Seeking to be transformed into the image of Jesus

Vulnerable Leadership?

Yesterday I shared some thoughts and reactions to the first part of Henri Nouwen’s book In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership.  Nouwen suggests that Christian leaders must lead from their intimacy with Jesus rather than according to the corporate model accepted by many or the desire to be “relevant” to the masses. 

In the second part of the book, Nouwen goes on to share that Christian leaders need to move beyond the desire to be popular or to be accepted and to enter into the community – not only to minister to the community but also to receive ministry from the community.  Nouwen writes,

Somehow we have come to believe that good leadership requires a safe distance from those we are called to lead.  Medicine, psychiatry, and social work all offer us models in which “service” takes place in a one-way direction.  Someone serves, someone else is being served, and be sure not to mix up the roles!  But how can we lay down our life for those with whom we are not even allowed to enter into a deep personal relationship?  Laying down your life means making your own faith and doubt, hope and despair, joy and sadness, courage and fear available to others as ways of getting in touch with the Lord of life (p. 61, emphasis mine).

Nouwen invites those who would lead to become “a vulnerable servant who needs people as much as they need their leader” (p. 63).  He suggests that Christian leaders should “be persons always willing to confess our own brokenness and ask for forgiveness from those to whom they minister” (p. 64).  This is not always easy to do, but Christian leaders need to have the freedom to step down from the pedestal of perfection and be real people.  I think some people prefer to keep the leaders up in that rarified air of perfection – separate and on a pedestal – but most of us want to know that the men and women leading us have doubts, struggles, and temptations, as well as joys, victories, and growth in their Christian lives

The reality is that Christian leaders walk a very fine line when we share our “warts” in the church.  We can share too much or share too publicly some of our “dirty laundry”.  We need to monitor what we put out there.  At the same time, we can shade our confession in such a way that we actually become more saint-like than had we said nothing.  I tend to think the solution is to make ourselves accountable to a small group – fellow leaders, a close spiritual friend or two, a spouse – but also be prepared to share honestly our struggles and failings in appropriate venues and ways.  This is ultimately essential and life-giving for all involved.

As Christian leaders, we need “to be full members of [our] communities (p. 69).  When we model vulnerability and put ourselves “out there” it will encourage an atmosphere of trust and vulnerability.  Last October I spoke at a conference for member care givers in the Middle East.  I shared very honestly about my own journey and specific areas that have been struggles and sin in my life as a leader serving overseas.  I shared many of the ways God has brought healing in my life and in my marriage.  I tried not to overstate the bad and didn’t want to misrepresent the progress.  Later several people commented on how the conference was one of the safest and open environments they’d been a part of.  Deep, sensitive issues that needed to be discussed openly were able to be broached because I had set the tone with my honesty.  As I told them, even a year or two ago I could not have shared those things.  But I am growing to understand more and more what Nouwen is saying and see the value and life in walking in a transparent, mutual way with the people I lead.


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