Why I Don’t Follow Most Spiritual Leaders
Note: The opinions here are my own. They do not represent the views of my family nor any organisation I am affiliated with.
Before you react, before you say, “David is anti religion” or “David is criticizing pastors”, please read on. I’m not. In fact, three of the highest quality people in my life are ministers! My father, my brother, and Pastor Paolo Punzalan are all very high value relationships to me and my family!
It’s incredibly typical for people to read a title or the first few lines, or hear about an article, never actually read the whole thing, much less understand it, yet go on to share it and be part of the mindless mob spreading a message they don’t really comprehend. Personally, I’ve seen some of my more viral posts get hundreds of likes and shares, only to find that the average time spent on the article was 2-3 minutes – for a 3000 word article…
… Unless most people are speed readers, the data shows that most people did NOT read my article including the many likers and sharers. Why would anyone share or like something they didn’t read? No idea. But we do it a lot apparently.
So please read the WHOLE article before you share it.
It is this mindless following, mindless supporting, mindless liking, and mindless sharing that I am against. This mindlessness is not isolated to social media but is prevalent in many other areas of our lives, including religion.
What is mindlessness? It is the absence of critical thinking in one’s thoughts, decisions, and actions.
Is it possible to be overly-critical? Yes! But even the idea of “overly-critical” needs defining, without which, the term will simply refer to any criticism we find uncomfortable or offensive. As soon as someone, anyone, criticizes us in a matter we don’t like, we accuse them of being too critical – even if the validity of their point should be at the very least considered.
When we can’t accept an idea simply because we find it offensive we hinge our beliefs not on truth but on what resonates with us. This is extremely proud. It is an extreme, even if subtle, kind of pride that makes one’s feelings the arbiter of what makes something valuable or not. This is also a path to miscommunication and disagreement. When different people who feel differently lack common definition, there will be division not cooperation.
The point of that last paragraph is simply this: We need to be able to take criticism and be critical. In my opinion, the problem is not so much with the act of criticism but with the purpose of the criticism. Criticism for the sake of criticism is stupid. It’s a waste of energy. Criticism for the sake of improvement, for the sake of progress is very very useful.
My goal with this post is to make two very obvious points:
1. Just because someone is “spiritual” doesn’t mean they’re high value and worth worth following as a leader.
2. One can and should evaluate spiritual leaders before following them.
Doesn’t it make sense to be most critical, most discerning, of one of life’s critical, if not most critical, dimensions, which is the Spirit? If spiritual life is so critical, why is it wrong to understand and determine what is a high quality “spiritual leader” and what is not? Just like there are good and bad lawyers, good and bad doctors, good and bad businessmen, good and bad parents, good and bad actors, and good and bad chefs, there are good and bad pastors, good and bad priests, good and bad leaders, good and bad worship leaders, good and bad small group leaders.
Think about this, a chef can get sued and go to jail if one of his customers gets poisoned and dies, regardless of whether the incident happened through malice or incompetence. At the very least, people will stop eating in his establishment if they don’t like the food. In the religious world, this isn’t the case. If you don’t like their “food” you’re unspiritual! It doesn’t matter if they’re boring, shallow, or if the message seems like it was rushed the night before, it’s your fault if you’re bored and disengaged. It doesn’t matter if their advice was not effective, they meant well. It doesn’t matter if they’re not ultimately accountable to your life’s results, you need to submit to them.
I have a problem with that kind of thinking. I have a problem with mindless submission to an authority that’s not accountable to its followers. Even Scriptures are full of God telling us to “taste and see” His goodness, test him, and passages of Jesus saying “the blind see” and “the lame walk”. Even Jesus proved Himself with results. Why is it wrong to seek results before following in a human leader?
So here’s the interesting situation:
I’m taught that the most important dimension of a man is his spirit.
This spirit is governed by laws. These laws are taught and interpreted by so-called “spiritual leaders”.
I cannot evaluate these “spiritual leaders” objectively because they’re special, they’re not in a profession but in a “calling”.
The only person who can judge a “called person” is the one who called him or her, in other words, only God, or other “called people” who happen to be of greater ranking.
What are the rankings based on? Usually, it’s tenure. Tenure in what? Tenure in the knowledge and practice of scripture? Tenure in actual effective service? Nope. Tenure in an organization.
So now the basis of ultimate credibility in many spiritual organizations is tenure in that organization. We default to someone being wiser, more skilled, and more effective simply because they’ve been around longer.
