by Stephen W. Smith
I have taken time this winter to reflect back on many of the leaders and spouses that Gwen and I have sat with for the past few years. We have sat with mega-pastors, small church pastors, missionaries or global workers and many market place leaders who are small business owners to Fortune 500 executives. It’s been a privilege to hear their stories but along the way of listening and helping these leaders, I’m afraid I’ve stumbled into a leadership crisis I want to unpack with you here.
I have seen a trend and feel ready to discuss about what I am observing in the souls of leaders and their spouses. Having formed a ministry where listening is key, some things are beginning to become more clear to me and what is becoming more clear is deeply disturbing and troubling.
Perhaps Gwen and I can so easily be a witness to this crisis is because, we have lived the crisis and the wheels of our bus came off leaving carnage in our marriage, faith and rippled through in my work. The reason we remain so passionate about this is because our passion has been birthed in the suffering I want to share with you here.
We, along with our Team at Potter’s Inn, have a unique position to sit and listen to the hearts that come to us. We listen to incredibly sad stories of burnout, fear of burning out, marriage implosion, staff tensions, trauma, abuse- be it spiritual, emotional or sexual, deeply embedded desires never ever attended to and longings of the heart that sit dormant inside the four chambers of a leader’s heart. We’re thrilled to work with younger leaders whose opening question is more like this: “We came here to PREVENT a blow up and burning ourselves out.” That purpose makes us thrilled to dive in and help.
My concern centers around the busyness of the leader’s lives; the shallowness of the leader’s spiritual life and the speed in which leaders feel they must navigate to get all of their work done. These three forces all converge to make the Perfect Storm in a leader’s soul and then infect and invade their marriage, children and co-workers. The genesis of this unhealthy movement comes down to one major factor.
One of the major dilemmas and trends I am seeing is this: Leaders tend to see themselves as a messenger who delivers a message rather than someone who must embody the message they deliver. In short, there is a disconnect happening in the leader’s souls which enables them to lead, preach and teach without actually living the life they are teaching. It’s deeply concerning. They are saying one thing but inside their private lives they know, and they do know,—that they are not living the message. So, this makes it a huge conundrum. The leader lives in shame. The leader lives with guilt. The leader feels like a hypocrite but has no one to confess their hypocrisy to. The leader lives their lives of leadership in a silo—no one really able to penetrate the walls that have been erected and no way for the leader to feel safe to emerge with all the darkness they feel inside. The live with marriages in trouble, faith that is shallow and a life-style that is out of control. There is a self built wall of protection that they must project because they think “If anyone really knew how bad of a situation I am actually in, I’d be fired. And I can’t be fired. So I will project the message but I will not live the message and I will not live the message because no one has really ever shown me how to live—how to embody the message. This is a crisis for the leader and what’s more, it is a bigger crisis for those of us who follow such leaders.
The messenger must embody the message or else they will implode. It’s really that simple and that alarming. This is precisely one of the major concerns of Jesus, himself–that people will live duplicitous lives, like the religious leaders of his own day. We don’t just have a message to deliver. We have a message to live. When I look at the very life and essence of the life of Jesus, I see a messenger who not only taught and helped but his life embodied the message. He called himself—his very self—the “Way”—not just his teachings. This one feature is what distinguished Jesus from other rabbis. And this one critical issue is what separates leaders today. Some leaders will not do their inner work—they focus only on their outer work of their job. But the real “job” of the Gospel is to penetrate to the deepest levels of our fears, abuse, trauma, addictions and find authentic transformation right there. If we do not transform—we will transmit. We will transmit our inner sickness, insecurities and unresolved issues onto others demanding obedience; raging at anyone who stands in our way; never open to outside counsel and never able to get out what just needs to come out.
The teaching of the ministry of Jesus was birthed in his own soul. He lived what he gave to others. Jesus did not just talk out of his head—but rather, he formed the words birthed deep in his soul that offered him the power to be compassionate, focused on others, modeling what he taught and not just moving on to the next crisis.
What I see today is a cult of leadership. Charismatic leaders should first make us suspicious rather than signing up too quickly. It’s not to question that some leaders have an amazing amount of polish, shine and show. We know this. But polish, shine and show is not a part of spiritual leadership. Spiritual leadership is shaped by a downward, not upward mobility. It is formed by a soulful humility that does not make demands but seeks a growing consensus.
Today, there is a cult of leadership that far outnumbers the group of leaders who shine by example—not shine by their gifts. They walk in the light because they know all too well, how great the darkness is that embodies every human heart. They are a devoted follower of Jesus rather than projecting that they m ay be Jesus Jr. Jesus has no Jr. He does not need them. And he does not want them.
When younger leaders are released far, far too soon and too early to lead massive movements we have an issue. I am a witness to this issue and so are you. Too many leaders fall. Too many spouses are left in the shadows of their spouse’s success. Too many of us have become quiet and powerless because we feel like there is nothing we can do but let this play itself out—and this is why this trend is so dangerous. Like the frog in the warming up kettle, we can remain feeling safe and secure but as the water begins to boil, the frog will die and so will the churches, businesses and even countries where we give up our voice and bury our heads and kill our hearts.
