Faith in Action: Religious search committees have a lot to consider when choosing next leader

info@islandpacket.comMarch 2, 2013 

Religions have different ways of choosing spiritual leaders. In Judaism, a congregation appoints a search committee, and they develop criterion for what they think the congregation needs. Rabbis apply through a placement office, and the process of selection and interviews begins. I have participated in these experiences many times over the years. I got to see a lot of interesting communities across the country. There are meetings and opportunities to teach and give speeches, as well as answer any number of questions, from candidates' beliefs in God to their favorite sports teams.

The latter is the most dangerous kind of question because you never know whom you're going to offend.

Other religions, such as the Methodist church and the Catholic Church, empower ecclesiastical authorities -- bishops -- who appoint clergy. The bishops are supposed to know their communities and clergy well enough to have a sense of who will be a good fit. In many ways, this model portrays the bishop as a kind of spiritual matchmaker.

Just think for a moment about the enormity of the challenge of the almost 140 cardinals who are meeting in Rome to pick a successor to Pope Benedict XVI. There is no published criterion and no application process to become a pope. News reports indicate that those who show an interest are usually counted out as being too aggressive. Cardinals have indicated they will engage in a consensus-building dialogue with each other and rely upon intuition to determine who would be the best fit.

My sense is they will be looking for that right balance of personal attributes -- a person who is humble and modest, but who possesses the energy and dynamism needed for traveling around the world and meeting with representatives and clergy in the Catholic faith as well as religious leaders of Judaism, Islam and many other branches of Christendom.

Then comes the central issue of faith and how this person expresses and lives by it. Because faith is not a skill; it is a state of being.

I sometimes question whether search committees place a high enough value on faith and spirit when prioritizing the attributes of their next clergy. One assumes the candidate has faith, of course, and so the search committee focuses on other skill sets. But it is all about faith. The spiritual leader sets the tone for the religious community. His or her values and passions for the issues he or she believes in are catalysts for enabling the congregation to achieve the mission of the religion they care so deeply about. The clergyperson and volunteer leadership must be in sync on the fundamental tenets of how they define and engage in their faith in God.

I believe the College of Cardinals -- as well as any clergical search committee -- has the expectation their clergy will be able to bring that God-given talent of faith and inspiration to touch the souls of the community. It is about engagement, and for the match to work between clergy and parishioners it requires everyone to work together to create fertile ground for the spiritual leader to share that sense of calling for the work they have dedicated their lives to.

That person's success -- or failure -- is a reflection on both the volunteer leadership as well as the clergyperson.

Search committees must define the community's and leader's vision for the future and create an excitement for how people feel about their own commitment to the religion. They must preserve a conscience about what the people, the clergy and the institution stand for in relation to other religions and in terms of helping the most vulnerable in our world today.

Not only does the clergyperson need an abundance of faith to meet the challenges of being a spiritual leader, but the search committee needs to draw upon their faith in God and in the teachings of the religion to make the best choice for their congregation. It is a partnership of biblical proportions whether it is a selection of a pope or a local congregational spiritual leader.

Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him at twitter.com/rabbibloom.

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