How to Evaluate a Spiritual Leader

Posted on February. 25. 2019

BY Z. S. Andrew Demirdjian, Ph.D.

Right after the so-called “Velvet Revolution” in early April of 2018, large organized groups of Armenians took to the streets, chanting “New Armenia, New Pontiff” as the crowds filed toward the Republic Square in Yerevan. Since then, USA Armenian Life Magazine published a litany of lead articles mainly to inform the Armenian Diaspora of the “dysfunctionality” and loss of credibility of the current spiritual leadership at Holy Echmiadzin, namely His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos and Supreme Patriarch of All Armenians, including some of his cohorts.
Allegations of misconduct have been levied against the Catholicos’s extra-spiritual activities tarnishing the image of his most revered office in the entire world. Most, if not all, articles demanded his resignation to “cleanse” Etchmiadzin, the Vatican of the Armenian nation, of the alleged head spiritual imposter, (defined here as a person who practices deception under an assumed character, identify, or name).
Mr. Appo Jabarian, the Publisher and Editor of the USA Armenian Life, spearheaded the crusade and has become the mythological “Pied Piper”, the hero of the Armenians, who through his relentless activism to champion the sending of the “spiritual” imposter “rats” into a river of no return. While most of the other Armenian Diaspora publications have kept silent about the fitness of the Catholicos to lead his flock, Mr. Jabarian bit the bullet and warned the Armenian community of the festering problems at our holiest church of them all, Etchmiadzin –the crown Jewel of Armenia’s religiosity. His activism was predicated on the assumption that democracy grinds to a halt unless it operates in transparency or simply put, unless we air our dirty laundry, we won’t get it cleaned.
As we all know, things do not always appear as they seem on the surface. Perception is personal. This is also very true in the spiritual realm. The Catholic priests have had their lion’s share of scandals (e.g., sexual misconduct toward their young parishioners). Christians and other religions’ faithful members cannot remain naive. Not every person that carries a Bible, the Talmud, or the Koran and talks about Jesus, Mosses, Mohammed and others is a true teacher of God’s Word. To cite an observation from the Bible, Apostle Paul warned that false teachers will appear as the apostles of Christ and angels of light. In other words, they are the masters of deception and it is the reason why it is difficult for good-meaning souls to see through their misdirected intentions.
So, how do we detect or identify a spiritual imposter? What an objective method to use in evaluating or judging a spiritual leader? Since there is not a comprehensive evaluative model to lead us to a conclusion that either our spiritual leader is a “wolf in a sheep’s clothing” or a man of God in His glorious image. I have searched the literature extensively and found only fragmented basis to judge a spiritual leader. For a comprehensive systems approach, I have formulated the following multi-dimensional explanatory and predictive model consisting of four major related variables: Character/Personality, Spiritualism-Materialism.
Character and personality of the spiritual leader are interrelated and intertwined in showing how honestly a spiritual leader behaves in his religious capacity as well as in his secular life, if permited. For example, if he is prone to lying, that is a reflection on his character and/or his personality. So the two traits are intertwined.
Two important variables go into determining the positive (legitimate) or the negative (imposter) character/personality of the spiritual leader: Behaving hypocritically and Focusing on Fulfilling Egocentric Desires.
Behaving hypocritically is one dimension of the spiritual leader’s character/personality. The spiritual leaders sometimes engage in behavior contrary to the cannons (i.e., ecclesiastical rules) of the church. For example, if he secretly maintains an intimate relationship with a woman, or begets a child out of wedlock, and pretends to be upholding all the canonical requirements of his office, shows his lack of morality. If this were true, then the spiritual leader is an imposter. In general, we say: beware of hypocrites! This is perhaps one of the simplest ways of weeding our spiritual imposters for their hypocritical religiosity.
Focusing on fulfilling egocentric desires is another aspect of his character/personality. We should look into his investment in the material aspects of life. Is the spiritual leader displaying behavior that is indicative of being of the spiritual path? Does he overly focus on power, prestige, and pursuit of corporeal pleasures (e.g., sex) to cite a few? If the answer is yes, then we have a case of decadence of moral virtues. As a result, the community has to realize that they no longer have a spiritual “Sheppard” who practices what he preaches. Also, examine the situation to see if your spiritual leader practices what he preaches. If he advances honesty, decency and morality, see if he is pontificating from example. Then, he is a genuine spiritual leader; otherwise, he is an imposter.
