Krister Stendahl, dean of Harvard Divinity School and bishop of Stockholm in the Lutheran state Church of Sweden, is probably best known now for his “three rules of religious understanding” — especially the third rule, “Leave room for ‘holy envy’,” which supplied the title of a best-selling book in 2019.

The book is Barbara Brown Taylor’s Holy Envy, which explores the expression of Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and other world faith traditions in America. Taylor told U.S. Catholic she loved the idea — which she credits to Stendahl — partly because it helped her predominantly Christian students at a faith-based liberal arts college “learn more about other faith traditions without losing their own.”

Taylor’s book grew out of her experience taking students at Piedmont College, a historically Congregationalist (now United Church of Christ) school in the North Georgia foothills, to visit synagogues, temples and a masjid in metro Atlanta. I think it touches on very something important.

“From my limited perspective in a small college classroom,” Taylor told Christian Century when her book came out in 2019, “I believe that increasing numbers of young Christians are coming to grips with pluralism—embracing it, even—though they are getting very little help from their elders as they think through what it means to be a person of faith in community with people of other (and no) faiths.”

Stendahl’s rules of religious understanding are more far-reaching than that. I never thought of them as a management technique, but recently I came across a formulation — in an interview published in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin shortly before his death — that suggests exactly that.

If there’s an authoritative source for Stendahl’s rules, I haven’t been able to find it. (I can say that, because I’ve looked more than once.) They come from a 1985 news conference in which, as bishop of Stockholm, he defended a controversial Mormon temple in the city. They’re usually quoted in the form given in his Wikipedia profile as follows:

  1. When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
  2. Don’t compare your best to their worst.
  3. Leave room for “holy envy.” (By this Stendahl meant that you should be willing to recognize elements in the other religious tradition or faith that you admire and wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own religious tradition or faith.)

But, in a 2007 Harvard Divinity Bulletin interview with an former student who went on to management positions of his own, Stendahl mentioned the rules in connection with his administrative experience at Harvard Divinity and as bishop of Stockholm. Of them, he said:

I would apply the same rules for good leadership that I often do for effective interfaith dialogue: let the other define herself (“Don’t think you know the other without listening”); compare equal to equal (not my positive qualities to the negative ones of the other); and find beauty in the other so as to develop “holy envy.”

Interviewing him was Yehezkel Landau, who went on to a notable career in interfaith dialog with the Oz veShalom-Netivot Shalom religious peace movement and the Open House Center for Jewish-Arab Coexistence in Israel and still later as an endowed professor of interfaith relations at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.

Landau, who kept up with Stendahl and referred to him as his “Christian rebbe,” spoke with him in April 2006 at his home in Cambridge, Mass. It’s a remarkable interview for several reasons.

For one thing, Stendahl was a leading voice for Jewish-Christian dialog in the fraught years after the Holocaust. Landau mentions some of this in his intro to the interview:

After I moved to Israel in 1978, I saw him whenever he and his wife, Brita, came to Jerusalem, often to take part in a seminar at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He savored those opportunities to study sacred texts with Jewish colleagues and discuss their implications. He told me: “We Christians, when we meet Jews, are inclined to say, ‘Let us pray together.’ Jews, when they meet Christians for fruitful encounter, are inclined to extend a different kind of invitation: ‘Let’s study together.’ ”

But reading the interview itself, what leapt off the page (or out of the computer screen) at me was what Stendahl said about his administrative experience —

As dean of Harvard Divinity School:

As Dean, fund-raising burdens took up time that should have gone toward administering the School. Being a Dean was actually more intellectually challenging than being a professor—in your own field, the agenda is pretty much self-engendered, whereas a Dean must ask all the time: why are we doing what we are doing, and what else should we rather do? That is hard thinking.

I was not a very disciplined administrator—but I did enjoy it. Don’t be in a leadership position if you don’t enjoy it.

In comparison to his calling as a pastor (präst in Swedish):

I always felt in my bones that I was meant to be a priest, that I was a preacher at heart. So it is quite ironic that most of my career was spent in a nonecclesiastical setting like Harvard. Gaining tenure at a young age, 35, helped me pursue my academic work with an inner freedom, without career worries. But my later role as a bishop was “the real thing,” the priestly task I was most suited to. In this position I found myself serving as pastor to a “parish” of one million people. The mass media were essential in carrying out this very public ministry, so I devoted time and intentionality in cultivating relationships with the media.

In assessing acts of leadership, the ultimate goal is the Kingdom of God. Compared to that ideal, everything is a failure.

And, on “servant leadership” (mentioned in the title of the interview); the exercise of authority; and developing trust:

Much of the challenge of institutional leadership has to do with budgets, the allocation of money, including salaries. A leader has to own up to his or her own role in making decisions and not hide behind a board or some other institutional cover—especially in cases of hiring and firing. And, in that case, you had better not lie. It is devastating if a person’s self is hidden behind some leadership role. Others want to know where you stand. You can’t be just the executor of others’ decisions. You have to take the perceptions of those who are led into account, but it is misplaced humility to claim “I am not an authority figure” when, in fact, you are—both objectively and in their eyes.

It is in this last context of leadership, accountability and taking the responsibility for hard decisions that Stendahl mentioned his rules for effective interfaith dialog. Here’s what he said in its full context:

When I was bishop of Stockholm, I was one of only 2 bishops out of 13 on the [Swedish] Bishops’ Council who supported Gay Pride Day and let it include a worship service in the cathedral, for the gay community in Stockholm. Some 1,000 people attended. Protestors stood outside with placards, and one inside the cathedral cried out, “Satan’s synagogue!”

Doing something for the Lord is a safe way to humility, for others will cut you down. There is no absolute clarity—except for fundamentalists. You are never sure in the ultimate sense whether your decisions are right or wrong. God is the ultimate judge. I think of the last two verses of Kohelet/Ecclesiastes (12:13-14)—”The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments, for this applies to everyone. God shall call every action to account, including everything secret, be it good or bad.” Imagine: the Day of Total Clarity! For an intellectual like me, that is truly satisfying.

I would apply the same rules for good leadership that I often do for effective interfaith dialogue: let the other define herself (“Don’t think you know the other without listening”); compare equal to equal (not my positive qualities to the negative ones of the other); and find beauty in the other so as to develop “holy envy.”

Regarding leadership in decision making, with its gray areas of uncertainty, moral sensibilities should be well shaped. For me, Jesus of Nazareth serves as a good shaper of values and ways of treating others.


Krister Stendahl, “An Interview with Krister Stendahl: ‘Accountability’ is a better leadership quality and value than ‘servanthood’,” interview by Yehezkel Landau, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Winter 2007

Barbara Brown Taylor, “Make room for ‘holy envy’ when learning about other faiths,” interview, U.S. Catholic, Aug. 20, 2019

__________, “My holy envy of other faith traditions,” Christian Century, March 7, 2019

[Published Aug. 4, 2022]

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