I was completely surprised by the response to my last post “Leaders Do Not Have the Right to Pretend it Didn’t Happen.” Hundreds of people responded to my simple story of email posts and responses from a former friend who was part of a team of abusive leaders that shafted our little church, and more specifically me. This follow up post is not to rehash other portions of that complex story. That was done years ago through interviews and newspaper articles, and does not need any further rehearsal other than to use these events as markers of deeper lessons in the nature of ministry, leadership, power structures and human nature. Yet, I have discovered over the years that there are people who do not understand the importance of telling the difficult stories – whether they are stories of tragedy or of abuse.
We all remember being told that we need to learn from history so that we do not repeat it. The Bible itself models this kind of learning. The tragedies and the celebrations of the Old Testament history became lessons for the present. Jesus pulled those stories forward into the first century AD, and the writer of Hebrews called them stories, “written for our example.” The communion bread and cup we serve is a reminder of a dark and tragic day, and strangely there is no regular liturgy enjoined by scripture for the joy of the resurrection.
This speaks to the character of Christianity, and inherent power to turn darkness into light, sorrow into joy, and loss into gain. I have been surprised by those who refuse to follow this path downward to discover the upward liberation of growth and deliverance that comes through the embrace of those dark hours. This is what Paul described as the “the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings.” (Phil. 3:10)
Yesterday’s story of the email interaction was just one example of Christian leadership not understanding that humility, confession, and retelling/reliving the stories of fall and redemption are the way forward with God. The number of examples I have that show this same incompetence in so-called purveyors of Gospel truth are without number, and so, I will give two more short examples of the failure among Christian leaders to comprehend that our authority is found in our scars, and not in our accolades.
When I was first a pastor in the late 80’s, I would attend the prerequisite monthly pastors meetings, and struggle with the sense of shallowness in the meetings. We would talk about how things were going in our churches, and it would revolve around successes and things to give praise reports about. The leader of the meeting was the local pastor with the largest and most successful church in the region, and he maintained this atmosphere of positivity. On occasion, the leader would not be able to attend, and the meetings were smaller. Those of us attending were pastors of the smaller churches. During these meetings, I would navigate to stories of difficulty, and the sense of impotence and insignificance we felt as small church pastors living in the mega-church world of Southern California Church Growth Seminars. During these meetings we would laugh. We would get to know one another more deeply, and we would feel as though the masks of pretension could be removed when the leader was away. For all his skills as a large church pastor, he was clueless about how to embrace the power of the stories of suffering, and consequently, he was clueless on how to pastor struggling small church pastors.
Just a few years ago, I ran into one of the most egregious examples of this same blindness among well-known Christian leaders, when I was asked to organize closing ceremonies for a festival. During the planning stages, our team suggested that we needed to invert the typical festival closing ceremony from the campy celebration of victory (ala youth camps) to embrace dark stories of struggle, and leave a hanging ending suggesting that we do not know what comes next. This was to be a type of theatrical embrace of the Dark Night of the Soul. As we contemplated who night present a true dark story, the eyes of the small group turned my direction. One of my friends said, “I think you need to tell your story.” I balked. My story was still fresh. I was at the tail end of most difficult five years of my life. Telling my story demanded a vulnerability I had never before expressed, and I was being asked to express it in front of thousands of people. I did not want to do it, but I knew my friend was right. And so, in front of a thousand plus people, I told my dark story of betrayal after betrayal at the hands of denominational leadership and even people closest to me. I did it in dramatic fashion, because this was designed like a play in a three-part act. Some people remember this event today, and mark it as a point of their own sense of liberation, or an example of the hope that is found in attending this particular festival. On the other hand, it was just a couple years later, that I heard complaints, which had come from an extremely influential Christian leader. Of course, those complaints did not come directly to me. They were whispered in dark corners and backroom meetings. Supposedly, what I did was the worst thing that ever happened to the festival. The director of the festival received this complaint, completely disagreed, but passed the information on to me a couple years after the complaints occurred. I was not told who the complainant was, but I know who you are. I know what you’ve been saying behind closed doors. The fact that an influential leader would behave in this way tells me this: he is clueless about the power of the stories of suffering and difficulty that comes with the humility and vulnerability it takes to tell these stories. I wonder how such leaders can take the communion cup each week. If you cannot stand to hear my sufferings, and cannot find the light despite the darkness, I am not sure you know the Gospel.
The story of this event has a silver lining of unbelievable importance to me. My friend who suggested that I needed to tell my story was Jeff Gentry. As I began to tell my story, seated in front the crowds in the open field, I choked back tears, and it became difficult to speak. Jeff, rose up from his place near the front, walked up, and sat on the ground in front of me. Our stories are easier to tell when we have heroes who step up next to us to hold up our hands. These are the kinds of leaders who have depth, and comprehend the power of dark moments. Those who call themselves leaders and cannot visit these places, they have embraced shallowness, and what they call light is their darkness.
This is one of the reasons we retell our stories: it separates the servants from the abusers, and the sheep from the goats.
“And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience.” (Romans 5:3)
“If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities.”
(2 Corinthians 11:30)