Temporary Pastors and the Life of the Church

This coming Sunday will be, for the foreseeable future, my final Sunday in full-time pastoral ministry. This has been a bittersweet transition—while I am excited about what comes next, my call to pastoral ministry remains unchanged; I love my people and have enjoyed the privilege of ministering to them. Three and a half years was entirely too short a time with them. And yet both I, and they, must move on. This is in many ways the very nature of pastoral ministry.

Interestingly enough, these were some of the very words I preached to them on the Sunday when I was installed at my present church. That day, reading the story in Acts 20 of Paul’s tearful parting and farewell from the elders of the Ephesian church, I pointed my members to four features critical to all pastoral ministry. Looking back, I spoke perhaps better than I knew. Allow me to review them with you today.

1. All Pastors are Temporary. This seems an obvious point, but it is one we are apt to overlook. Paul was pastor at Ephesus for three years. My predecessor at the church where I serve was present for sixteen years, his predecessor was there for twenty years, and I’ve served now for three and a half years. Nestled within each of these terms of service lies an important fact—each one was temporary.

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Let’s be explicit. At some point a pastor will leave a church, whether he is called to another church, decides to retire from full time ministry, leaves under ignominy, or dies in service. And it’s not only the pastor, but you also, as an individual member of a given congregation, who may be called to other cities, other churches, other ministries. Indeed, it is you also who will one day inevitably die. Ministry at every local church is unavoidably temporary.

Despite the obvious self-evidence of this point, rarely do we live this way. Most often we operate as if our models for ministry are based on permanence. We presume that our pastors will and should remain forever. We assume that, like custom cabinets, once the minister has been “installed” he will be a permanent feature of the building. From this perspective, pastors go on to build ministries that are so dependent upon their particular gifts and personalities that the ministry cannot continue without them. Churches are complicit in these schemes, and are content to allow the pastor to do most of the work of faith for them. In the end, this kind of ministry treats the pastor as someone who provides an essential service to the congregation. I do the work, and you show up to benefit from the work. I am the spiritual chef, you show up to eat. The Church is a service—like a restaurant or a shop—where you come to purchase your spirituality with a tithe. But this is clearly not how faith works, and that leads to the second lesson.

crutches

Job Description: Become obsolete.

2. All Church Ministry is Shared. Again, let’s be explicit—a pastor can never do the work of faith for you. The best he can do is equip you to do your own work. And because the pastor’s role is fundamentally and essentially temporary, we must acknowledge that all church ministry ought to be shared. Ministry is not something I do and something you receive. It is not something for which I am an expert and you are a plebeian observer. No, ministry is something I do as an example in order to lead you into your own maturity in ministry. The proper image for the pastor is not that he stands above you in power to dominate your faith, but that together you stand side-by-side in a common mission. As a pastor I am a specially designated and set-apart servant of the mission that Christ intends to accomplish in a particular place and time. What this means is that while the pastor gives you an advantage—as a crutch gives you an advantage when you’ve broken your leg—the goal of the pastor—like the goal of the crutch—is to one day step aside so that you can walk on your own.

Paul, in Acts 20, clearly sees his ministry as one that is shared with the Ephesian elders. There is a real partnership at work between them. And in the event that you are tempted to claim that Paul’s words are for the elders only, I want to remind you that even the office of ‘elder’ is temporary. Everything in the church, with the exception of our Lord, is temporary, and therefore the charge that Paul gives is in some sense the special task of the whole fellowship. Not that everyone should be in charge, but everyone in Christ should have the same goals, the same concerns, and the same dire need for serious integrity. And that from the very top to the very bottom, each of us is concerned with attending to Christ—we all serve each other in bringing our common attention to Christ Jesus. This leads to the third lesson.

3. Ministry Must Be Anchored on Christ Alone. Ministers will change over time. Where you live will change over time. All church buildings will one day dissolve into dust. Everything in the church is temporary except our Lord and master, Jesus. Because He is the only certain constant, we must ensure that we have truly and completely focused our efforts on attending to Christ. One of my favorite verses is Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Your pastors will change, but Jesus Christ is the same. Your home will change, but Jesus Christ is the same. Your nation may change, your family may change, your job, your calling, your situation in life, your health, your finances—all these will change, but Jesus Christ is always the same.

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We’re all connected to the hub.

