What’s The Problem With Christian Leadership?

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 preacher in pulpit 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.”

passionate preachingAnd 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.

Sam

  • What do you think? What kind of culture does your leadership style create?
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29 Responses to What’s The Problem With Christian Leadership?

  1. I loved this line: “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.”

    That’s a great point; if I strive for behavior change I won’t have a relationship with the Lord until I feel I’ve got my behavior sorted out. But that means I’ll either never have a relationship with the Lord because I’ll never be good enough, or I’ll never have a relationship with the Lord because I’ll be good enough all on my own and will think I won’t need him.

    So, great side point.

    • I like your summary: “I’ll either never have a relationship with the Lord because I’ll never be good enough, or I’ll never have a relationship with the Lord because I’ll be good enough all on my own and will think I won’t need him.”

      Excellent point. Thanks.

      It means the starting point (and maybe the ending point) is saying, “I’m simply not good enough. Period. That is the ticket into Christianity.”

  2. Jeff Andrechyn says:

    Modeling a life of order, Demonstrating accomplishments, and Projecting spiritual success sounds like hell to me. I would not last a week at that school. I’ll take the life of Jesus you described Sam. Jesus was real.

    • HI Jeff,

      Sounds like hell to me too, but probably more for the people around me. I’ll drop out with you. How does that sound?

      Sam

    • Leadership of transparency rather than leadership of vulnerability or order seems to require actually believing the gospel. The good news (gospel) is that you are not good enough and you don’t have it all together, yet you are entirely acceptable and worthy of love. So, since I have nothing to prove, I can be transparent or open without shame or fig-leafing it. I think the true strength of a leader is displayed when true belief in the gospel results in transparency.

      • Kenneth,

        I love your line, “it requires actually believing the gospel.”

        Yes, in some ways, our measurement of being a leader can be demonstrated by our natural ability to be transparent, because our hope is in HIM not in ourselves.

        Thanks for a really good observation.

  3. Timm says:

    One of the difficulties in being a disciple of Christ is that we are not remade into sages and models of Christ in an instant. Maturity tends to be worked out in a lengthy (painful at times) process. I am sure there are exceptions, yet most of the folks I have rubbed shoulders with may take years before they recognize or are able to bring their wounds and deceptions into the light.

    In my own desire to look good, in a world of posers who also want to look good, I have noticed that it is pretty easy to find relational acceptance within a local church body and put Jesus at the end of the greeting line. I literally did this as a head usher, motivated to have a place in the church hierarchy. The result? Abba has systematically taken my spiritual house of cards apart, and I am left with Him…but not entirely. It seems the underlying difficulty, which you seemed to allude to at the end of your writing, is that it is difficult to keep your eyes on mankind and the Almighty at the same time. I have to ask, “Lord, how do I do both?”

    • Timm,

      The real question is, “do I want to look good to others?” Or, do we simply want to grow into who God designed us to be. To grow into who God designed us means pruning, a time where God may need to cut things off.

      So, do we want to have actual gospel character, or do just want to look that way? The choice is ours.

      Sam

  4. tomcaylor says:

    Sam,

    I love your statement, “We model going to the gospel for our solution, not the subsequent behavior.”

    That’s a good guide for relationships in general!

    Tom

    • Hi Tom,

      Good point, it is a good guide for all relationships.

      I believe–and part of the purpose of this entire blog–that we too often rush to fix behavior without fixing the underlying beliefs.

      If we are ‘faking’ it, we always (ALWAYS) do it because of some hidden belief that is out of line with the gospel. Perhaps we feel we need to perform to be loved, or we believe that if people really saw the real us they’d reject us, or ….

      The real belief we need is: I do things all the time to mess up my life and I shouldn’t try to hide that, BUT–at the same time–I am more loved than I could ever even imagine, and I’m loved the by most lovely being of all time.

      Thanks,

      Sam

  5. Ross Acheson says:

    Unfortunately I think my natural tendency is to try for the “Follow Me” leadership model, and your post is a welcome, thought-provoking and helpful corrective. I do have a question, however, to draw out some further discussion: If the fig leaves are a metaphor for our faking righteousness, what mean the clothes that God provides us? God didn’t say, “What are these fig leaves? You should stick with the naked thing.” Instead he said, “What are these fig leaves? Here I’ll provide you with real clothing.”

