In his book Self Completion, the spiritual teacher and hermit Robert S. de Ropp who died in northern California in 1987, offers a challenging warning of signs that characterize any spiritual organization that is beginning to lose its force.

De Ropp identifies eight “Syndromes” that he sees in the leaders, followers, and structures of any spiritual organization that is at risk of going into decline.

Here are his eight “syndromes” with my descriptions:

1. The Talk-Think Syndrome

The fact that a person can talk eloquently about the spiritual life, is no indication that the person necessarily has a living relationship with the divine or an active spiritual practice. It is too easy for those to whom talk comes easily to skate through sermons, lectures, addresses, and personal exchanges without really touching anything deep in themselves or connecting with anything meaningful in others. An articulate tongue is a dangerous gift. It risks becoming nothing more than “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (I Corinthians 13:1) when disconnected from the living power of genuine spiritual practice. When practitioners on any path find themselves dazzled by the language and power of a spiritual teacher’s words they need to take caution and listen carefully for the authenticity and depth that are the marks of valid spiritual teaching.

2. The Devotee Syndrome

Leaders and teachers are in serious danger whenever they are surrounded by people who are unable, or unwilling to see the reality of the teacher/leader’s shadow side. When anyone in a position of authority comes to feel that he or she is above being questioned, everyone is at risk. Leaders and teachers in all organizations must be open to being challenged, and even, if necessary, corrected by those among whom they exercise their leadership. When students feel they are not free to enter into honest conversation with their leader/teachers, everyone is traveling on the edge of risky terrain.

3. The False Messiah Syndrome

A “false messiah” believes deeply in the unquestionable power of his or her own authority and position. This person will use all the skills at his or her command to keep the student/follower in a subservient position. “False messiahs” can be identified by their love of the trappings of office. They luxuriate in being seen to hold a special position in peoples’ lives and require that they be treated at all times with the utmost deference, reference and preference. They love titles, honorifics and little signals that announce their special status ahead of all others.

4. The Organization Syndrome

This occurs when, for whatever reason, organizational structures take over and crush the life force that was the initial impetus generating the formation of the organization. In organizations afflicted by this syndrome there is a heavy stress on the hierarchy of privilege in which number 1 and 2 syndromes are enshrined in artificial codified relationships that exist to benefit those at the top of the hierarchy.  The dynamic spirit may have long ago vanished from these organizational structures but they perpetuate themselves by the sheer force of self-interest on the part of those in leadership.

5. The Personal Salvation Syndrome

There can come a point in any spiritual organization when the organization sets itself up as the arbiter of who is in and who is out, who is deemed worthy and who is found to be less worthy, who is qualified to advance and who should be held back. The organization that is afflicted with the “personal salvation syndrome” uses the promise of salvation as a tool to manipulate followers into obedience and service to the needs and interests of the organization. The liberation of every human being that is the only legitimate aim of any spiritual teaching or organization is abandoned in the interests of perpetuating organizational structure.

6. The Super-Effort Syndrome

Leaders in organizations afflicted by the “supper-effort syndrome” encourage members to demonstrate their commitment and dedication through hard work. The hard work demanded inevitably serves to perpetuate the perceived well-being of the organization, or the ego of those in leadership, rather than the liberation of the individual person. It is of no interest to leaders in the organization afflicted by the “super-effort syndrome” how much strain or tension may be created by the needs and demands of the organization. Anything that appears to further the interests of the organization is viewed as good and any hesitation to fully commit to the organization’s aims is bad.

7. The Sunday-Go-To-Meeting Syndrome

Because organizations value numbers of devotees, they can easily fall prey to communicating that all that is really needed is to show up. There is little acknowledgement that the purpose for which the spiritual organization exists is to enable people to connect more deeply with their true divine nature and to live more fully in alignment with that nature in every aspect of their daily lives.

8. The Hunt-the-Guru Syndrome

Syndrome number 8 tends to work against the survival of organizational structures and is therefore frequently discouraged by those in positions of authority, not for its detrimental affects on the devotee, but because it is a threat to the survival of those who depend upon existing hierarchical structures. But, for the student who is constantly hopping from one teacher or one teaching to another, the practice is devastating condemning the devotee to a life of spiritual childhood in which the main criteria for picking up a particular path is how the teacher or teaching makes the student feel and how stimulating the practice recommended may be.

The antidote to de Ropp’s eight syndromes is authenticity. Genuine spiritual leader/teachers will be recognized by the openness and genuineness of their lives and by the fact that they facilitate in their students freedom to discover and live from their true nature as beings who carry within themselves the divine image of their Creator.