Because I am temporary, but Jesus is eternal, my primary job has been to help my people look at Jesus. I do not stand in the place of Jesus. I am not to be the ultimate focus of their attention. My job is to stand side-by-side with my people, pointing at our common master, and working to remove obstacles and offer such a compelling vision of King Jesus that when I fade away their attention remains fixed on Him. In this process—because ministry is fundamentally temporary, and because it is designed to be shared—Christ in turn serves as the fixed point of reference for leaders and elders. Only Christ ensures that pastor after pastor is performing the same mission. Only Christ and His purposes can unify a diverse and changing group of elders. Only Christ creates the conditions whereby the eternal continuity of the Church is maintained.

This leads to our fourth and final lesson:

4. The Standard for Evaluating Ministry is Integrity. All of this—that ministry is temporary, shared, and Christocentric—in turn helps us to see why Paul spends so much time speaking about his personal integrity in his Acts 20 speech to the Ephesian elders. Have your ministers and elders embodied integrity with respect to the ministry of the Gospel, to the Kingdom of God? Have we as ministers served Christ with humility? Have we suffered for the sake of the gospel—not necessarily in being beaten, stoned, or chased out of town, but have we stood for the truth of Christ even when it hurt? Have we declared to you the fullness of the gospel, both in public and in private? Have we been good stewards of our finances? Have we defrauded you in any way, shape, or form? Have we been an example in caring for and helping the weak and powerless among you? Have we, ultimately, pointed you toward Jesus?

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A fracture in integrity damages everyone.

The integrity of a church’s ministers serves, in turn, the integrity of the fellowship. Paul in verses 28-32 describes the challenges to come—troubles from both without, and within. There will be those from outside the fellowship who come and seek to overturn the good we do. They will approach as wolves, seeking to defraud and take advantage of the Church. Our integrity—our focus on Christ—preserves us and protects us from those dangers. Others from within the church will see in twisting their theology means by which they can gain advantage for themselves—whether advantages of popularity, advantages of finance, advantages of being well thought of. Our integrity—our commitment to the Kingdom of Christ—will give us the clarity to expose and reject those false distortions. And heed my words, Christian brothers and sisters, no faith is perfectly stable until it is secure in eternity—that is, no faith is perfected until you are dead. And while you live your faith will be challenged by wolves and charlatans, and your focus must be so clearly on Christ and on his purposes, and your ministers and elders must have so instilled in you a conviction of their integrity, that you are able to navigate those challenges. Integrity is the standard by which we evaluate ministry.

For the past three and a half years I have been called to serve at Burnaby Alliance Church. There, to the best of my ability, I have been tasked to help my people to love Jesus more. I have been called, to the best of my ability, to show them Jesus in my life so that they can, through following Jesus on their own, show Him to the other people in their lives. I have been called to love them—however imperfectly—with the love of Christ so that they can love others. I am called to be so faithful that I never stand between them and faith in Christ. I am called to point so effectively at Jesus that when I depart they will still be focused on Christ Jesus, who is the same yesterday, and today, and forever. And by the grace of God I have been enabled to discharge, I hope, just such a ministry.

If you would benefit well from your temporary pastor, then there are two things you must do. First, you must examine your own hearts and your own motives. Ask yourself: Am I using my pastors well, and appropriately? That individual is an asset to your faith, but not a replacement for it. Have you taken advantage of church for the benefit of your life with Christ? Have you thought of church as a service performed for you, or of church as a place where you journey along with others seeking Christ? Are you here to get a vision of Jesus, or are you here to feel good about yourself?

Second, the pastor is a powerful lever who can facilitate great change, both personally and institutionally. And because he is positioned to leverage everyone in the community to some degree, that also makes of him a target. If the devil can take your pastor out, he can hurt the whole community; but if together we overcome the devil, we can all be strengthened. Because of this reality, your pastor truly needs your prayers. He needs prayer for his own integrity. His wholeness will be challenged by sin and temptation. He needs your prayers for his sustenance. He needs your prayers for his rest. He needs your prayers for his family—for his life as a husband and father, for his children’s lives as individuals who also need to learn to follow Jesus. Through all of these, your pastor needs your prayers to be filled God’s Spirit in power and service.

Few careers come with the challenges, burdens, and eternal consequences of full-time pastoral ministry. If you have read this today and are a minister, may you be encouraged to prioritize your own integrity, your own temporality. If you have read this today and are a member of a congregation, may you be encouraged to benefit rightly from the gifts offered by your pastor. And may you commit to upholding him in dedicated prayer!