    I’ve been reading Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and he points to that episode in the garden to say that while we should confess our secrets in the presence of God to those with whom we are intimate (confessors, small groups, spouses), God wills that there are some things that we should generally conceal from others while we remain in our fallen state. (cf. Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison pg 51-52)

    To take an initial stab at my own question: in the new covenant we are clothed with Christ and with His righteousness, a clothing not won by our own efforts but rather gifted to us in direct response to our own failures. In such clothing we can always boast of Jesus’ righteousness and never our own. We can be confident as we literally wear the gospel, and let God show forth his strength in our weakness.

    Any thoughts?

    • Hi Ross,

      Thanks (back at you) for your welcome, thought provoking, and helpful questions. Below are a couple thoughts.

      First, I raised the fig-leaf metaphor primarily to demonstrate our instinct to cover or conceal ourselves. As brothers and sisters in Christian Community we need to be breaking this habit of the heart, the habit to “look good.”

      Self-concealment is the doorway into isolation. We typically conceal ourselves and the result is isolation from God, from others, and even from ourselves. You see it all in Genesis 3.

      However, I agree this does not mean indiscriminate disclosure. We need basic discernment about what we reveal to whom. My article is first addressing a culture of self-concealment (which I see in almost every Christian group I am asked to work with).
      Leaders often create this culture with an unintentional demeanor of having their lives together; sort of, “If you could only be more like me.”

      Equally important to the article is the method we use to address failure in lives. If the main focus is behavior, it is missing the gospel (we will look a lot like the Pharisees). People can behave well for a period of time, but they will ultimately fail unless something else is “fixed” (i.e. their hearts fixed by the gospel).

      When Paul opposes Peter in Antioch, it is because Pete is not walking “in line” or “in step” with the gospel; and it is the gospel which eventually moves our hearts to obey.
      Don’t get me wrong. If you are tempted to rob a bank, DON’T DO IT! (There, you heard it from me; so, I don’t ignore behavior.)

      But don’t stop there. Begin to figure out what in your heart causes you to trust in what that money might provide. All our sin fundamentally rests in out not fully appropriating the gospel; so to the gospel let’s go.

      Thanks for those great questions! Really, thanks,

      Sam

  6. Sam,

    Boy, you have hit on one of the most important sources of ministry; the humility to admit that I am a sinner first and forgiven second because of the wonderful Savior, Jesus.

    Paul said it best, “But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.” 1 Timothy 16:1 and when he said, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” Romans 7:19.

    Neither of those sound like he is saying, “Follow Me!”. I agree completely with you; NO ONE will follow a teacher who is, in essence, looking down their noses on their hearers. He wants us to broken bread and prostrate before Him, before He can use us.

    Love In Him,

    Bruce :~)

    • Bruce,

      Thanks for the quote from 1 Timothy: “…I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst …, Christ might display hi immense patience.”

      In other words, we were shown mercy so we can show mercy. And mercy means we don’t deserve it, we are unworthy. If I’m worthy, it’s just a business deal not mercy.

      Thanks for the great reminder,

      Sam

  7. Martha says:

    Sam, I’m so glad you wrote about this! I think I owe whatever spiritual growth I’ve managed in the last 30 years, whatever gains in grace and love toward others, to the encouragement and deep love I’ve experienced through being identified with in my weakness. (I think there’s some theology to back that, don’t you?) I can’t tell you how miserable it was in my 20’s to be constantly squashing resentful feelings toward model Christians on the one hand and managing self-condemnation on the other, all to live up to an ideal image presented by good-intentioned leaders who appeared to be having no trouble at all.

    When someone “above” me finally shared frankly and graciously about her actual feelings and failures on her journey with Jesus, it was like a long drink of cool water. I hadn’t even realized I was parched. This person wouldn’t judge me if I was honest with her! She would understand! And the best part was that I suddenly realized that in the same way that her transparency suggested God’s lovingkindness to me, my transparency could do the same for someone else who shares my condition. By some miracle of redemptive grace, my flaws were actually of value! I am able to prove that anyone may walk with God.

    That experience began a new policy of dogged, trusting honesty about the nature of my struggles. I had to learn some discernment (more important than when, how and with whom to share, is why!), but except for some initial learning experiences, transparency has borne good fruit every time.

    I love this line in my prayer book: Let what we suffer teach us to be merciful; let our sins teach us to forgive. I love what my sins and weaknesses are teaching me infinitely more than I ever loved the idea of being a paragon.

    • Hi Martha,

      Thanks ever so much for this great sharing. I resonate (obviously) with everything you wrote here.

      It is my experience as well. I’ve learned the best life-lessons from my mistakes and others’ mistakes (when they shared them).

      Because–in the end–our mistakes drive us to God. Doing things “right” rarely does that. I don’t suggest we purposely make mistakes (that would be a mistake!); but I’m not too worried about it anyway. If and when we are honest with ourselves, we are making mistakes all the time.

