A few years ago a good friend of mine listened to a set of my sermons. He offered me constructive criticism. He liked what I said, but he had one bit of advice:
“Don’t use so many personal stories about your own weaknesses.”
He believed that the best spiritual leadership comes through modeling a spiritual life. He thought sharing personal weaknesses undermines the effectiveness of a spiritual leader.
I disagree. I think sharing personal weaknesses strengthens the effectiveness of a spiritual leader. But it’s complicated.
The vulnerability extreme
My friend reminded me of a time (years ago) he and I went to hear a speaker. The speaker attracted crowds because of his “vulnerable” speaking. He was “authentic.”
And the sermon was vulnerable. It was a virtual vomit of vulnerability. But the speaker mostly just vented. He flaunted his feelings, he wept over his wounds, and he wailed over his wretchedness. It was emotional upchuck. (Though authentic.)
But his message wasn’t redeeming. He didn’t offer healing. He helped people share problems but didn’t address then. He helped others admit their issues but he didn’t help solve them. The resulting culture was, “The world’s a mess. I’m a mess. Deal with it.”
My friend and I witnessed this firsthand. It was a revolting rant with no redemption.
My friend proposed an alternate style of leadership
Instead of a “Vulnerability” leadership, my friend suggested “Follow Me” leadership:
- Model a life of order. Let your teaching and writing exemplify orderly living. Model daily prayer and weekly planning meetings with your wife, then share it.
- Demonstrate accomplishments. Show how you’ve overcome temptations to doubt or lust, making accomplishments clear (not from pride but to give help).
- Project spiritual success. Projecting spiritual success provides hope that a spiritual life is possible; it sends a message that is can be done.
My friend is a good guy; he tries to help others in the spiritual journey, and his key motivation is care not pride. But I think his model creates other cultural problems.
It creates a culture of fig leaves and performance.
I’ve spoken with hundreds of men who belong to “Follow Me” leadership religious groups. Most of the men say this leadership creates a culture of: a) needing to appear as though their lives are in order, and b) needing to perform to prove it.
They say, “We aren’t real with each other.” People don’t share their frustrations, fears, and temptation. Their outside lives are a sham. Then they volunteer for all kinds of service; to perform to look good, or out of duty.
Such service soon becomes drudgery; the resulting culture is a joyless, fake community.
What do we need?
We need a culture of both being real and a culture filled with real spiritual growth.
After Adam and Eve sinned, the very first thing they did was hide themselves behind fig leaves. Every human ever since has done the same thing and it isolates us from each other. We look good (falsely) to others; they in turn hide themselves from us.
If leaders model anything, let them first model being real. (Maybe even authentic!) Let’s derail this life-long fig-leaf train. If the leaders don’t model transparency, how in the heck will followers wreck this cultural addiction to personal concealment?
Christianity is not a collection of people who are good; it’s a collection of people who admit they aren’t. This understanding must be our starting point.
We need to combine it with real spiritual growth
Spiritual growth means a deeper relationship with the Lord, not behavior change. A relationship with the Lord is the starting point; behavior change is the consequence.
“Follow Me” leadership moves directly from bad behavior—“I was selfish”—to good behavior –“Now I serve the poor in a soup kitchen and you should too.” It misses the crucial interim step of rubbing the gospel into our sin for healing.
We need to show the gospel process. For example, we could say, “Someone recently challenged my authority, and I was angry. When I asked myself ‘Why,’ I realized I was clinging to power to feel good about myself instead of clinging to Christ’s love.”
We model going to the gospel for our solution, not the subsequent behavior.
The Gospel Culture
Jesus could have come to earth with brilliant power and a band of ten thousand warrior angels. It would have scared everyone to death. Then we would have strained with every fiber of our being to be on our best behavior.
Instead Jesus came into the world with weakness. He didn’t come primarily to teach moral behavior. He came in weakness to die. He didn’t come primarily to teach doctrinal truths. He came in vulnerability to die for those who couldn’t believe strong enough.
The resulting gospel culture is humbler than the Vulnerability Culture; we admit our lives are a mess and we admit we do things to deserve it. And it’s more confident than the Follow Me Culture because we know we are loved and accepted without reservation even when we repeatedly fail.
Now we can safely bring the gospel to others; we admit we’re no better than they are (and maybe worse). And we can bring healing confidence; after all, Christ’s love is the thing we’ve been aching for all our lives, and it’s ours for the receiving.
Yikes! I’ve got to go repent. I’ve been looking down my nose at “Vulnerability” leaders and “Follow Me” leaders. I’m no better than them. And I just proved it.
- What do you think? What kind of culture does your leadership style create?