How to Find Leaders That “Smell of Sheep”

sheepRead this article that talks about the qualities of a Roman Catholic bishop and describes the typical career path of aspiring pastors and resulting effects to overall church leadership, especially in the highest Church offices.


Bishop Francis says he wants priests and bishops who have the “smell of the sheep”; that is, he wants them to be out among their people and not remote, removed and seemingly superior.


Protestants can learn a thing or two by comparing their leadership structure to the process described in this excellent article.


I can’t speaking for all Protestant denominations, but I see similar problems within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. There is one thing very different about Lutheran structure. Our bishops reign with no authority over them except an unwieldy Synod Assembly system, where a third of voters owe their career path to currying the bishop’s favor and a large percentage of remaining vote (much of it lay) have limited experience or knowledge of church law or custom. They are the constitutional “highest authority.”


There is a “presiding bishop” with offices in the national church office in Chicago, but the people don’t really know what this national leader stands for or does. If the people take a regional issue to the presiding bishop, they are likely to be ignored. We know this from our experience with the current and previous presiding bishops. For all we know they are as what Bishop Francis describes as “airport bishops”—ready to hop on a plane to the Vatican or popular international site at any moment.


Our issues with the ELCA and its regional body, the Southeasetern Pennsylvania Synod, were (are) pretty serious. They involve land, church debt, a hefty endowment, the role of lay leadership, and the spiritual lives of nearly 100 people, all of whom were locked out of their church property and dismissed from membership in the ELCA by edict of a bishop, who was administering a regional body with a 10% recurring deficit budget. Courts ruled without hearing the case that they have no jurisdiction in intrachurch disputes. This was bad for us, but the day will come when the other churches who stood by and watched will realize that it was just as bad for them.


This is what it means to them. Regional bishops in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are accountable to no one. They can write and approve constitutions with ease—because they don’t have to follow them.  ELCA bishops can do what they like.


That regional leaders often have next to no parish experience probably helped this situation come about. They never were in a position to know and practice servanthood (except ceremonially on Maundy Thursday).


In this regard, we are like the Roman Catholic Church. As this article points out, the surest track to becoming bishop in either the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches is to cozy up to those already holding prominent positions. Avoid parish service where no one will notice you. It is much easier to get the necessary name recognition working in the regional office or agencies than it is to serve any parish—large or small. SEPA’s current bishop served just five years as an associate pastor before going to work in the synod office prior to her election as bishop.


Here is how it works in the ELCA. Every six years, Lutherans are given a slate of names to consider for bishop. Most of the names will not be recognized by a great majority of voters. Delegates will read the short bio provided and check to see how others are voting.


Voters in civil elections for important but rarely publicized positions such as judge have more opportunity to vet and explore the credentials of candidates than delegates to church assemblies.


All churches are stuck with the decision made under this flawed procedure for six long years—when the process of electing the name most people recognize will be repeated. Parish pastors rarely have the visibility to attain regional office. The next bishop is likely to come from the existing regional body’s staff, seminary faculty or an executive of a social service agency that visits with all the congregations and is therefore known by the most people.


How can we improve the process to get leaders who not only “smell of the sheep” but who know a sheep when they see one?