Likewise, two salient antonym variables go into determining whether the spiritual leader is a genuine clergy man or a fake holy man, an imposter:
Displaying Spiritual Materialism and Behaving Selfishly.
While character/personality is interrelated, spiritualism-materialism is a continuum. The two traits are antonyms, the opposite of one another in depicting the spiritual leader as being either a legitimate man of God or a fake, an imposter. For example, if a spiritual leader upholds the virtue of being of help to the poor rather than spending lavishly on building imposing offices for himself, would be indicative of being deprived of human kindness.
Displaying spiritual materialism defines a spiritual leader as being prone to spiritual pitfalls. The increased focus on spiritual materialism is problematic. Secretly hording money of the church at a bank indicates the spiritual leader’s focus on materialistic desires at their core, and do not reflect actual messages of spiritual growth. Although spiritual growth and self-actualization can lead to attracting like minded individuals of immense positivity, the leader becomes lost in the illusion that false spirituality creates the path to riches. Nepotism usually is also practiced to keep the riches in the family boundaries. This kind of orientation leads to embezzlement of community resources.
Behaving selfishly betrays the spiritual leader as being an imposter. Selflessness should be the dominant quality in the spiritually-advanced soul, not selfishness. Spirituality has no place for superstars moving in limousines and living in glamorous mansions. It is not the spiritual teacher himself that should be the focus, but rather the spiritual messages and teachings. The focus should be rather external on the needy, disabled, and sick members of the congregation and not internally on the self of the spiritual leader.
There are ordained clergymen within the spiritual arena who are looking at the qualitative aspects of self-growth and seeing a marvelous moneymaking opportunity for their own use. They seek a way to have incredible power over others. Sometimes, a pyramid scheme is then created and established to continue the money flowing into their coffers. This is very dangerous in the sense that it can negatively affect the perception of the legitimacy of the entire spiritual community and all that it comes under its jurisdiction. Whereas, a single misdemeanor of would be somewhat bearable, the practice of kleiptocracy at the holy-of-hollies Etchmiadzin would be a capital sin. True genuine spiritual leaders put their own interest last when it comes to the urgent needs of their flock for material as well spiritual things.
Here we go: Now you have the tool, the model to help you determine whether your spiritual leader is a true genuine man of God or an imposter. Do not rush into judgment. Misjudging a person is also a very unfair act. A God-fearing man deserves our utmost consideration; otherwise, we would become ourselves imposter judges. So, get your facts based on the above-mentioned model before passing any judgment. As you would agree, it would be wrong to criminalize an innocent person of any wrong doings.
Therefore, your judgment should be based on the objective model presented above: What explains and determines the integrity of a spiritual leader is based on two major composite variables of Character/Personality (with determinants of Behaving Hypocritically and Focusing on Fulfilling Egocentric Desires) and Spiritual-Materialism (with determinants of Displaying Spiritual Materialism and Behaving Selfishly).
In closing, let me say something parenthetically: Do not lynch the messenger, Mr. Appo Jabarian, who as a consummate journalist has the obligation to his readers to bring to them the good as well as the bad news. Unlike most other Diaspora publications, he braved to publish about disturbing news and in the process became to some individuals the bearer of bad news and even a persona non grata. His life was even threatened for breaking the news about the Armenian Church being in turmoil. How unfair one can be?!
There is so much religious chicanery and indecency today. It is everywhere you turn to the news you find clergymen committing crimes. It was prevalent in Paul’s day and this problem is still rampant today in all religions. It can get confusing, but I have attempted to give you a relatively objective method for being able to judge your spiritual leader as either being a genuine man of God, or an imposter on devil’s side. 
Our Armenian nation is rightfully proud to be the first in the world to accept Christianity as the state religion. We have paid for it dearly. We should always feel that pride in our collective hearts. It is my hope that this article can help in discerning between the genuine spiritual leader that wishes nothing more than to preserve our rich heritage and help us all become self-realized and experience spiritual bliss and those leaders who proclaim they will do these things for us, but in reality are just taking advantage of our ignorance of what is going on at one of the most prestigious religious shrines of the world. Hopefully, we find nothing but positive spiritual leaders in our lives so that we all happily contribute to the survival and growth of our beloved Motherland, Hayastan!

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