What ICNY Means When We Say “Religious Leader” – by Dr. Sarah Sayeed

ICNY Interfaith Matters Blog

Leadership Looks Different Across Faith Lines

Group LR

by Dr. Sarah Sayeed, ICNY Director of Community Partnerships

Leadership can be thought of in different ways, and in the world of religion and interfaith relations, it often refers to clergy. But ICNY has a unique approach to our definition of religious leader, based on our expertise working across faith lines with diverse religious communities in New York City.

While clergy are an important group to involve in interfaith work, there are some significant limitations.  The first is that across all faith traditions, focusing exclusively on clergy marginalizes or wholly leaves out women who we know play crucial roles within their own faith communities.  Often, women are at the helm of interfaith work.

Second, the concept of “clergy” looks different across faith communities.  In Christian contexts, clergy often earn degrees at “seminaries,” lead congregational prayers, perform rituals associated with baptism, confession, marriage, and death, perform pastoral duties including visiting the sick and counseling congregation members and serve as administrators for their churches.  But in other traditions, such as Sikhism, there is no formalized clergy class, and these functions can be served by anyone who is learned.   In Islam, anyone who knows how to properly recite the Quran in Arabic can lead the prayer, including funeral prayers, and that person is called the “imam.”  Shia Muslims also have a special understanding of the term “imam” to include the righteous spiritual and political successors of Prophet Muhammad. Rabbis, monks, and nuns are designated as teachers to impart knowledge within Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and other traditions.  Thus, there is variety in how leadership is conceived and exercised within and across traditions.

Third, “clergy” are usually quite busy people and often rely on many others within their own communities to fulfill the work of the congregation, and these individuals, particularly in Christian contexts, are often termed “lay leaders.”

So when ICNY says “religious leaders,” we mean clergy, religious teachers, lay leaders, social service providers, and anyone playing a leadership role to serve their faith communities.  We keep our definition broad and inclusive so that our work tap into the rich tapestry  of lived religion.