      Let’s admit those mistakes to ourselves (always), to God (always) and to others (with discernment).

      Thanks for the great “model” of sharing and pointing us to Christ.

      Sam

  8. I really appreciated this insightful post. Just due to the culture I’m in I’ve met more “Follow Me” leaders and anything else. The trouble with a culture that conceals it’s shortcomings is that is actually cultivates a new generation of people that don’t trust upstanding, kind, or loving people because they’re used to seeing those behaviours used as a smokescreen to cover up shortcomings. I’ve seen this a lot with my generation, friends of mine have chosen to reject the kindest people I know because of this. It’s wicked sad.

    Thanks for addressing both the problem you see, and the reactionary mistake we tend to make in response to the problem. Real articulate, sir. Thanks.

    • Hi David,

      Wow, that is a sad (but brilliant!) insight into today’s society. I think you are right.

      I had a different experience. My father was a pastor, but he lived at home so he couldn’t “fake it” very well. But it didn’t matter if he could fake it. He continually would tell me, “I’m a pastor because I can preach and counsel, but not because I’m a better person. I have the gifts, but I sin. Period.”

      And he did 🙂

      But it gave me a comfort. I used to be in a Christian group that taught treating leaders with respect, and i had no problem with that (but some people misunderstood “treat with respect” and instead revered them).

      Then the leaders had some pretty big issues among themselves.

      I wasn’t surprise, my faith wasn’t damaged, and I continued to have good relationships with the leaders. After all, I’d grown up with a leader who said he was imperfect and not to expect perfection.

      But some people were torn apart, some lost their faith, and some became cynical. Because they had believed a distortion about the leaders. The leaders are gifted, and we should hold them to a high standard (and pray for them); but we shouldn’t expect them to be St Francis, Mother Theresa, Augustine, St. Paul, and Jesus … all rolled up into one neat package.

      They do and will sin. And so will you and I. Let’s model going to Jesus, and rubbing the gospel into our sin.

      Thanks for the great observation.

  9. Thank you for a very thoughtful and helpful article on Christian leadership. You make some very good points.

  10. Coach D says:

    Sam,
    So true. Being honest and open is not an end in itself. It’s as if undressing is the goal. But the only reason we get undressed is to put other clothes on. The undressing is a necessary part of the journey, but not the destination. When we make it that, it becomes a dead end. The only reason to be honest is to uncover your heart so that God can begin to redeem it and help you live out of your deepest core in Christ.

  11. Todd O says:

    With respect to Ross’ point on the clothes that God provides, it got me to thinking more about these clothes and how they stand in stark contrast to the fig leaves. Maybe I’m stretching it, but I believe it in some small way points to the gospel (or foreshadows the gospel)

    1) God had to sacrifice his creation to provide the skins for clothes. It involved the shedding of blood. At least I don’t know how you get an animal skin without killing the animal that was using it! In other words, skins don’t grow on trees like the fig leaves. This idea sort of repeats itself with Cain and Abel as only one sacrifice was pleasing to God. The fruit of the ground didn’t work for God.
    2) It was God that took the initiative to clothe Adam and Eve.
    3) Therefore, our faith is in God’s sacrifice for us and not in the vain coverings that we prepare for ourselves.

    Good article, Sam.

    • HI Todd,

      I like all three of your points, but I was especially struck your closing line, “our faith is in God’s sacrifice for us and not in the vain coverings that we prepare for ourselves.”

      Yes. If in fact we have a faith in God’s sacrifice (and clothing us), then we have no investment whatsoever in maintaining our “vain coverings” that we work so hard on.

      If fact, we’d want to shed those vain coverings.

      Thanks

  12. Good insight in this post. ^_^ Christians should be honest about their weaknesses, but it should point toward the gospel- we’re not good enough on our own and we need God- and his power is great and we don’t just have to pity ourselves for our faults.

    How this actually plays out is hard to define, but yeah, that’s the idea.

    • Hi Perfect Number,

      I like your ending, “it’s hard to play out but that’s the idea.” This is true with many areas in Christianity. God says, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” but he doesn’t give minute by minute instructions.

      I think this is one of God’s ways of driving us to him. We get the goal (loving neighbor) but in each circumstance we need wisdom, guidance, and counsel. It’s good to go to God and brothers and sisters. It keeps us humble and needing each other.

      Thanks,

  13. christian questions answered…

    […]What’s The Problem With Christian Leadership? « Beliefs of the Heart[…]…

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