So for this highly critical dimension of my life, my spirit, I am entrusting it to individuals who are evaluated by higher ranking individuals who are not necessarily wiser, more skilled, nor more effective, and not even necessarily more experienced, but have survived longer in that specific organization.
And if I ever wonder whether this makes sense, if I ever ask if this is really wise, I am quickly dismissed as divisive or unbelieving.
This is why I’m not surprised that we’re very easily swayed by different competing beliefs. When the reason for our following someone is their title and position NOT a principled understanding of what makes someone worth following, we will be easily swayed. So let’s add some definitions, particularly, let’s define:
- What makes a great leader?
- What makes someone spiritual?
- What makes someone a great spiritual leader?
What makes a great leader?
While anyone with a follower can technically be called a leader, not all leaders are equal in their abilities. Just like in any category, there are good ones, bad ones, average ones (which I would great ones, and really horrible ones. If I had to wager on what percent each category is, I would bet that a very strong power law would be obvious, with very small percent of great leaders (5-10% of leaders), a still small percent of good leaders (10-20%), a large percent of bad leaders (20-30%), and the majority of people being horrible leaders (40-65%). Of course, this is a complete guess and not scientific at all. The basis of my opinion is that most “leaders” I’ve experienced, though going through the motions of what they think leaders should do, don’t actually have (nor care to have in many circumstances) one, or two, or three of the most important characteristics of a great leader. A great leader is someone who has a track record of getting results through:
– Accountability to a Clear Purpose
– Evolving Competent Action
– Wise Stewardship of Capital / Resource (time, money, and energy)
When people comment things like, “This person is such a great spiritual leader.”, I like to ask them, “Why do you think so?” And normally, at least in a religious setting, what I get is, “Oh, his preaching was so good” or “Oh, he’s so kind” or “Oh, he has a lot of followers” or “Oh he’s such a good husband” or “Oh, he’s such a good father”. These are all wonderful, but none of them answer why the person is a great spiritual leader. I can see that he may be a great preacher. I can see that he may be a kind person. I can see that he may be influential. I can see that he may be a great leader at home. But it’s possible to be any of these, even all of these, and still not be a great spiritual leader.
For me, I don’t pay too much attention to the sound bites and quotes of “leaders”. I like to follow leaders with a very clear purpose and who significant skin in the game.
What is skin in the game?
It is being so accountable to the mission that failure to achieve it comes with great personal consequence.
This is why I would rather have an honest and open conversation with the mentors I have cultivated over time than to listen to some visiting speaker or traveling evangelist. It’s easy to parachute into a situation and act wise, especially if there are no consequences, and especially if it comes with an honorarium. It’s incredibly difficult to journey with someone. It’s less glamorous too. And for most of my mentors, all they get is a cup of coffee or a meal. But the fact that they have skin in my life, by their investments in my life, make more likely to give wise, contextual, nuanced advice that is worth following.
When evaluating who to follow, when discerning who is credible, don’t simply look at who has the position of authority or who is the most known. Instead, look for who are most accountable. This is why I, personally, go more to spiritual leaders who have responsibilities way beyond “encouraging the flock”. I respect leaders who are building themselves and their teams to be more and more excellent, not settling, because they understand that they’re actually accountable to results.
Ultimately, what marks a great leader are results. We’ll talk about more what I think spiritual results are bellow, but for now it’s important, when choosing who to follow, to really ask, “What are this person’s results?”
If you’re going to follow some business mentor’s advice, look at what his own businesses have achieved.
Before following some financial advisor’s advice, review his portfolio. Anyone can talk about saving and investing money. How many of them are truly financially savvy? How many of them are actually millionaires with no debt? How many of them actually make money from their own advice? How many of them make money from you falling for their talks? And while we’re on the topic, why pay $100 to be told to save?
If you’re going to follow a fitness trainer you better make sure they’re actually healthy. How can someone generate sustained results for you when they can’t even sustain their own results?
Now, if you’re going to follow a spiritual leader, look at the fruit of their lives. By the way, nice is not a fruit. I’ve written about how dumb “nice” is as a quality because it simply means “agreeable”. Agreeable doesn’t mean truthful. It doesn’t mean wise. It doesn’t even mean kind. It’s possible for someone to agree with someone else’s foolishness. Just because some spiritual leader is charismatic, nice, and gets along well with people, it does not mean they have spiritual fruit. 99% of Filipinos are good at making friends. If 99% of Filipinos were truly spiritual, then why is our country so poor and corrupt? The true proof a great spiritual leader are results, and it’s about time we defined what is “spiritual” and what are the “spiritual results” we should look for in a “spiritual leader.
