chance to grow during the past year? Have you taken the trouble to guide people, with a word of appreciation or of correction? Do people feel encouraged to start new initiatives under your leadership?

When you relate to people do you always play the “father“ role? Can you talk to them as one adult to other mature adults? Are you free and relaxed enough to share at times your thoughts and feelings as “a child“?

Do people expect you to be a paternalistic leader? What do you honestly consider the greatest obstacle to your exercising a more dynamic model of leadership?

Management Studies consulted:

J.E. ADAIR, “The Building Blocks for good Leadership“. International Management June 1983, pp. 47-55.

D. McGREGOR, The Traditional view of direction and control: and the integration of individual and organisational goals, from the Human Side of Enterprises, McGraw-Hill Book Company, NewYork 1980, pp. 33-57.

R. E. WALTON, “From Control to Commitment in the workplace”. Harvard Business Review, March-April 1985, 77-84.