For the Day:

Authority as Ministry



erhaps, no area of religious life affords more, problems than that of the apparent conflict between mature freedom and authority. Human beings are endowed with freedom. Obedience is a vow the religious promise to God and to the authorities of the Congregation. How to reconcile freedom and authority? Many religious experience difficulties in their relationship with their superiors. When they look at their superiors they sense certain discrepancies between the visible person and the invisible God whom the superior, in some way, represents.

The Almighty, omniscient and infallible God is veiled behind a weak, not always competent, not always right, human being. The superiors’ problem, aside from normal human limits, lies in the fact that s/he has never been trained for her/his job. I think there is a serious need to select superiors psychologically capable of listening well and with obvious respect for every member of their community.

There is also an ambiguity regarding the role of a superior in a religious community. S/he is expected to be a religious superior with all that implies; s/he is forced to be an administrator, financier, fund raiser etc. When can he find time to listen, with anything like attention or span of Interest that her/his community needs? Because of these conflicting duties, often s/he feels tense and depressed.

In fact, superiors also have been compelled by the system to assume this multi-faceted role, find themselves employing bureaucratic techniques in a desperate effort to govern well. They multiply structures, adding to centralization; perpetuating the system, and further complicating it. In such a maze, the superiors often find it hard to assume their true role: that of dynamic, charismatic leaders. Hence it is very important to develop a proper idea about the nature and role of authority in the religious life.

Authority in religious life

Authority ordinarily means the power to give commands and to enforce them, to wield influence, to control, to rule, and to guide effectively. There are three dimensions for any authority. 1. being under authority; 2. being in authority; 3. conveying authority. Every person in authority should remember that they are under a higher authority such as major superiors, Church authorities and above all God. This means that the superior cannot execute her/his authority apart from the religious body which endorses that authority. As persons under authority superiors are required to explain what they do to the higher authorities.

As authorities, superiors should not run away from their responsibilities. They should remember that God has entrusted the well being of the community to their care. Their style of conveying authority should not authoritarian. Jesus told his disciples: ‘’you know that the princes of the gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great, exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you; but who ever will be great among you, let him be your servant’’ (Mt 20:24-25).

In religious life, authority is a ministry and ministry means service. Modern Psychology prefers the term ‘leadership’ to authority. Ministry of leadership is a term often used in the documents of the Church. Leadership is no longer understood in terms of personal traits but in terms of a process between roles, a group and situation. In the context of religious life, terms like “collaboration, ” “sharing ministry” are prominent. Decision making appears to have become a group activity.

The religious leadership is not power; it does not dominate or control the people. Leadership is the capacity and the will to rally people to a common purpose and the character which inspires confidence. In other words, leader is one who inspires, motivates. A religious superior cannot motivate with power. The motivating power of a religious superior is her/his own personality. First of all s/he should be authentic which means that s/he should practice what s/he says. Jesus said, ‘I am meek and humble of heart; learn from me’’. Hence a religious superior has to be a role model to her/his community. Another motivating factor is the superior’s commitment to her/his ministry. A superior has to show her/his commitment to the community by her/his total availability of each and every member of the community.

Since the primary commitment of the superior is to her/his community it is better that s/he does not take up other assignments which may reduce her/his availability to the members.

The authority issues related to being under authority, being in authority and  conveying authority are all related to the superior’s role and function and her/his inner sense of religious identity as servant of the community. The acceptance of this role for oneself is essential to adequate functioning in that role and interpreting it to others. The inner identity of a religious superior is that s/he has received a special vocation to be a humble servant to the community.


The religious superiors have to reflect whether they are using ministerial authority or authoritarianism in their dealings with the members of the community. Psychology defines authoritarianism as a controlling and hierarchical style of leadership. It is also a personality trait distinguished by rigidity, dogmatism, intolerance, high regard for structure and hierarchy.

Authoritarianism is a very dangerous attitude, superiors should avoid. When a superior tries to do everything on one’s own, in the community the confrerers will feel frustrated and left out. The religious superiors must always share their work even if others do it less well than they do, or in a different way. It is always easy to do things ourselves than to teach others to do them. The superior who trusts the gifts of the members is able to respect their initiatives in carrying out their work.

When the superior is over-controlling, there is a stifling of creativity among the members. The more controlling the superior is, the less motivated the members are. Members of the religious communities too must adapt their attitudes, roles and skills to compliment a different approach to leadership. They need to be less passive and reactive as members. Members of religious communities have a key responsibility to shape the leadership in their communities. A passive and disinterested community may create authoritarian superiors.

As Jean Vanier says the first quality needed by the superiors is a love for all the members of the community and a concern for their growth. This implies that they also carry the weaknesses of others. The members of the community can sense very quickly if their superiors love and trust them, or are there to prove their authority and impose their own vision, or are just seeking to please. The model for religious superiors is Jesus – Jesus who washed the feet of his disciples, the Good Shepherd who gave up his life for his flock. It is not the hired man who acted purely in his own interests.

Man of Dialogue

Religious superior is not an autocrat. On the contrary s/he should be  capable of dialogue. Superiors who lack the capacity to listen, end up as dictators. We have to admit that our traditional form of leadership in the Church has always been based on a monarchical style. It is the responsibility of religious superiors to outgrow this kind of leadership, because it is definitely ‘unchristian’. Superiors who depend solely on their perceptions and opinions sooner or later lose the confidence of the members.

Before making any major decision, the effective superior makes a survey of the perceptions and opinions of the members. When such survey is done, the superior is able to gather rich material upon which s/he could base important decisions.

The superiors cannot lead their communities effectively without communicating with the members of their community. They cannot isolate themselves from the people they are to lead. To be an effective superior, they should develop a sense of belonging among the members. Each member of the community should feel that s/he is important. Allow the members to express ideas and opinions. Superiors will not be able to do this if they rebuke them or reflect attitudes of superiority over them.

They have to learn to admit their mistakes and apologize sincerely when things go wrong in the community. President John Kennedy’s famous statement is worth remembering: ‘’every success has so many godfathers and every failure is an orphan’’. Often superiors will have to take the responsibility for the failures in the community.

Training for Superiors

Though authority in religious life is a vocation and ministry, a certain amount of professionalism is required for an effective administration of the religious communities. Interpersonal relationship, communication, administration etc. are certain areas where superiors need special training. Potential superiors should be given the opportunity of formal training before they are assigned to position of authority. Such preparation should include theoretical courses and practical sessions.

Since the burdens of superiors are very heavy, specific steps should be taken to relieve them of those time consuming duties which hinder their effectiveness. In general, this can be achieved by the delegation of responsibilities. Such delegation will provide the superior with more freedom to assume her/his role of coordinator and source of inspiration and enthusiasm.

Realistic Perspectives

Superiors also should realize that they cannot be experts in every area of administration. Hence they should seek advice and guidance from experts. Thus the time saved by delegation can be turned to the more important area of personal contacts. The function of a dynamic superior is a proper balance between administrator and listener. S/he must be readily available, willing and able to be approached. At the same time s/he should find time for her/himself- for prayer, reading, study and rest.