Monday, March 7, 2016

Breaking the Power of Heroic Christian Leadership

My wife and I like to listen to Mike and Mike, the morning radio talk show on ESPN. Last week, one of the hosts talked about his disdain for the Oscars. He said something like, "Why would I want to watch something where people get together and give awards to each other." I actually like the Oscars, but I think that this observation about it says a lot about our world. We live in a day of adulation. We like to adore those who stand out in unique ways.

In fact, it seems that in our culture there is an addiction to adoring certain people. When I lived in Vancouver, British Columbia, a few of us were sitting at a coffee shop when someone who looked like Tom Selleck walked in. As he stood in line with his six foot four inch frame, we stared, saying things like, "That has to be him. Who else could look like that and be that tall?" Somebody said that he owned a house nearby. But this man had a full beard so we were unsure. For the next ten minutes our conversation turned toward whether or not this was in fact the man from Magnum P.I. Finally someone went up to him and asked.

My friend returned and told us that the man said, "No, but I get that a lot." Then my friend commented that the man sounded so much like Tom Selleck that he did not believe him. So this sparked another line of conversation of why he would not tell us the truth. It was like we got a shot of some kind of chemical compound that created a euphoria because someone famous came into our presence. It was almost like it made us significant.

We do this in the Christian world too, more than any of us would like to admit. We tend to set certain people up on a pedestal. In the sitcom The Soul Man, Cedric the Entertainer played the role of a pastor who had been a recording artist. He said in one of the early episodes, "Preachers are rock stars for Jesus." And while we might discount such statements as hyperbole for TV, think about how you might respond if you saw your favorite preacher or Christian author walking down the aisle at Wal-Mart. The culture of adulation has crept into our way of thinking about the church, our life in Christ and, of course, leadership.

Adulation affects both the one being adulated and those doing it. And both are troubling.

First let's look at those who are being adored. 
Jean Vanier writes, “There are few things worse than adulation. It stifles love. It kills people who want a life which is real, made up of gift and loving presence. Adulation is a poison which, if it gets too deep, can make the whole body sick.” (Community and Growth, 263). Adulation sets up a person as being better than the masses. In the church, it means that we presume that an individual has a connection to the divine that the rest of us do not. They have a unique connection to the holy and thereby they become spiritual heroes. Instead of the leader simply offering his or her gifts out of love while others do the same, he or she gets set apart to rise above the rest.

There is grave danger in this because the leader can quickly assume that the adulation of the masses reflects truth, that he or she actually has a unique access to a holy pipeline. Then the leader is forced to keep this up. He or she is expected to be a hero. By definition, a hero is simply one who denies weakness, pursues greatness, and puts forth all effort for the common good of others. But there is a problem. To be heroic means that one eschews repentance, as such is a sign of weakness.

There is little that kills the soul as much as the pursuit of Christian heroism. Leaders who get caught up in this find themselves working 60-80 hours per week for the sake of the church. They make all of the hospital visits, do all of the pastoral counseling, and are constantly thinking about how the church can "take the next step."

The leader has no opportunity to be human as he or she must offer a facade in order to meet the expectations of those offering adulation.

Within these expectations, the leader is forced to surround himself or herself with those who show him due respect that fits the heroic position. Dialogue, feedback, and real conversation are not an option. While leaders might say they want honest relationships, the framework of spiritual heroism hinders it.

Now let's consider the affects of adulation on those who do the adulating.
Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Pope Francis, Tim Keller, Samuel Wells, T. D. Jakes, Joyce Meyer, Brian McLaren—note I've tried to cover a wide range of those held up a church heroes—do not possess any special access to the throne room of God that you do not possess. When we assume that they do, then the goal of discipleship turns into the pursuit of becoming heroic.

Let me put it differently. When I offer adulation to a Christian leader, then I set myself on a path of unrealistic expectations. I assume that growth in Christ means that I move from my present state of weakness to a state of heroic strength. This means that the more I grow in Christ the more unrealistic it is for me to actually be honest before Christ. 

Heroic Christianity works against my actually living in Christ. I, then, am not free to offer my gifts to the community. I feel compelled to live up to the expectations of the Christian leader I adulate and try to become heroic in his or her image. 

From Adulation to Dialogue
I think that the reason we assume that our leaders need to be Christian heroes is because we lack a sense of the presence of the Spirit. Instead of the church being about God and God leading and shaping God's people, we operate as if the future of the church depends upon us and our actions. The leader becomes the generator of the church's life. Therefore we are constantly looking for those who look like they have a special connection with the holy who can produce this.

In our world where the secular mindset reigns, we do life as if God is hidden behind a curtain. We are left to ourselves to figure it out. Only the special few, the heroes, are able to get behind the veil and see what God is really up to. 

We lack an imagination of "God with us" in there here and now, in the everydayness of going to work, cooking our meals, or laying down to sleep. The best we have is a sermon, a podcast, or a book by one of our favorite heroes so that we can get through another day out in the real world.

We have been formed by practices of heroic Christianity. This is the water we swim in. While we affirm beliefs like the priesthood of all believers, that's not the way we practice our faith. And it's not the way we tend to lead our churches. 

This is not meant to denigrate the importance of Christian leaders or good teaching—whether through speaking or writing. I only want to reframe it, to move way from adulation to dialogue. Christian leadership is not about setting up a hero who has it right while lining up everyone else behind that hero. It's about setting up space to listen to the Spirit in our midst. What does this mean? It means that we must develop leadership practices that cultivate environments of dialogue and discovery so we can learn together God is doing in our midst.

Heros shut this down. What we need are leadership practices that resemble gardening, that is tending to the mystery of what the Spirit is growing, which is what we cannot produce. Or we might say leadership is more about discerning and spiritual direction. What does this look like? How is it different from heroic leadership? What are the leadership practice that lead us into this space? 

Photo Credit: Letitbe. via Flickr

No comments: