It’s Not the Who, but the What

In spiritual and religious circles, it’s fair to say that since the advent of mass communications the cult of personality has dominated and the actual message has been diminished. Back when I belonged to an Episcopal Church that was going through a change of clergy, I recall people – including our outgoing rector – clearly saying that the parish wasn’t about the rector. That’s certainly true, but to some extent it is the personality of the clergy or spiritual teacher who draw us in. If we visit a place and the teacher is cold or distant, we tend to move on because we don’t feel welcome. That’s normal, and I think it is a mistake to say there is a problem with people moving on if they don’t feel welcome. It’s also true that, no matter how welcoming the teacher may be, if their talks put us to sleep the odds are we are going to move on – but that’s a good reason to move on because we do so due to a lack of content. We might say that the “who” is there, but the “what” is missing.

The cult of personality is harmful in spiritual circles because the “who” becomes all that matters. The “what” may even be destructive of self or others, but we are so drawn in by the “who” that we ignore it. Charisma can be a powerful force for either good or evil, depending on who is wielding it. Ideally, we can find a place where both the “who” and the “what” resonate with us, but there can be no doubt that the latter is much more important than the former. That being said, a complete lack of either one will kill a ministry.

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