The Distinction Between A Religious Leader And A Spiritual Leader

Posted on March. 3. 2019

S. Andrew Demirdjian, Ph.D.

“True leadership is found in giving yourself in service to others, not in coaxing or inducing others to serve  you”. Oswald Sanders (1902-1992)

Author of Spiritual Leadership

Right after having unseated President Serj Sargsyan in April of 2018 through Nikol Pashinyan’s so-called “Velvet Revolution”, the people of Armenia demanded the leader of Etchmiadzin to step down on grounds of a litany of misconduct. By echoing the existence of a crisis in the Armenian Church, various individuals and the community media, notably USA Armenian Life, have alerted the Diaspora of the pressing problems surrounding the Supreme Catholicos of all Armenians’ failure in spirituality.
As a concerned Diaspora Armenian, I shall attempt to analyze the situation in order to come up with the nature and definition of the problem on which future proposed solutions would depend. I am not alleging our pontiff of any wrongdoings, though, by any stretch of the imagination. I do not have the facts to do so. However, based on the accusations levied against him by many sources, I shall try to winnow the issues into a single, overarching problem. Against the backdrop of rising “New Armenia” “New Pontiff” campaign sentiment, I shall see if I can understand the root cause behind the discontent fueling the entire social uprising.

In retaliation to a peaceful presentation of the problems by the press, threats of violence against the life of one of our longstanding and courageous publisher and editor of USA Armenian Life, namely Mr. Appo Jabarian, have been made by the supporters of the pontiff and his cohorts. The entire machination seems to have been concocted in an attempt to silence the press. Such a raw outburst of emotions is counterproductive, to say the least.
It is very sad to target one of Armenian community’s ardent activists. Mr. Jabarian has had an impeccable track record of being an objective journalist/columnist. Since I have been devoting a lion’s share of my time writing and publishing for the advancement of Armenia and Artsakh, I have come to know him quite well. Instead of honoring him for his vigilance over our treasured institutions, he has been unfairly treated as a traitor.
Unlike most of his misinformed detractors, Mr. Jabarian has been carrying out his professional duties with steadfast dedication by reporting the good and the bad news about our national problems. In so doing, his readers end up having pertinent information for decision-making purposes about the wellbeing of one of our most important Armenian religious institutions, none other than our Holy Etchmiadzin.
For the sake of brevity, let me summarize the crux of the matter: Our pontiff has been accused of neglecting his spiritual leadership in preference to his own personal material, egocentric advantage. In other words, he has been accused of Kleptocracy and moral misconduct. However, no one has questioned his religious (church) leadership. I have also discovered that not too many people know the difference between a religious leader and a spiritual leader. The divergence and convergence of the two types of leadership will make it easy to understand all the hullaballoo about our pontiff.

According to leading scholars in religious matters, a man or a woman can be a leader in a church and not be a spiritual person. Many would also accept the notion that a man or a woman can be spiritual and not be a religious leader. The opposite is also true in the sense that one can be a religious leader who is not spiritual.
Many bemoan the situation in the Catholic Church: According to the Scripture many priests are religious leaders, but not spiritual leaders when they sin, for example, by engaging in corruption, nepotism, self-aggrandizement, or by seducing young boys and girls into sex acts. They may know the Bible backward and forward and teach their church members to observe the Words of God, yet they fail to be considered spiritual leaders for their selfish pursuit of fulfilling their own worldly desires.
Religion and spirituality are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are complementary. The two things are probably the most difficult to define in definite terms. It would be incorrect to say that spirituality and religion are not compatible. In fact, they go hand in hand. The only difference is that while religion is an organized system that pays homage to God, spirituality is personal in nature, something that does not always require God to define the parameters of the person’s spiritual conduct, like in serving the disadvantaged.
Historically, there have been people who have played the roles of religious and spiritual leaders at the same time for their followers. Most of them have done remarkable work with utmost dedication and passion in guiding their flock. Sister Theresa is one outstanding example. She taught the bible and nursed the needy. Another great example is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who spread the Word of God and also spearheaded the Civil Rights movement to improve the lot of the Black Americans. They both embody religious and spiritual leadership spirits. They both won the Nobel Prize for their unselfish dedication to others.
By using our elasticity of the mind, we can deduce that teaching the Word of God is not sufficient for a man or a woman. In other words, being only a religious teacher or leader of a church is lopsided. The ideal religious man or a woman should be a spiritual leader as well. We can see that spiritual leadership does not happen just because one is asked or elected to be a church leader. A man or a woman can teach the gospel, the “Word of God”, and yet be in sin. That is the case with false or fake teachers, commonly called religious imposters

