Religious versus Spiritual Leadership

February 2, 2017


When the white smoke arose over the Vatican announcing the election of a new pope, millions of people around the world waited expectantly to know the name of the new pontiff. Less than one hour later, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was introduced and acclaimed by the crowds as the new spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics all over the world.





The reference to Pope Francis—his new name—as the “spiritual leader” sounds obvious to most people, but it also raises an interesting reflection on the differences between spiritual leadership and religious leadership. Is spiritual leadership the same thing as religious leadership? Not necessarily, I would think. For sure Pope Francis is the religious leader of 1.2 billion members of the largest church in the world, but whether he is the spiritual leader of all Catholics does depend on several philosophical and interpersonal factors. Based on the literature discussing the implications of moral and formal authority, we can infer a summary of the main differences between religious and spiritual leadership:



Religious Leadership

Spiritual Leadership

Depends on the position

Imposed by laws and regulations

Controlled by an institution

Granted by society

Focus on the duties

Priority to authority

Sustained by hierarchy

Regardless any position

Accepted by free choice

Controlled by principles

Granted by example

Focus on relationships

Priority to service

Sustained by inspiration

Of course there may be some overlap between those two different perspectives, but the very nature of those two approaches to leadership is clearly distinct from one another, and this concept may be applied to any leader of any religious institution. This reflection can take many different directions, but I hope this can bring some thought provoking ideas.


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