The Kindling of the Fire Is the Will: Attributes of Leadership in the Church


I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled (Luke 12:49).

In business, the idea that leadership is an exercise of will is not new. Much has been written about how a leader’s vision empowers an organization by harnessing the talents of all personnel.

Within the Church, this idea is largely absent from consideration. In discussions about successful leadership, conventional wisdom cites superior intellect and charismatic personality. This view is reinforced by business journals focusing attention on remarkable CEOs. The truth, however, is that leadership is primarily a function of will: the capacity to act decisively — based on the best available information and analysis, guided by prayer — and to keep acting.

It is not enough to simply initiate. Follow-through is the lifeblood of an institution seeking accomplishment.

A recent study of European corporations at least 100 years old found that charisma is a more likely personality trait in low-performing companies than in high-performing ones. The problem with leaders possessing Mensa-plus intellect and/or a magnetic personality is these gifts enable them to more readily persuade stakeholders to embark on disastrous courses.

A high-functioning individual in a leadership position tends to over-rely on his skills, in contrast to a high-functioning leader who focuses on building the organization’s capabilities. Accordingly, the leader’s first task is to transcend the difficulties of the here and now to become the bridge to the envisioned future reality.

If charisma and IQ falter as leadership’s primary governing attributes, how does a Christian leader achieve success? In our experience, there are six critical components to the right application of sustained action, outlined below:



Receptivity to the right goals for the Church for Christ and for one’s proper role is fostered by an active approach to prayer. This involves the primary — and often most difficult — task for a leader: the subordination of his or her will to God’s will.

Prayer’s receptivity allows the Lord to speak to individuals throughout the organization. This confers on the organization the ability to speak prophetically with confidence born of the Holy Spirit vs. talking solely out of the leader’s strengths or authority, which can mislead.

"[P]rayer can progress as a genuine dialogue of love, to the point of rendering the person wholly possessed by the Divine Beloved," wrote St. John Paul II. The leader’s goal must be to live this as the basis of forming a community of believers. Otherwise, the leader is reduced to giving pep talks about the prosaic power of positive thought or offering regurgitations of contemporary mores, and the entire organization succumbs to temerity.



Leaders must be visionaries with a clear sense of excellence for the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit. The journey begins with developing a mission-inspired vision, without which, as Proverbs teaches, the people perish. The leader needs to behold his organization as the lover beholds the beloved.

In contrast, if the leader self-identifies with his organization, his vision could become messianic or the entire organization could become self-referential, constantly focused on identity and neglecting mission. The leader’s vision must articulate how God’s calling (mission) should look incarnated in this place for this organization. The leader then seeks to define organizational excellence, which must be understood as the realization of the Church’s mission: that the world be set ablaze, that everyone hears the Gospel and is baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It follows that excellence for the Church includes the corporal works of mercy.

Fittingly, "excellence" at its Latin origin converges with "virtue" and "virility." The local leader must describe what the specific organizational virtues are for members at this time and what activities the organization’s members must engage in to achieve the desired outcome. Then, realizing the vision becomes the people of God practicing these organizational virtues repeatedly.



Although the will is central to successful leadership, it’s not about the imposition of will on others. The Church leader must compel through the force of love, which is the highest Christian virtue. He seeks to provide for the loftiest aspirations and spiritual needs of the people of God in his care, according to Christ’s will.

This proactive shepherding contrasts sharply with the highest virtue of today’s neo-pagan culture: tolerance, which constitutes a failure to act on behalf of others. Tolerance expresses indifference about how various forms of behavior affect well-being.

While tolerance allows for emotion and intelligent discussion, it blocks direct involvement in others’ lives through love. Being non-judgmental, so esteemed in academia and the media, amounts to a moral frontal lobotomy. The entire point of learning is to acquire the capacity to make sound judgments about self and others.

The antithesis of governing by love involves creating an image of personal omnipotence and focusing the organization exclusively on making money or fundraising. In Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, former CEO Margaret Heffernan notes that omnipotence produces a "psychological solipsism of power," which isolates the leader or surrounds him with sycophants. Focusing solely on making money crowds out ethical considerations.