The Definition of the Problem
If we know the nature of the problem, then we would be able to focus our efforts on finding an appropriate solution to it. According to my objective analysis, the problem in our church is as follows: The Armenian pontiff is perceived by his flock to be a religious leader, but not necessarily a spiritual one. To some concerned Armenians, he fails to be a spiritual leader due to his allegedly moral misconduct. Thus, a man of God must lead by example consistent with the cannons of his church. He ought to be a religious (church) leader and a spiritual leader at the same time. The two types of leadership are compatible for they are congruent with the requirements of the position.
As you well know, not all leaders in religious organizations are spiritual leaders. This is not a criticism against any one. Distinguishing a spiritual leader from a religious leader is to make people refrain from unrealistic expectations of some leaders. The idea behind making this distinction is to help identify who the spiritual leaders are in your organization (e.g., church) based on your own personal set of criteria for spirituality.
Broadly defined, a spiritual leader is someone in religious or sacred affairs who guides and inspires others toward attaining or maintaining the path of righteousness in every sense of the secular and religious term. Any deviation from that mission compromises the true meaning of spirituality.
Spiritual leaders establish a following because of who they are and not because of a position they hold. Spiritual leaders can be found in secular organizations as well as in religious ones. They influence their flock more than they direct, they inspire their congregation more than they instruct. They become aware that they are serving a cause larger than themselves and their own personal objectives. In a nutshell, to lead spiritually is to lead by example, to serve others before themselves, to inspire others to be righteous in all their endeavors.
Over the millennia, Armenians have had many pillars of national pride. Of the birthplace of civilization, the Armenian Empire from sea to sea, the first Armenian Republic of 1918, Sardarabad Battle to cite a few, Etchmiadzin symbolizes Armenia as being the first nation in the world to embrace Christianity as a state religion. As is the case with Mount Ararat, this holy shrine has had a cherished spot in the inner sanctum of our Armenian hearts and consciousness.
We should all contribute toward the upholding the Armenian history and heritage through educational, cultural, humanitarian, and religious programs and spiritual leaders. Therefore, it is imperative for all Armenians to maintain this staggering importance of spirituality in our lives. Through collaboration, we should all make sure that nothing would stain the image of this holy-of-holiest shrine which belongs to all people in the world of Christendom.
An Open Letter to USAAL Readers
As a member of the Diaspora Armenian community, I would like to state my opinion on the recent death threats made to Mr. Appo Jabarian for having published news about the Armenian Church being in crisis.
To try to muzzle the press is tantamount to attempting to keep the community in ignorance of what is happening to relevant people, places and events in their local and international environments. The threats against a journalist/columnist, such as Mr. Appo Jabarian, for publishing the news of great concern to the community are primitive, undemocratic, and downright so pre-cave-dweller mentality. In the 21st century, the pen is accepted as being sharper than the sword. Instead of resorting to acts of violence, it would be very civilized to resort to peaceful rebuttal if one is innocent of any wrongdoings. We should remember that remaining silent or not defending one’s innocence in acceptable ways might betray one of being guilty as charged. So, it is counterproductive, from our Diaspora’s point of view, to harass or intimidate a decent member of our community who has tirelessly worked as an activist as well to protect the rights and interests of the Armenian community so long and so diligently. He happens to be one of those rare Armenians who put Armenia first before any personal gains. Don’t you agree, Armenia needs more of the caliber of Mr. Appo Jabarian, and less of his woefully ungrateful detractors? I do –beyond a shadow of a doubt and I am entitled to my opinion!

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