Repenting of our Scapegoating

There are many appropriate responses to the recent news about Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s resignation:

  • Frustration that another Christian leader is exposed for hypocrisy
  • Despair that our Christian witness is tainted by his example
  • Sadness that another Christian institution is in crisis
  • Sorrow that a Christian family is in pain, a marriage is in upheaval
  • Relief that Falwell is being held accountable
  • Longing for the church to break this pattern of unhealthy practices

But in all our responses there is one I rarely see: widespread repentance.

Until we repent of our need for our leaders to be superhuman we will not be able to break the patterns which groom good but flawed Christians to become something they personally cannot sustain.

Until we repent of our idolatry, with every leader’s failure we will just turn to the next charismatic, confident leader and ask them to solve all our problems and comfort all our fears.

As long as we keep scapegoating we’ll just keep letting one body carry all our communal sins out to the wilderness and never have to face the ugliness in ourselves.

If we keep this up, we’ll just keep being surprised when the next story hits the headlines.

We’ll just keep wondering how these “horrible people” keep slipping through our leadership discernment processes and rewrite some hiring policies to make sure we don’t recruit leaders who make these mistakes.

But perhaps it’s our very expectations of Christian leadership that helps shape this kind of leader? Perhaps we set them up for failure?

Of course, leaders have responsibilities to be accountable, to make good choices, to seek counsel and rest and health. At the same time, are we creating a gauntlet for them to run and then wondering why they fail?

It looks different each time—for some, it’s a misstep in their language, a foolish statement or sermon. For others, it’s a sexual failing, an inappropriate relationship or photo. For still others, it’s an abusive way of leading their organizations or shaping congregational culture. Of course, these leaders all bear responsibility for their part in the problems. At the same time, can we reimagine what impossible things we ask of them?

Until we have Scriptural expectations of those God calls to lead us, we will never have healthy leaders. If our expectations wear out their faith, bodies, minds, marriages, and families, how can we ever imagine that they could lead well? Until we have Scriptural expectations of those God calls to lead us, we will never have healthy leaders. Click To Tweet

By no means have I figured this out, but it’s something I’m exploring with my team. We’re learning that we, as church leaders, also need permission to be human. We need to repent of our own desire to be idolized, to be beyond normal human needs. We need to learn a healthy Christology which embraces a Jesus who was fully human as well as fully God. It expands our own imagination of what it means for us to be human when we imagine a human Jesus who wept and laughed and needed rest and who led from his own reliance on the Father. And Paul is another example as we test his promise that in our weakness God can be strong. This perspective transforms our planning, decision-making, preaching, leading.

Living in a way that’s as human as Jesus and as willing as Paul to trust God’s power in our weakness means exploring these possibilities:

1. Rest is not just okay, it’s essential.

In rest, God releases us both from our slavery and our efforts at being deity-like. After freeing his people from Egypt, God called them to rest before he even gave them the commandments—as slaves they might not have gotten a day off, but as the newly-liberated children of God, they do. And if even he chose to rest, both as Creator God in Genesis and as Embodied God in Jesus, surely we can set aside our running of the world for a while. As leaders, our rest is not just a day to fuel up to return to more efficient work. Our rest is a day to remember that Someone Else is guiding the world and holding our organizations and can continue to do so even when we return to work. And our rest is not just a day for hedonism but a day to remember God delights in us even when we’re not accomplishing anything and invites us, in turn, to delight in him. Being released from slavery and from pursuing deity, and instead reveling in the joy in the presence of the Lord allows us to be people who are flourishing. Our leadership naturally then flows from that place of flourishing.

2. Capacity for failure is not just okay, it’s essential.

As Christian leaders, we talk a lot about grace and forgiveness, but our practices speak something else. Our way of leading preaches a message of perfection and risk aversion. If it’s the case that God calls humans to lead his church, there must be some way for us to lead as humans. Do we think God has forgotten that we have limited understanding, that we run out of energy and ideas? Is he cruel for expecting us to have it all figured out? Or have we misunderstood what he’s actually asking of us? Perhaps when we cry out with indignation to God “This is too much for me!”, he’s waiting to just say “Yes! Are you ready to rest in my yoke yet?” I am comforted by the words attributed to Mother Teresa that we’re not called to be successful; we’re called to be faithful. We can control our daily choice to give ourselves to God, to empty of our own agendas, to turn up, to pray, to serve. But we can’t control the outcomes. Are we willing, like Paul in 1 Corinthians 3, to trust that we plant and water, but ultimately God allows the seeds to grow (and that even what he’s growing and how big it becomes may be different from what we’ve imagined)?

3. Transparency about our own need for God is not just okay, it’s essential.

It’s hard to do transparency well. It’s tricky to discern how to share appropriately. In our efforts to avoid over-sharing (which is a good hesitation) we go to the opposite extreme and under share. Sometimes under-sharing is a selfless service we offer our people. Sometimes it’s our own self-preservation and pride that causes us to under-share. We may bless the doubters in our congregation when we share we also wrestle with doubt. We may bless the burned-out when we not only say we’re tired but actually take time to rest. We may bless those learning to lead to share what we’re learning, even as we learn. We may bless those with family issues to share that our families aren’t perfect. Ultimately, the greatest blessing we can give our people is not our own polished perfection but a behind-the-scenes look at how we follow and need God. Not all the personal details, of course. But an honest way to turn their faces from us to the one we’re looking to. So that they learn not to follow us but to watch how we follow Him.

I’m often invited to speak across the country at Christian conferences and workshops on how to lead as humans. I speak to men and women of different ages and theological and denominational backgrounds. But even in all that diversity, there is a common experience that concerns me. It troubles me how often my sharing about these principles above unearths something deep in the hearts of Christian leaders. Sometimes it troubles them to a degree which, in turn, troubles me. I’ve had pastors rebuke me for encouraging them to keep a daily sabbath. But more often it breaks their hearts. They’ve been carrying something oppressive for so long, and when I describe it as oppressive, something snaps in them. In tears they ask, “Can it really be possible that I can be freed from this burden of being super-human? It’s too good to hope for.”

Perhaps it’s time, Christian leaders, to confess our own efforts to be superhuman, to be everything our churches could possibly want. Are we our own golden calves? Perhaps it’s time for us to repent of our idolatry. Perhaps it’s time, Christian leaders, to confess our own efforts to be superhuman, to be everything our churches could possibly want. Are we our own golden calves? Click To Tweet

And perhaps it’s time for ordinary Christians, the people who fill our pews and make up our hiring committees and form platforms for Christian celebrities, to confess our desire to find someone who can finally answer all our questions, comfort all our heartaches, be everything we’ve been longing for. Do we need to release these ordinary humans from our oppressive, inhuman expectations? Perhaps it’s time to repent of our idolatry.

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