I have worked in and for church institutions since 1969. I know how the spirit of control works in the church. Here are six obvious signs that the spirit of control is at work:

 (1) Little or no accountability:  In the community of faith, all are answerable to the community.

(2) Spiritual elitism: The Scriptures tell us there is neither male nor female, neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free….In the community of faith there are no hierarchies of value, dignity, or importance. If there is a spirit of authoritarian control in a church, “the people” are told that the clergy-control people are superior. Accountable to no one, they have special spiritual privileges from God. Our American bishops did this recently with the imposition of a new (somewhat) English liturgy.

(3) An oppressive atmosphere:  Authoritarian leaders know how to control people through manipulation. In some cases, this control may simply take the form of subtle suggestions. In more abusive situations, it comes in the form of threats, and one-sided condemnations. The US bishops ‘condemnation of Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God: is a good and recent example of such an oppressive atmosphere.

 (4) Angry domination: Tyrants are the same everywhere….. Because they want to control their surroundings, they often blow up when people do not conform to their demands.Interestingly,  some of our earliest Christian Scriptures teach that church leaders should be neither “violent” nor “quarrelsome” but “self-controlled” and “gentle” (see 1 Timothy 3:2-3). Later he instructed Timothy that the Lord’s servant “must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone” (2 Timothy 2:24). There are a lot of angry American bishops these days. One is very fond of  angry yelling at the New York Times. You will always find lots of anger when there is a controlling spirit.

(5) Women and girls are inferior: Authoritarian churches usually discourage women from pursuing any genuine role in ministry, especially when linked with Eucharist or preaching. In our contemporary authoritarian Catholic environment, there is no surprise that bishops are clamping down against “altar girls.”

OK…so what do we do?

(1)   We need to understand that dismantling power by noncooperation is the way to go!

(2)   We need to start at the parish level and move out from there. An example: Many years ago I was director of religious education in a rather large suburban parish. We had five people on the parish religious education team and one pastor. Our first pastor was a kind and generally collaborative fellow. After three years with him, our bishop, who felt the parish was becoming far too progressive, appointed an arch conservative micro-manager as pastor. Once a week the pastor would call us in for a “staff” meeting. When we arrived he was already in the meeting room, sitting in the biggest chair, with other chairs arranged in front of him. After a short invocation of the Holy Spirit, he pulled a slip of paper from his shirt pocket and told us the agenda for the meeting. That happened once!

At our next “staff” meeting, religious ed. people arrived ahead of time. We moved the big chair out of the room and arranged six of the very same kind of chairs in a circle. The pastor arrived and was flustered about not seeing his chair. I said, “we thought we would make the room arrangement a bit more like a Christian community.” He muttered something unintelligible. After he said the prayer, I said “Father we each have a short prayer as well.” which each person then prayed.

The grand moment came when the pastor pulled his slip of paper from his pocket and the five of us also pulled papers from our pockets! We were on our way to a new kind of collaboration!


The three virtues of Christian Community Leadership are: Ownership, Learning, and Sharing

Ownership…….. Problems and issues need to become a responsibility of all with proper chances for people to share and participate.

Learning……. An emphasis on learning and development is necessary so that people can share, understand and contribute to what’s going on. No single person has all the answers and certainly not all the truth.

Sharing…….. Open, respectful and informed conversation is central. I know many laypeople who make ignorant theological or historical statements. And I know a lot of bishops who make great ignorant theological and historical statements as well. We all need to be better informed and continually better informed…..


2 thoughts on “The Spirit of Authoritarian Control or the Spirit of Christian Community Leadership

  1. Dear Mr. Greenleaf,

    I burst out laughing at the story of the religious ed staff and the micro-managing pastor. What a fine example of gentle, inspired thinking!


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