The danger of pedestals

Someone just forwarded me a meditation from Today, a family-oriented recovery meditation book from Hazelden. It contains great reminders about the importance of letting people be who they are, and not putting them on pedestals. Read on, as I’ll quote the meditation:

Because you’re not what I would have you be, I blind myself to who, in truth, you are.
–Madeleine L’Engle

Sometimes we expect far too much of the people around us, and because no one can ever live up to those expectations, we are almost always disappointed. But wouldn’t it be better if we just let go, and let people be who they are? Then we’d be able to see them as they are – with all their beauty and goodness in which we take joy, and with all their faults, which we can also see in ourselves.

When we have put someone up on a pedestal, sculpturing them to fit our needs and desires by smoothing out the rough edges and creating new curves here and there, we cannot see the real person underneath our work. All we see is the illusion we have created. That is denying the person’s real identity and is disrespectful. It’s much better for our friends and for ourselves if we drop our expectations and illusions, and accept them all just the way they are.

What unfair expectations do I have of others?

One of the greatest challenges for leaders – especially pastors – is that people bring into their relationships with us a powerful mixture of expectations and illusions about what an uber-spiritual person should be. They want to see us in a good light, because this affirms their faith … the leader of their spiritual community can serve to validate the power of that faith.

In spite of whatever we might want to say about honesty and authenticity in relationships, this idealization creates an opportunity – and a motive – to hide the “bad” parts of our personality. It might seem to be a good thing … they get to have their faith encouraged by this example of a person who’s pretty “together,” and we get to have higher esteem from others than we really deserve.

But this all comes at a price. When people who’ve idealized their spiritual leaders are forced to face their less-than-savory humanity, they are often disillusioned and angry. Somehow they expected us to “be better than that.” So reactions to perceived slights, and evidences of imperfections can often be magnified, because people cling to their hope that their leader will not be struggling with the things that other people are struggling with.

But even more dangerous is what the pedestal does to the soul of the leader. The leader who is dehumanized in this way is trapped by the expectations of other people. The leader must keep his or her personal struggles and foibles hidden. This creates unbearable tension and fear for many leaders. “What would happen if people in my church found out that I was struggling with ______________?” On top of the fear of letting other people down if the truth came out, many leaders struggle with unwarranted guilt and shame about their personal struggles. It’s as if it’s okay for someone else to struggle with some temptation or character flaw, but not me.

So pastors don’t get help. They may try to live in denial, and minimize how serious their problems are. They live in isolation, and the shame and fear escalates.

The reverse side of the problem of pedestals is that for some pastors it tends to reinforce the tendencies of narcissism, pride, and judgementalism. The less in touch I am with my own faults, the more spiritually superior I tend to feel. No one is really in a position to challenge me about my behavior or attitudes, because I don’t let people close enough to me. I hide behind the cloak of spiritual authority, and thus stay stuck in blindness to my true condition. When you add the fact that hundreds or thousands of people are listening to me speak God’s truth to them each week, you have a dangerous mix. As someone said, this is like “pouring Miracle Grow on my character flaws.”

What is the answer? Humanity. Let the leader be human. More on that in a different post.

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