There is a danger when leaders lead and they are not ready to lead. Their souls are not cured. Their soul disease is still systemic and they are not emotionally healthy despite the fact that their IQ is off the charts and they may be border-line brilliant. We cannot “just follow” someone’s mind—we must not settle to do this. We are to follow leaders who have done their work; continue to do their work; able to fail and learn from their failures and above all trust leaders who we know are following the counsel of others and follow the counsel of the wise.
Those who speak good news must first live the good news they offer. Isn’t this our hope—that salvation first must come to each of us and that each of us are called to “work out our own salvation?’
Can’t we all smell the fumes of busy leaders who flit around sprinkling their leadership dust around on their team or staff rather than leading from a place of security, true identity, emotional health and love?
If a leader is shallow—then shallowness is what will be delivered to us.
If a leader is busy—then we will hear tips and techniques, not a deeply stirring message that will encourage us.
If the leader is sick—then sickness will be transmitted into the organization or church.
Do you remember that when the leaders of the early church were tapped to lead the exciting new movement called, “the church?”, the Apostles chose leaders who were to have a ministry of the Word and of prayer? Herein lies the problem: most of us leader or lay have not really been taught how to do either. We just attend. We just preach and go home. We just deliver a message without the message disturbing us, undoing us; unfurling the flags of our souls. Many leaders I know live a life were they simply don’t pray. I have been that person. I preached prayer but I never got prayer or let prayer get me. They don’t have time to be quiet. They drink from a fire hydrant on the run and give us the left overs.
Read what the beloved priest, Henri Nouwen says as he laments the inner dissonance he recognizes as he prepares to write or speak on a subject:
“Writing about prayer is often very painful since it makes you so aware of how far away you are from the ideal you write about… This week all I am reading and writing about is prayer. I am so busy with it and often so excited about it that I have no time left to pray, and when I pray, I feel more drawn to my ideas on prayer than to praying.
I have a strong feeling that my intellectual formation is just as much a hindrance as a help to prayer…Every time some kind of insight comes to me, I find myself wondering how I can use it in a lecture, a sermon, or an article, and very soon I am far away from God and all wrapped up in my preoccupations… Simply saying, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me’ a hundred times, a thousand times, ten thousand times, as the Russian peasant did, might slowly clean my mind and give God a little chance.” [THE GENESEE DIARY]
If we want to give a life-giving message, then we must devote ourselves to hear a life giving message for ourselves. How can we give what we do not have? Yet, this is the concern for leaders in the marketplace and ministry. Leaders who give must learn how to self-feed or we will starve and offer our empty bowls to a needy world.
How do we begin to remedy our problem? This is the question of soul care.
First, there must be a ruthlessly honest assessment on where you are in your spiritual journey and the state of your soul. If you are sick, then you need a doctor. It’s that simple and it requires tremendous courage to admit a soul disease–because our world is so enamoured–if not addicted to externals in any form, shape or size.
Second, we need to find the water than can quench our thirsty souls. The only thing that can help a thirsty person is water. A Coke will not quench the thirst….but the living water will. My encouragement is for leaders to invest in their own self-care as they lead. Attend a retreat, take time every week to unplug and sit alone in silence and begin to do this 15 minutes a day.
Third, find a trusted friend who is skilled to listen to you. The greatest act of love is to be listened to and many leaders are simply so busy talking to others that they feel they can’t take the time to be listened to. Every pastor needs a pastor. Every leader must be led. We need someone ahead of us on the journey who knows the terrain and knows the inner landscape. Find someone who can offer you the care your soul needs.
Fourth, make a commitment to seek to embody the message MORE than deliver the message. This will require you to slow down, study the lifestyle of Jesus as much as you read his words! If you’ve not read my book, The Jesus Life, then please do that as soon as you can and lead a group of friends to read it with you.
Gwen and I are still living out of our own carnage and trauma. We are still investing in our marriage to move toward greater health and love than every before as we age and begin to journey down an “off ramp” because we both feel we have both been “on” for too long. It takes courageous work to say, “We need help” when you are helping others. But as you seek light, we can find the light. This is our story and it can be yours as well. But here’s what I think: healthy leaders should seek help all the time; for as long as we can and looking for those who have the Light to shine it down into our own darkness. As the poet, Mary Oliver says, “The heart has many dungeons. Bring the light! Bring the light!” and I would add, ‘Please keep bringing the Light until we are finally home and living in the land of Light.” To think you are done with your darkness or done with your soul’s disease is one of the greatest maladies possible. The darkness can peer out to us at any time and in any place for as long as we are here and not there–in heaven-our true home.
Because of the high risk of leadership we are encouraged in the Bible to be careful about aspiring to it. Today the aspiration to lead is out of whack and there is so, so much emphasis on leadership that I call it, the cult of leadership—a cult we should all learn to be wise, careful and do our work—before we do, in fact, lead.