“I get so confused,” my friend on the phone was saying to me late Wednesday night. “You and Brenna keep telling me God loves me, but my family keeps telling me God hates me. I don’t know which one to believe.”
My friend grew up going to big churches nearby and has struggled with his self-esteem his whole life. He went on, “I have to be honest with you, Bill – that’s why I don’t come around City Church much. It feels so welcoming being with you guys, but I’m still going to hell because I’m gay and I can’t change it.” We talked a bit more, and I encouraged therapy. I blessed him and kept the door open, all the while trying to be in touch with my own sadness and powerlessness to change the situation… and my desire to scream “A-HOLES!” at his family and former pastors.
That wasn’t the only conversation of the week about internalized homophobia inherited from toxic systems. But I made a real mess of the other one. It was Monday, and I’d just gotten back from a quick trip halfway across the country to officiate a wedding. I was tired and impatient, and just couldn’t get myself to be present to this woman. I listened poorly and then really hurt her feelings when I decided it was time to show her I was right about a few things (like needing to embrace her sexual identity and some other issues). In the end, she stormed out of the coffee shop and left our church.
I was the a-hole.
You know those “I love Jesus and I cuss a little” t-shirts? Much as I appreciate them, I would be exaggerating if I pulled one on – my conservative evangelical upbringing still holds pretty firm in that area.
But sometimes you just gotta call it what it is. Like Paul in Phil. 3:8, thinking about the things he used to put his confidence in and declaring them skubala, Σκύβαλον, “sh*t,” not just worthless but repulsive, in comparison to knowing Jesus. Or in Gal. 5:12, calling out his frustration with those “preaching circumcision,” those distorting Jesus’ free invitation, by wishing they would go ahead and just castrate themselves! Strong, clear language.
I’ve known too many faith leaders who distort the radical welcome of Jesus by being a$$holes. Yes, I’ve been hurt by them myself and seen the damage they inflict on others through the toxic systems they create. I’ve also sensed this potential in myself and feared it.
Part of the purpose of strong language is to shake people awake, to make them stop and think. I remember driving home from the coffee shop after that failed conversation with the woman who stomped off. I kept saying to myself, “She just needed a safe place to land for a while and you had to be an a-hole…” That blunt honesty was the strange invitation to grace that I needed.
Within an hour, I called my co-pastor, lamented being a bully, worked out a plan to repent towards that woman, and recommitted to listening better in the future (and to more wisely scheduling intense meetings!).
Bill’s story, sad as it is, illustrates three big factors behind the church’s struggle with oppressive, exploitative leadership and how we begin to mend.
- Our Role Models and Their Embodied Theology. For too long, one kind of person – a white, charismatic, aggressively devout man – has dominated our imagination around what leadership looks like in faith spheres. Podcasts like the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill and books like Jesus & John Wayne are making it clear to everyone that the emperor is naked – that this style of leadership, allowed to express itself without formative, humbling connection to a healthy, diverse community, often looks little like Jesus and much like empire. Much like abuse. At the same time, through podcasts and other social media, many of us are finally becoming more aware of so many other leaders out there, holding power from a posture of love and care. (To be clear, those voices have been speaking for a long time – may we who have ears finally hear.)
- Our Inner Drives. Sadly, if predictably, many faith leaders are drawn to their positions precisely because they’re wired to crave power, to be seen as strong, certain, in control. Psychological testing points to a third of pastors being diagnostically in the narcissistic range, with more having narcissistic tendencies. For others of us, our wiring and conditioning lead us into ministry from the opposite direction, through a desire to serve that can lean towards pathology as well – an unhealthy abdication of power that’s not humility of self, but fear of self. Whatever our starting inclinations, we have to keep doing the work to grow in emotional awareness, health and wholeness.
- Our External Structures. Leaders don’t exist in a vacuum. Churches and nonprofits put them in their places of authority and create systems around them that can check and balance their power, cultivate environments of honesty and grace, support and spiritual growth – or not. It’s so tempting to just look the other way, to trust blindly because we like the illusion of safety and certainty that one strong, forceful leader brings us. But that doesn’t promote flourishing for our communities or our leaders. Wisdom invites us to situate leadership firmly in the context of healthy relationship, of partnership, where we can lovingly confront, confess, wonder, celebrate, lament, learn, and do better.
If you haven’t had a chance to check it out yet, we created a free download, “LEAD WITH …Out Being an A$$hole,” and its follow-up free webinar to take us all deeper in exploring how these dynamics operate in our lives and ministry spaces. It’s a quick read – though, fair warning, you may find yourself mulling it over for a while!
(We’ve even heard stories of people passing it to friends, families, and church leaders – gently – saying something like, “I’m in no way calling you an a$$hole, I just wondered if thinking about some of these deeper dynamics might be helpful for you or your team” or “helpful in processing past church trauma.” Proceed cautiously, of course, if you go that route!)