Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version


Religious leadership, typically studied from the perspectives of organizational stratification or social behavior, has been central to research on religious organizations and movements. Sociological scholarship on religious leadership has been built primarily upon a Weberian foundation, as refinement or critique of typological differences between the notion of prophet , one who attracts followers while proclaiming radical reform of a religion's beliefs and practices, or who founds a new religion altogether, and of priest , one who holds leadership status by virtue of office in the religious community, functionally maintaining religious tradition through interpretation and control of its authoritative body of scripture or custom. Max Weber identified three forms of religious authority by which the leader's status is collectively legitimated. Charismatic authority , based on a leader's exemplary or persuasive power, has characterized prophetic leaders. As religious movements institutionalize, developing differentiated offices and responsibilities for transmitting teachings and emergent tradition, leadership is legitimated by means of traditional authority , where leaders are selected on the basis of inheritance or by specific rules for succession grounded in religious tradition, or rational-legal authority , where leaders are chosen or elected through governing rules or bylaws that can be legally amended through discursive reason. Religious leadership typically is ordained in organizations with traditional or rational-legal forms of authority. Among Christian denominations with hierarchically stratified ordination, bishops form the leadership core. Roman Catholic bishops are appointed by and ultimately report to the pope, while in other denominations they are elected by their judicatories. Some traditions consecrate bishops by apostolic succession, a belief in leadership passed down from apostolic times through a continuous laying on of hands. Historically, bishops have been male. The first female bishop of any contemporary denomination, Marjorie Matthews, was elected in 1980 by the United Methodist Church; the first female bishop to claim apostolic succession was Episcopalian Barbara Harris in 1989.

Although women have been well represented among founders and leaders of new religious movements, leadership roles beyond the founding generation disproportionately come to be held by men. Women's ordination has opened some leadership opportunities for women in Protestant and Jewish traditions. The Roman Catholic Church's priest shortage has resulted in new opportunities for women in lay pastoral leadership (Wallace 1992). Gender differences in leadership style have been empirically debated, with little conclusive evidence shown other than at senior levels. Lehman (1993) found racial differences in leadership style to be more marked than gender differences.

Authoritarian leadership has been criticized as a means of social control and maintenance of oppression in both new religious movements and established religious institutions. Erich Fromm characterizes authoritarianism as a deterministic worldview in which human happiness depends upon submission to external forces perceived to govern life. Authoritarianism also has been linked with externalized aggression, prejudice, conservatism, and, in its extreme form, totalitarianism. Extreme authoritarian control by religious leaders has been accused of totalitarian and genocidal outcomes.

See also Charisma, Organization Theory

Paula D. Nesbitt


J. W. Carroll, As One with Authority (Louisville: Westminster, 1991)

E. Fromm, Escape from Freedom (New York: Avon, 1965 [1941]

R. A. Hutch, Religious Leadership (New York: Lang, 1991)

E. C. Lehman, Jr., Gender and Work (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993)

R. A. Wallace, They Call Her Pastor (Albany: SUNY Press, 1992)

M. Weber, Economy and Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978 [1922])

C. Wessinger, Women's Leadership in Marginal Religions (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993)

C. Wessinger (ed.), Religious Institutions and Women's Leadership (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996).

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