Taxonomies

Reflections on clergy leadership.

The Rev. Evan Keely, Interim Minister


While any responsible individual will hasten to acknowledge a fine line between archetypes and stereotypes, and to admit that any perspective can be subjective and impressionistic, I have nevertheless observed certain archetypes among Unitarian Universalist ministers. It is entirely possible that both of these archetypal concepts are simplistic, that this whole line of thinking betrays an unsophisticated analysis of the complexities of professional religious leadership in our movement as well as a limited understanding of the intricacies of human personality and behavior. However, categorization, despite its limitations, can help us to see patterns, and seeing patterns can help us learn.

We might label one such species of archetypal Unitarian Universalist minister as Homo charismaticus. This kind of minister is, in my observation, more often male than female. There are many admirable and creative aspects of his persona: he is very dynamic; he devotes himself to his work with conspicuous zeal; he is highly capable, perhaps even in disciplines other than professional religious leadership; he exudes a robust energy and a powerful interpersonal magnetism; he is highly committed to broad social and ethical principles and is possessed of a demonstrable ability to motivate and organize people around consequential and even urgent issues of the day; he is often stellar in the pulpit, regarded and remembered as a preacher of great strength and substance with a powerful intellect as well as an ability to engage the congregation emotionally. There is also not infrequently a “shadow side” to this archetype. He might be controlling and domineering, dismissive of those who dissent from his agenda. It is not unusual for him to have multiple divorces in his personal history or other phenomena indicative of some difficulty with maintaining stable intimate relationships. His grandiosity, while often inspiring and appealing, can be a sign of a narcissism which in turn may thinly veil a deep-seated insecurity and anxiety. He might be prone to demanding personal loyalty to himself and his agenda, even sometimes to the point of turning on those close to him at any perceived slight or dissent. Alcoholism is no respecter of profession, and there are certainly clergy of all faith traditions, races, ages, genders and economic circumstances who are alcoholics; however, it seems to me at least theoretically possible that Homo charismaticus is perhaps more likely to be afflicted with that disease: he has about him the larger-than-life appetites and impulses that may be indicative of what is nowadays termed an “addictive personality.” It is by no means unusual for this type of minister to engage in outright misconduct and to perhaps even feel justified within himself for engaging in inappropriate behaviors out of a sorely misplaced sense of entitlement; some ministers of this type are eventually dismissed by congregations for serious ethical infractions, such as having sexual relationships with congregants.

Because of the intensity of the personality, the drive, the allure and the many positive aspects of the Homo charismaticus archetype, this kind of minister has exerted a considerable influence upon our religious movement. Over the past half century, it has not been hard to find them in prominent and influential positions in Unitarian Universalism. However, while predicting the future is always a precarious business, I am inclined to think that the era in which this archetype flourished is coming to an end. I personally can think of about half a dozen ministers who probably possessed many or even most of these characteristics, but nearly all of them are no longer living. If this archetype is disappearing, there may be many explanations as to why. Dramatic changes in social mores have unfolded in recent decades, particularly with regard to gender identity and roles. Understandings of both masculinity and femininity have shifted dizzyingly in our lifetimes, with social, economic, interpersonal and even spiritual ramifications that we have only begun to try to cope with. I cannot help but attribute the explosive rise in the number of women in ministry as a major factor in the decline of Homo charismaticus. Our clergy corps was almost entirely male when the Universalists and Unitarians consolidated in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association; by 1999, fully half of our clergy were female. I don’t know the percentage of women in UU ministry today, but I would be surprised if it’s under 60%, and I would guess that that number will continue to grow. The emergence of women in leadership roles in our movement, and with it the exponential amplification of women’s voices and perspectives among us, have probably made it far more difficult for Homo charismaticus to find acceptance. I personally consider this one of the most significant and one of the most positive developments in the 57-year history of the UUA. However, no reasonable person can deny that sexism is still alive and well in our society, and with it its attendant ills: in various fields of employment (including the clergy), women on the whole still earn less than men for the same work; the commodification of women’s bodies and sexuality is still a potent force in our economy and in our culture; women are subjected to sexual and domestic violence at much higher rates than men. Until all these things disappear, we will not have true gender equality. The fact that every woman has to live with these realities (and that everyone ought to pay attention to them) has particular implications in light of the exponential numerical growth of women in ministry in our denomination.

