What Followers Expect from Spiritual Leaders

People today have profoundly mixed — and dysfunctional — views about leaders.Especially spiritual leaders. On the one hand, we idealize them. We project onto them qualities of wisdom, spiritual zeal, and impeccable morality. We really want them be close to God, to exemplify the virtues that we struggle to live out. We want them to be uber competent in their role, but we also want them to exemplify all the virtues and character qualities that we deem to be important. We want them to be larger than life! To think about them struggling with the shameful things we struggle with robs us of the hope that we can “get over” our problems.

There is a word for this: childishness.

This is what kids do. They adore the adults around them, assign them magical qualities, and feel the need for the adults around them to be all-knowing, and completely virtuous. Part of the process of growing up involves becoming disillusioned about our parents and teachers … discovering (often to our great dismay) that they are human and flawed, just like we are. After recognizing this, we learn to come to terms with it, and begin to relate to them in a more mature way.

But there’s another side to our view of spiritual leaders, which, by the way, is the inevitable consequence of idealization and projection: we are quick to judge and condemn them when we see their flaws. There is a secret part of us that loves to read about the downfall of people in high positions. We naturally resent hypocrisy, so when people in positions of moral or spiritual leadership are found to be lacking in the very qualities they espouse, we have no mercy.

We want our leaders to be air-brushed models of morality and spirituality. We react strongly when we see their flaws. More than once I’ve heard the truism stated: “If you want a spiritual leader you can admire with no reservations … make sure that person is dead.” That way, you don’t have to worry that you’ll find out things about them that let you down.

But wait! That’s not even a safe strategy: I’ve found out things about Gandhi, John Wesley, and Martin Luther King, Jr. that I sort of wish I hadn’t known.

Maybe we should amend the saying: If you want someone you can admire with no reservations, make sure that person is dead … and then don’t study their life too closely. Learn too much about them and you might just discover that they were human after all.

I have a better idea: how about we adopt the perspective that the writers of the Bible seem to have adopted — stop making human beings the heroes of our stories, and let them be flawed characters. Let Jesus be the hero and model, and be okay with flawed human leaders like the confused disciples, pricklish Paul, wavering Abraham, prideful David, and so on.

How about we give our spiritual leaders — and ourselves — an important gift: the gift of humanity. We still hold them to standards of teaching and living; but we let them be human, with strengths and weaknesses, with admirable qualities and limitations.

Several years ago I was invited to consult with a church whose pastor had been accused of misconduct. The pastor went through a process of repentance and restoration (which unfortunately was cut short, but that’s another story). In the course of this work, I preached a message to help people come to terms with his leadership and teaching, in light of the knowledge of his struggles and sins. You can see the video above.

I hope this sermon can help you — and others, if you share it — develop a more spiritually-mature, discerning view of spiritual leaders.

Before watching, note this important qualifier: By giving a message like this, I’m NOT intending to give leaders a “pass” on the need to exemplify what they teach.Far from it. One of the foundational principles in the Thriving Leader Blueprint program I run is that the power of our influence comes from our being — our very lives — not our words. You can read more about this in my article: “Spiritual Leadership: What it is and Why We Need It.

The message above is for the rest of us, for those on the receiving end of spiritual leadership and influence, who are trying to come to terms with the humanity of those leaders, when they (inevitably) fail to live up to this.

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