Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Christian leaders fail at an alarming rate. Some studies suggest that 50-63% of all Christian leaders will fall off the rails, and not reach the destination for which they set out. Extensive studies have been done on why this is true. The number one reason: Isolation. Many leaders end up on an island by themselves.

How do we end up so isolated? We get to a point where no one is speaking into our lives - where our relationships are not reciprocal. I read some research on fame that suggested that fame is really just "a disproportionality of outbound to inbound messages." That is, people who are famous send out signals, but don't get pings coming back in their direction. Many, many people know them, but they don't not know very many people. Oprah, for instance, is famous. She is sending out messages to us, but she is not getting many messages back. You've heard from her, but she hasn't heard from you.

Pastors experience this isolating dynamic regularly, even if on a smaller scale. It truly can be lonely at the top. Pastors are known by many people, but often on a surface level. Many times they lack people in their lives with whom they can share on a deeper level, who will respond with grace to what they come to know. Yet people who are not affirmed do not know who they are. Or maybe better, they have a false idea about who they are. In the absence of other's feedback they are left with their own opinion, which is usually, "I'm a jerk."

Now for a story that explains an underlying dynamic that exacerbates the loneliness of leadership. Bill Thrall (author of The Ascent of a Leader) tells a story from the early years of his marriage.

Bill came home one day and could tell from her body language that his wife was not in a good space. She said, "We need to go for a drive, because we need to talk." Bill, who had some active secret-life issues immediately, began to fear that she had somehow found out the truth about him. He quickly began to think through possible alibis and excuses so that he could protect his secret life.

Bill and his wife got in the car and drove quietly to a remote place. When the car was turned off, his wife turned to him and said, "Bill, you need to know that I am not happy. I haven't been happy for awhile. Do you want to know why I'm not happy?" Bill swallowed hard and slowly nodded "Yes." She continued, "Bill, I'm not happy because in this marriage you get to love me, but I don't get to love you. I want to love you but you won't let me. Why won't you let me love you?" Bill reflected on her question, initially relieved that she had not brought to light into specific character defects, until he realized that she had actually pointed out a much deeper issue. Why wasn't he allowing her to love him?

What followed in the conversation was Bill's first foray into honesty and vulnerability. He told her about his extreme need to be liked. He shared his insecurities about his job (he was trained as a CPA but did not feel that he was good with numbers). He disclosed his longstanding addiction to pornography. He took off the mask.

What Bill's story points out so vividly is how basic trust is to love. We cannot experience being loved unless we entrust ourselves to another person. The degree to which we trust another person is the degree to which they can love you.

Here's the challenge for many pastors: we are better at loving than being loved. We want to be the one who loves. It is harder for us to be the one who receives love. But love is not something we do. It's something we experience. Together. This is where we miss something. We need somebody to love AND we need to be loved by somebody.

Strictly speaking, God did not call us to love. He called us to love one another. That's different. The love that God calls us to involves give and take, not just give. It involves entrusting ourselves to EACH OTHER. In order to love well you have to receive love as well as share it.

1 Thessalonians 4:9
"Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other."

1 John 3:11
"This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another."

1 John 4:7
"Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Love is the direct response of God's grace in us."

John 13:35
"By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."

So to summarize the sequence: Christian leaders fall because of isolation; isolation comes because no one is speaking into the leader's life; no one is speaking into the leader's life because the leader is not trusting anyone with who they are.

The next time you are thinking, "No one loves me," answer this question, "Who are you letting love you?" Have you entrusted yourself (been vulnerable with) God and others?

Oh, and here's the rest of the story for Bill Thrall. He expected, after he shared his dark side with his wife, that she would get out of the car and leave him there. But she didn't. She actually moved toward him. When we are humble it tends to have that effect. God certainly has said that he gives grace to the humble. His invite is, "Draw near to me and I will draw near to you." Vulnerability draws God closer to us, and it tends to have that effect on people too.

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