Learning (With Humility)

Determining the vision of excellence for the Church is not about seeking an epiphany in a single moment; more likely, the vision will form in stages over time. Next to prayer, the most important factor forming the right vision is an active openness to relevant data, accurate analysis and the wisdom of all participants. Effective planning must be based on analytics, and the larger the organization, the greater the need for this to guide decision-making. Analytics cannot substitute for prayer, but properly guided, analytics lead to the establishment of institutional excellence, the widespread habit of acting effectively in accordance with goals, which can be measured by establishing reasonable benchmarks.

As cited in "Vision," excellence must be articulated with specificity. For leaders, this means ordering the particulars of time, place, resources and other concrete details, which constitute the essence of strategic planning. This wedding of vision to data produces a coherent future picture, which includes financial sustainability, and the tactical campaign to realize that end state.

Accordingly, the one who orders, the bishop, is referred to as the ordinary in canon law.

Ironically, although contemporary society is well informed, leaders and entire organizations tend to deliberately ignore obvious problems over long periods of time. Heffernan attributes this in part to what she calls "organizational silence," resulting from the fear of being seen as not sharing the common goal. This pathology is remarkably common in a variety of historical disasters, including sex-abuse scandals in the Church. Significantly, Willful Blindness documents that, after a major calamity, voices emerge saying they warned leaders of impending danger but were ignored.

Heeding data also guards against false empathy, termed "pathological altruism" by Barbara Oakley in a paper published by the National Academy of Sciences. "Indeed, truly altruistic actions may sometimes appear cruel or harmful, the equivalent of saying ‘No’ to the student who demands a higher grade or to the addict who needs another hit," she wrote. "However, the social consequences of appearing cruel in a culture that places high value on kindness, empathy and altruism can lead us to misplaced ‘helpful’ behavior and result in self-deception regarding the consequences of our actions."

This false charity can create a milieu in which criminal behavior is tolerated or ignored in the name of a false sense of saving the bella figura (proper image) of the Church.



At the conclusion of the strategic-planning process, the true leader commits to executing the plan in its entirety over its multiyear time frame, however difficult or inconvenient.

Delegation is critical. Many endeavors fail because the leader won’t share responsibility. Projects also fall apart when the leader gives a strategic plan his blessing and delegates all responsibility to the point of abdication.

A coherent strategic plan creates a small number of specific objectives and eliminates many others. It is not a to-do list, but a set of goals enabling effective implementation in the local environ now. The chosen goals must be given top priority, which means a leader says "No" to other worthwhile endeavors, which is difficult, since the impulse to address all needs is strong among Christian leaders.

Focusing on priorities gives emotion its proper role as exciter for self and others. If a leader isn’t passionate about a proposed goal, it’s more difficult for those in lesser roles to commit fully.

The lukewarm don’t fare very well in Revelation.



Often overlooked is how crucial communications are to effective leadership. The people of God need to hear from their bishops and priests, who must, in turn, listen. The laity wants to be informed about changes to Church liturgy, clarifications of Church teachings and the state of temporal affairs locally and throughout the diocese. Parishioners also want to be involved in solving fiscal, management and related challenges. Transparency and accountability are critical to getting distributed ownership of the organization’s vision.

Yves Congar noted that all heresy, at its core, is a denial of the Incarnation. Contemporary society would have us believe that the life Christ offers is pure metaphor and cannot be incarnated in our lives today. This amounts to saying the Church as it ought to be can no longer exist in today’s society.

To declare that Christ cannot work through his Bride relieves personal responsibility for the leader with a fatalistic passivity. But Christ calls us all to use our will in following him, or he doesn’t call at all.

"I am the Light of the world," said Christ in the most astounding statement in history. "Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (John 8:12).

There is no easy way to lead as a follower of Christ. What is the price of living and leading according to the Light of Christ? Everything else.

Patrick O’Meara is the president and founder of O’Meara, Ferguson, Whelan and Conway, a firm that provides advice and counsel to Catholic organizations on the best possible use of their temporal resources as they work to further their missions.

Patrick J. McCloskey is a project director at the Center for Catholic School Effectiveness at Loyola University Chicago.