What It Means To Be a Leader Among the Faithful

An interview with Fr. Robert Spitzer on the qualities needed to be a leader among the faithful.

Father Robert Spitzer, SJ is president of the Magis Center of Reason and Faith and the Spitzer Center as well as co-founder of the Napa Institute.

Why do you think forming Catholic leaders is a particularly essential task for today’s Church?

Father Robert Spitzer, SJ: Well-informed, visionary, passionate leaders are essential for thriving and growing organizations in every era. People of this quality are particularly important in a Church facing an increasingly secularized and materialistic culture. As can be seen, the Church is confronted with many attacks on its ethical views, and even its strong advocacy for Jesus, covenant love, family, and civil responsibility. Our young people are increasing in unbelief at an alarming rate of more than 1 percent per year—from 24 percent unbelief to 36 percent unbelief in 10 years! If we don’t have well-educated, well-informed, intelligent, influential, visionary leaders to confront these problems at all levels of society, we will simply be left behind in the secular and materialistic dust. Yet the Holy Spirit has raised up for us a generation of leaders, educators, and holy people who need to come together in conference to support one another’s gifts and apostolic zeal—so that we can transcend the banality and superficiality of what the culture calls “happiness,” and lead people to their true eternal dignity and destiny in the unconditional love of Christ. The primary mission of the Napa Institute is to make a significant contribution to this major apostolic effort.

What does a Catholic leader look like? Are there any essential qualities or virtues that all leaders possess?

Father Spitzer: All successful leaders are those who can recognize problems—whether those be in the marketplace, technology, the culture, the Church’s mission—and can respond to those problems with imagination, vision, creativity, charisma, and determination. Many people recognize problems, simply complain about them, and do nothing. Leaders are not in that group. Rather, they have a natural predisposition to solve problems when they encounter them. For some leaders, it’s almost an “addiction.” Upon seeing the problem, their imagination begins to operate much like that of Archimedes, who was given the task of determining whether a crown was really gold—and upon sitting in a bathtub, discovered the Law of Displacement. Imagination is a serendipitous power—it considers clues, analogies, similarities, and dissimilarities to everything within the leader’s vast experience. It is the stuff of dreams—and waking.

When leaders “feel” a solution beginning to emerge, they don’t stop there. They begin to form a vision of how that solution could become a reality. This leads to considerations about the future—what are the first steps that should be taken? Who should I recruit into this venture? What is the potential for success if I go down path “a” or “b” or “c”? With whom should I speak about the possibility of the reality of this plan? This capacity for visioning is another natural propensity.

The other characteristics are of equal importance, but I cannot consider them in this short space (for more detail, see www.spitzercenter.org ). Suffice it to say, that creativity will be essential in the visioning process. Charisma will also be essential, because leaders must create a believable story about a better future—and must convincingly “sell” that story to other potential collaborators—so that they can gather a group of talented expeditors around themselves and their vision. The rest is sheer “guts”—the virtue of fortitude—the raw determination to get over hurdles, to be undaunted by problems, to learn from every failure, and to reach the goal.

Now imagine a natural leader with those five characteristics who has faith, is inspired by the Holy Spirit, possesses natural virtue and ethics, and lives according to the humble and compassionate love of Christ. As you can see, with leaders like these, the goal of the New Evangelization would only be a matter of time—a very short time. If we could create a critical mass of clerical and lay leaders with natural, inspired, and spiritual gifts, we would not only effectively battle the problems of secularism, but also present an attractive vision of the life and community of Christ—whose light, the light of Christ, would overcome the darkness.        

Is every one of the faithful called to be a leader in some wayeven those who are typically not leaders in other areas of their life?

Father Spitzer: I believe that everyone is called to inspire light and hope, live Christian virtue and charity, and through this to create Christian community (Koinōnia) within the “Body of Christ.” If we consider this universal mission of all Christians to be leadership—in a general sense—then everyone is called to be a leader.

However, if we view leadership as a special charism given by God to those with the gifts of imagination, vision, creativity, charisma, and determination, then leadership—in this more restricted sense—is not for everybody.  St. Paul certainly did not think that leadership—in the more restricted sense—was for everyone. In 1 Corinthians 12, he notes that there are many gifts, but the same body and spirit. Some of these gifts belong to apostles, prophets, and teachers—who are in some sense viewed as leaders. However, there are other gifts, which are just as essential to the one Body, that are  not strictly speaking, leadership gifts, but supporting gifts. For St. Paul, you don’t have to be the “head” to be essential—the eye, arm, and foot are also essential. You can imagine just having a head without the rest of the body—it would be a rather ineffective part.

The Napa Institute is trying to address leadership in both the general and restricted sense mentioned above. The keynote presentations are meant to provide inspiration, education, and development of faith, virtue, spiritual life, service, and cultural response—while the workshops are meant to address specialty areas of interest to different groups of participants. The same holds true for the variety of liturgies, retreats, and spiritual opportunities available throughout the conference.      

Was founding the Napa Institute partly a response for a need for more Catholic leaders? How does the Institute help form leaders?

Father Spitzer: There are some dimensions of the conference that address the need for an increase in Catholic leaders—such as the “subconferences” for young leaders and women. Priests and religious are given scholarships to the conference in the hopes of helping them to consider and assume leadership positions.

There are other dimensions of the conference that are meant to develop leadership within individuals who have already displayed a natural propensity for it. A large group of our participants fall into this group. Our objective here is not to develop their natural propensity, but rather to help them develop their faith education (particularly in the area of faith and reason—see www.magiscenter.com ), spiritual life, awareness of the Church and its teachings, and the resources to respond to cultural challenges. If we can do this with even marginal success, and leaders with natural propensity subsequently integrate this inspiration and education into their personal, organizational, and cultural vision, they will be much more effective in contributing to the efforts of the New Evangelization.

For those who wish to grow in the area of leadership are there any resources or action steps you’d recommend?

Father Spitzer: First, I would recommend coming to the Napa Institute for the reasons mentioned above. Secular leaders constantly seek out inspiration and education at conferences like the Aspen Institute, Vail Institute, and dozens of collegiate institutes. Conferences not only provide inspiration and education, but also new friends, associates and comradery. Additionally, conferences like the Napa Institute provide resources through their own websites, as well as the websites and publications of partner organizations. One of the major features of the Napa Institute is to provide exposure to 30 or more organizations at the cutting edge of New Evangelization. Each one of these presentations shows new avenues in which Catholic leaders can develop and support. Resources such as books, videos, facilitated presentations, and social media outlets are also addressed through partner institutions—see the websites of the sponsoring institutions of the Napa Institute.