What make someone spiritual?
A major concept we need to define clearly is the concept of spirituality. What actually makes someone or something spiritual? The easy answer is that anything that pertains to spiritual things is spiritual. This is obviously an unsatisfactory definition since it doesn’t actually define what a spiritual thing is. Growing-up, I’ve witnessed people call all sorts of things spiritual. From the spirit of lust to the spirit of drugs to the spirit of intellectualism, it seems there’s a spirit for everything.
I’m a simple guy with a very limited understanding on spiritual things. I’ll leave the more complex ideas to the experts. Besides, I find a lot of what we call spiritual to be superstitious.
For me, when it comes to my own spirituality, I like to define it by three statements:
- Sacred Values over Material Values
- Eternal Horizon over Temporal Horizon
- Transcendent Wisdom over Immanent Wisdom
I know I am being “spiritual” when I am thinking, deciding, and acting based on Sacred Values, an Eternal Horizon, and Transcendent Wisdom. Let me explain each briefly.
The first mark of a spiritual person is someone who focuses on Sacred Values. Sacred Values refers to choosing to prioritise what the Bible calls valuable over my material needs and wants. What does the Bible value? There are a lot of different verses about what is important to God, but Jesus summed it up nicely: Love God and Love others. One way I can evaluate my own spirituality (and the spirituality of a “leader”) is to look for an obvious signs of love for God and love for others over our material requirements.
The Bible is also very clear about what love is. It isn’t simply someone who is nice to other people. It isn’t simply someone who is always available to have coffee (usually that’s a sign of lack of focus in my opinion). It isn’t simply someone who isn’t offensive. The Bible clearly says that love is “laying your life down for a friend”. With that definition, love looks more like a selfless dad or mom than your favourite coffee buddy. You may feel like your buddy cares about you more, you may feel like your parents don’t understand you, but the real proof of how much others love you is how much they lay themselves down for you. I wrote about why it’s easy to take this real, almost boring, love for granted in this article, Goodbye Constants.
The point is this: A truly spiritual person is not someone who knows a bunch of chants, attends a bunch of events, or hangs out with a certain kind of guru. A truly spiritual person is actively laying their life down.
Why? Because they value what God values, even more than they value their own needs and wants.
By this definition alone, I find my own spirituality is grossly lacking. But I’d rather know the truth about my situation so that I can address it.
And when looking for someone to guide me spiritually, I am drawn to people who consistently design their life to love God and others better. What’s a good sign of this kind of growing love? They are excellent in their service. They aren’t serving to feel appreciated. They aren’t simply hanging out. They aren’t selectively more available and more gracious to the rich. They are evaluating their own service and looking for ways to improve the level of service they provide.
This is why I follow very few people when it comes to spirituality. Why should I follow a spiritual leader, regardless of title, who isn’t exhibiting excellence in life-laying?
The next mark of a spiritual person is someone who lives with an Eternal Horizon over a Temporal one. An Eternal Horizon things of the lasting impact of his or her choices, and understands that what we do while alive, as Russell Crow in the Gladiator puts it, “Echoes through eternity”.
A good way to understand this is through an example:
I like playing computer games (my wife would say too much). Is it wrong for me to play computer games? Nope. But is it most beneficial? If I were thinking with a shorter time frame, like the moment, I would say, “I should play! I’m stressed! I’m bored It’s good for me to play!” If I stretch my time horizon a little bit, like what my wife does for me when she asks, “Do you really want to spend this time on your phone instead of playing with Elijah?” With that perspective, I am no longer simply judging based on the moment’s stress or boredom but my longer term objective of collecting memories with my son. I can extend my horizon even more and imagine 10 years from now, “What type of activities would me and Elijah share?” So I realise I need to stay fit and healthy. I need to lessen my drinking. I need to save.
The time horizon you choose determines the decisions you’ll make.
A spiritual person, a truly spiritual person, isn’t simply deciding in the moment. He is also thinking about the implications down the road. He is also thinking about the implications on his soul.
Again, by this second mark, I eliminate myself and, I would think, most so-called spiritual people, from the list of truly spiritual. And again, it’s better for us to know where we really are so we can journey towards a better spirituality. And it’s better for us to have a way to evaluate spiritual leaders and cut-out those who may lead us astray.
