We sat on the front row and she wrapped her arms around me as we hugged. We wept, we prayed, we held up each other’s arms – Aaron lifting Moses’ burdens in prayer as he stood, battle-weary, fighting for God’s will to be done.
She looked me square-hard in the eye, told me how she found it all so tough – carrying all these burdens in silence, fighting all these battles alone in her head. Trying to fix her eyes on Jesus and straining – straining – to be all that she knew He wanted her to be. Tears coursed their way down her cheeks, inking out paths well trod, battles hard won.
And to me, it all shone out of her pure gold. She spoke of how hard she found the pressure of supporting a spouse in leadership, managing the conflicting emotions of wanting to protect him from harsh criticism and loving and caring for the flock that God had entrusted to them. She told how she felt she couldn’t share her burdens, her pressures, her problems because people needed her – relied upon her – to be strong. No one needed to see their leaders cracking up under the strain – did they? How could they bring their problems to someone who was clearly struggling with their own?
Honestly – I’m not sure how we got to this point. I’ve scoured the Bible, and there are an awful lot of requirements for leaders – honest, upright, sober, wise, respectable, self- controlled, hospitable – but I can’t find anything about burying your feelings. Having to hide the hurt and the hard stuff. Being a master of disguise. Pretending to be something – perfect – that none of us are.
Since when did being part of a family of believers – or even taking on the highest responsibility of committing to loving and caring for and leading that family – mean we had to start papering over all of the broken bits and pretending to be whole?
The problem is, our society is very good at picking people apart. We’ve built a whole industry on seeking out the deepest, darkest secrets of anyone, anywhere in any part of public life – whether it’s a politician or a popstar – of airing each other’s disaster and distress as publicly as possible and taking pleasure from it. Pleasure from seeing someone more successful than us fail. Does it make us feel our life is more to see that theirs is less? And how did that find it’s way into our churches?
Is it any wonder that anyone in any sort of position of authority – from the youth pastor to a Fortune 500 CEO – goes to such lengths to ensure that confidence in their ability is never doubted? That there is never, ever any chink in the armour shown, no weakness exposed. Sure, there’s pride in all of us, but there’s also fear. Fear that weakness is bad, right? And who would want to hang it all out there for all to see? Who among us would be brave enough to trust me, to trust you, to trust us to see the best. To see the gold among the muck. To see the humaness, the humanity.
And when we can’t look ourselves in the mirror, no wonder we have a hard time believing the best in each other.
When leaders feel they have to self-protect rather than give all of themselves – warts and all – something precious is lost in all of us. When leaders feel that they have to be the strong ones, the perfect ones, that unless they hold it all together, how can people trust in their leadership, their decision-making? And we forget – oh we forget – it was never meant to be us.
The burdens get heavy because they were never our burdens to carry. We struggle under them because we were never meant to carry them alone. We were meant to take them to Jesus. The facade becomes an intolerable pressure because God never meant it to be like this.
God knows we’re not perfect – that’s why Jesus came. And whilst he sees – oh, he sees – the pure gold joy of a soul striving, longing to be more, to be better, be closer to Him, he never meant us to labour under the false expectation that we always had to get it right. He never wanted us to beat ourselves over the brow with the need to be perfect, or to expect others to be.
And so the damage done is double.
Leaders struggling on, isolated by the pressure to be perfect. Afraid of what might happen if they allowed the people around them to see who they really are. And never getting to be who they really could be.
And us – the church? Do our expectations of perfect pedestal-leaders we can admire and respect exacerbate the problem? Are we willing to be more than mere spectators? To stand up and stand alongside the people that are laying down their lives for us – even when cracks appear?
Because there was only one man who was perfect – and his name was Jesus. And his job was to bear the weight of our sin and shame on his shoulders, so that we didn’t have to.
When we perpetuate the myth that we need to be good, that we need to be together, that we need to be perfect, for God to use us, it not only creates a pressure on us that we cannot stand up under, it creates a deception that sucks the whole church in.
That God is not enough. That he isn’t able. That he cannot – will not – use the busted, the broken, the imperfect.
Vulnerability in leadership shouldn’t be optional, it is essential. Because without it we cannot live out the amazing, transforming, restorative gospel of grace.
If we need leaders to aspire to, we need leaders who don’t get in the way. Not ones who sit up there on their perfect pedestals handling it all with perfect poise and grace and a perfect smile plastered on their faces, pushing Jesus far from view. No, we need leaders that are with us in the mire, getting down and dirty with the truth that all of us – deep down – know to be true. That none of us are good enough. None of us have memorized as many scriptures as we’d have liked, are as patient with our spouses or children or work colleagues as we know we should be, as full of faith, as giving of our time as we want to be.
But together – holding up each other’s arms – with Jesus, we can be more like Him, little-by-little. We can learn to trust him more. We can have our faith, our character, refined by trials. There can be less of us and more of Him. And that’s where great leadership truly begins.
Trusting God enough to stop pointing to our own strengths and truly letting everyone around us see that all strength comes from Him.