One of the very just criticisms of institutional religion is that it has become profoundly hierarchical, and hierarchies become self-serving, top heavy, and potentially corrupt. Human nature being what it is, we tend to run headlong to the other end of the spectrum in search of an answer. In Protestant Christianity this resulted in the rise of the non-denominational church. No hierarchy, but also little to no supervision. That means no way to check misconduct or hold people accountable. Within the institution you have misconduct followed by coverup. Outside the institution you have the likes of Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, and the late Jerry Falwell amassing fortunes without the need for coverup or even shame, because they are accountable to nobody.
In Buddhism and Hinduism it isn’t much different. Sex scandals, Rolls Royce collections, and worldwide organizations staffed almost entirely by volunteers loyal to the guru means the often massive donations that flow in end up largely in the guru’s pockets (or wherever you keep your money while wearing a robe). Across the board egos run amok and people are worshiped as if they were God, or at least gods.
As Lord Acton reminds us, “absolutely power corrupts absolutely.” Whether at or near the head of a hierarchy or in a system without accountability, corruption waits at the door, an almost ceaseless temptation. Nevertheless, when organizations grow beyond a certain size, some sort of hierarchy is necessary to provide a level of organization to keep things running. The proper balance can be difficult to find. While a collection of independent communities coming together on an ad-hoc basis works for smaller issues, if we want to run a number of homeless shelters in area communities, somebody will need to do the accounting and make management decisions on an ongoing basis.
I honestly believe that the only way to solve these serious issues is through the use of shared power and responsibility. Do spiritual bodies need spiritual teachers and/or leaders? Absolutely. Are those teachers and leaders necessarily the best people to be performing administrative function? Most often they are not. The areas of administration and spiritual leadership require two very different sets of skills. It has been to the detriment of the Christian Church in all its forms that pastors have become administrators, rendering them less available for pastoral duties because they are making business decisions – decisions their spiritual education does not prepare them to make.
In the end, however, this is not a complete solution. Spiritual groups of all kinds absolutely need a board comprised of, for lack of a better term, lay leadership. It also needs to be a board that has rotating membership. If a board does not have regular inclusion of new members with fresh perspectives, it can become entrenched, encrusted, odiferous in places, and part of the hierarchy – subject to the same temptation to corruption and coverup.
Finally, a clear and enforceable code of ethics needs to be in place that addresses leadership at all levels. This code of ethics should clearly delineate acceptable and unacceptable behavior and the consequences for violations of these expectations. The code of ethics should also be subject to review and amendment as necessary, because as circumstances change so does the nature potential problems.
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of the changes we need to implement, but it is is decent beginning. We must abandon the flawed notion that our leaders and teachers are beyond question or beyond supervision. None of us are perfect, and so all of us should be willing to receive appropriate questions and explain the rationale behind out decisions. None of these actions decrease the credibility, in fact quite the opposite. Transparency serves us all very well, and should be welcomed with open arms rather than avoided.