Thirdly, for my own simple definition of spirituality, a truly spiritual person discovers and applies transcendent wisdom not simply immanent. These terms may not be the best, but they’ll do. For our purposes, I am defining transcendent as “surpassing normal experience”. Truly spiritual leaders have a transcendent quality about them, a level of excellence, of exceptionality, of incomparability, about them. When we think about this, we realise this should be obvious. Shouldn’t someone who is spending a lot of time with God become more and more like God, and in the process become more and more transcendent? Conversely, how can we say that someone who is less dynamic, less exceptional, and less excellent is truly spiritual?
Now you know why I’m not a pastor or a minister or a spiritual leader. It’s a very hard position. It’s a very serious position. I am self-aware enough to know that I am not in a position to fulfil such an amazing responsibility. This is why I respect truly spiritual people so much – if they’re truly spiritual.
Needless to say, I don’t think most people I know are NOT credible to lead me spiritually. For most “spiritual leaders”, I look at their life, I look at their choices, and I don’t see Sacred Values as priority. I see Bible quotes. I see verses. I see pictures of events. But I don’t see excellent life-laying. I also don’t see an Eternal Horizon. I see a fear of hell. I see a hope for heaven. But I don’t see a longterm thinking, much less longest term thinking, which is what eternity is. And I don’t see transcendent wisdom. I see agreement with the collective. I see the parroting of “church positions”. I see the execution of tracks. I don’t see the exceptionality that should come from someone who truly spends time with God, from someone who is truly being refined by God into something glorious.
I do see this in the lives of the spiritual people I follow. That’s why I follow them. Because they have much to impart to my very lacking spirituality.
In short, here’s a good description of truly spiritual people:
They are in the world but not of it.
They are in the moment but not for it.
They are in the know but not limited by it.
Again, this filters out most so-called spiritual leaders. Now let’s combine the idea of a Great Leader and a Truly Spiritual Person. The filter just gets more severe.
What makes someone a great spiritual leader?
Putting the concept of a “great leader” and a “spiritual person” together, we find that we can evaluate a “great spiritual leader” by applying the 6 definitions (3 for Great Leader + 3 for Spiritual):
- Accountability to a Clear Purpose
- Evolving Competent Action
- Wise Stewardship of Capital / Resource (time, money, and energy)
- Sacred Values over Material Values
- Eternal Horizon over Temporal Horizon
- Transcendent Wisdom over Immanent Wisdom
The spiritual leaders I choose to follow exhibit these six in their lives. I choose them because these are the traits I too want to exhibit someday for my own family. I want my family to have a great leader in all aspects, including spirituality. I don’t want to be a bad husband, or a bad father, a bad provider, or a bad lover, or a bad anything. I want the people I love most to have the best I can offer. I’ll never be the very best I can be if I mindlessly follow someone just because they’re spiritual, just because God supposedly gives us points when we go to church, or because thousands, if not millions, of others follow them.
I guess, in short, when choosing a leader, spiritual or not, follow someone whom you’ve taken the time to truly get to know, and as you get to know them find a growing respect for their life’s results.
If spirituality is truly critical, and it is, we should learn how to evaluate those who lead us spiritually. We should not teach that mindless following is a sign of greater faith. It isn’t. Who has greater faith? The child who never asks questions because he trusts that his parents will take care of him anyway or the child who is always asking questions because he believes his parents have the answers? Maybe equal! That’s not the issue here. The issue is this: When your faith is a passive faith then your “waiting on God” becomes a wonderful excuse for inaction. When your faith is an active faith, you are actively seeking more and seeking greater, not because you don’t believe but because you believe God has more, than that leads you to action and work.
And faith without works is dead. No wonder many of us who would consider ourselves faithful have dead results.
Finally, is leadership important? Absolutely. This is why we honour them. This is why we respect them. This is also why we don’t just let others lead us. This is why we evaluate them. Who you follow will determine your decisions and your decisions will determine your life’s results.
I grew up in a religious environment, and maybe you did too. The reality for me has been this, the older I got, the more I understood, the less I respected many of the people I thought were great leaders and/or great spiritual people. At the same time, for a very few number of them, my respect and desire to follow them have grown. My increasing interactions with them had me taking notes on how to follow God better, just like them.
Truly, not all that glitters is gold, not all that leads is good, not all that preaches is God.