Another archetype that has emerged, undoubtedly in part as a consequence of this demographic shift in ministry, is what I call the Antistita materna — the motherly high-priestess. In the same way that I acknowledge there could be a female Homo charismaticus even though I personally have a hard time identifying one, I recognize the theoretical possibility of a male Antistita materna, even though almost all the ones I have observed are, in fact, women. The healthful and positive characteristics of this archetype would include: a strong commitment to fostering meaningful interpersonal connections; a warm, reassuring, highly accessible personality; a collaborative approach to leadership that emphasizes participation, consensus and harmony; an artistic and emotionally authentic to worship that places more of a value upon personal testimony, sensory experience and aesthetic refinement than dogged rationality, proclamation or aggressive persuasion. But like Homo charismaticus, Antistita materna has her shadow side, characteristics of which can include: a tendency toward overfunctioning, verging on micromanaging and even controlling, albeit very often in a passive-aggressive manner; a reluctance or even outright unwillingness to set reasonable limits, especially with regard to personal access to herself and the use of her time and energy; a tendency to value harmony at the expense of truth and the open airing of differences. Antistita materna is less liable to engage in outright misconduct like Homo charismaticus might; however, she is often likely to blur the distinction between ministry and friendship in ways that are healthy neither for her nor for the congregation she serves. She is also probably less susceptible to alcoholism than Homo charismaticus, but she is at risk for burnout or even for developing serious physical illnesses as a result of her overwork and her tendency to avoid setting stricter personal limits.

The two archetypes I have described are very different from one another in obvious ways. One might call them polar opposites in many respects. Yet they share some characteristics. Both are very appealing, likeable, charismatic personalities, capable of encouraging people and inspiring intense personal loyalty, affection, admiration and devotion. Both, at their best, are exceptionally motivated and dedicated. They also have a fundamental aspect in common with regards to their shadow side: neither Homo charismaticus nor Antistita materna is especially skilled at self-differentiation. In other words, neither is particularly successful at delineating an individual identity that is capable of meaningful closeness with others while still maintaining healthy boundaries and a confident sense of individuality and self-awareness. Both archetypes often respond to this through conflict avoidance: the Antistita materna does so because conflict can threaten the perception of closeness and harmony; Homo charismaticus can develop deep anxiety about conflict for its potential to diminish his stature as the alpha, whereupon he often suppresses conflict by bulldozing his way through it, silencing dissent by the sheer force of his personality or, in extreme cases, engaging in wholly inappropriate behavior and stubbornly adopting the attitude that those around him ought to countenance his misconduct. Neither archetype displays a nuanced understanding of how conflict is always a part of all healthy relationships — that, in fact, the mature and self-differentiated confrontation of conflict is an indispensable component of genuine and lasting interpersonal intimacy as well as an essential element of human freedom. Both types of ministers are hobbled by a deep insecurity which expresses itself in a desire to be adored. A congregation that expends its energy on this stoking of the minister’s ego will always be hampered from a truly religious mission, because it is the minister’s job to attend to her or his personal needs, not the congregation’s, and because attending to a minister’s personal needs is not a life-giving, liberating, redemptive undertaking for a religious people. Soothing the minister’s insecurity breaks no chain of injustice, it educates no child in the ways of the faith, it does not strengthen institutions, and it brings no one closer to the divine. The self-differentiated leader is the one who is able to take responsibility for his or her own personal needs and allow the congregation to focus on something of abiding value and transcendent purposefulness, and this individuated leader is able to provide confident leadership in that holy enterprise because she or he is not afraid to engender controversy, controversy being an inevitable feature of any activity in which our deepest loyalties and loves are galvanized — which all true religious life must be by definition.

These are not insignificant considerations for a congregation like this one which is about to formally begin a search for a new settled minister, with the hopes of beginning that relationship in August of 2019. In the meantime, this summer this church will start a relationship with a new interim minister. All of these experiences provide opportunities for learning. Congregations that are actively engaged in reflecting on the kinds of clergy leadership that may be suitable are especially advantageously poised for learning when transitions are taking place. Congregations in search for a new minister often ask, “What do we want?” But this is not a particularly helpful question. Antistita materna and Homo charismaticus are both answers to what people want. They both provide things that people like. People want and like the characteristics of those archetypes; otherwise, those archetypes would never have existed. Thinking about what we want and like is often less beneficial than thinking about what we ourselves will bring to a relationship, and what kinds of relationships are likely to equip and empower us to answer a calling. I have never met a ministerial search committee that said, “We want our next minister to have healthy boundaries,” even though a leader’s healthy boundaries are an absolutely indispensable component to institutional well-being in any organization. Recognizing the allure of charismatic and appealing archetypes is important work of collective self-awareness, and it may be able to help us find a balance within ourselves that can give us greater clarity; that greater clarity might be able to help us form and sustain relationships with leaders and with one another that are mature and healthy, that are focused on collective mission rather than individual ego needs, and that help us, as a people of faith, to keep our focus upon the divine, upon that which is sublimely and supremely worthy.