Tuning Congregational Worship (On Ministry and Feedback)

For the past three years in pastoral ministry I’ve dedicated a significant portion of my attention to my church’s worship ministry. This has been a strategic choice. A church’s weekly worship service is the highest commodity hour of a given week—it has the highest visibility, the largest attendance, and typically the most buy-in. It is also the place, in sung worship, where the Spirit most often and most powerfully shows up in a congregation. Such visible and valuable time ought to aspire on every occasion to be a visionary channel through which God’s gathered people receive refreshment, restoration, challenge, and encouragement to truly live out the reality of the church in their daily lives. The wise pastor in leadership will take a keen interest in his church’s worship ministry.

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No, Matt Redman is not one of my worship leaders. But I like both him and his music.

Honoring this weekly time has required a number of small changes along the way. One of the first was my insistence that video be used in a strictly limited fashion. Too much of our attention is directed to screens throughout our weeks, and in this we too often ape the world’s ways, showing videos and clips as cheap bids for attention rather than invitations to worship. I also limited the phenomenon of individuals “coming up to give announcements.” In every church, members see the pulpit for what it is—a powerful organ of communication. Seeing that organ, they desire to access it for their ministry agendas, whether good or bad. However, the pulpit and its public power do not exist for promotion of anything but the gospel message. The whole service, in all its power, exists for the exaltation of King Jesus—from prayers, to sung worship, to sermons, to announcements, to Holy Communion, to the benediction. That, indeed, is a critical aspect of forming our theology of worship—to understand that from the opening words to the closing benediction, the entirety of the service is worship, and ought to be prepared and regarded in that way.

A critical part of this process has involved my worship leaders. We have met monthly for the past three years, praying, listening, worshipping, planning together how we might best exalt our God every Sunday. It has been a very rewarding experience to walk with them in this way, not least of which because they are a wise, discerning, and heartfelt group. Together we’ve set standards for our worship, determined which songs to sing and which to proscribe, discussed ideal rehearsal strategies, preparation strategies, and so forth. We also troubleshoot problems. At one point, about a year ago, it became clear that our Sunday members had largely stopped singing. My leaders had each been serving for years, and many of them were tired. In their exhaustion, they were attempting to keep up interest in worship by playing new songs. But the new songs, while interesting to the worship leaders, were sectioning out the congregation. In response, I placed a six-month moratorium on new songs, and insisted that we play only familiar songs in the interim. This did the trick, and within a few weeks, members were singing once again, and they have continued to sing. This provided us with a further opportunity to examine what kinds of songs we ought to be selecting, and as a result we’ve agreed as a team to only introduce new songs by mutual agreement and review. Beyond this, the chief criteria for songs in public worship are their orthodoxy and singability. Orthodoxy, because we must acknowledge the fact that sung worship is a part of the teaching ministry of the church (on the spiritual gift spectrum, I believe that worship leaders qualify as teachers); and singability because it’s in the tune that the song sticks and helps us to remember and internalize our faith. Beyond these criteria, my leaders are free to sing whatever they wish.

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From Getty Images. This is the desert outside Masada in Israel. One of things people don’t realize is just how many rocks there are in Israel’s landscape–it’s so many that if they were to cry out in praise, their numbers would rival the voices of people.

Our meetings have also given us opportunity to explore our ideas of response and feedback. During one of our meetings I offered the following conversation topic: “What kinds of spiritual experiences do we expect from our congregation realistically?” From this, we had an illuminating conversation. Feedback, of course, is a curious phenomenon. We are not, of course, performers looking for personal acclaim after a given worship service. And yet, we most certainly desire to have some effect on our people. What does that effect look like? Here are some of the answers my worship leaders gave:

We want people to be humming the songs when they leave the church building. One of the great benefits of our sung worship is the way it cements truth in our hearts through song, the way a song will be remembered even when spoken words are lost.

We want people to be engaged in worship—eager to hear God’s voice in the service and after. When people show up on time, ready to worship, it makes a huge difference in the worship leader’s job. Instead of generating worship, it becomes his or her job to direct it.

We love it when we can move past the form of worship and get to the really real. Music always reflects an uncertain balance between freedom and limitation, between emotion and rationality. Weekly religious services are by nature patterned and formal, and can by virtue of their regularity begin to stifle the authentic experience of worship. It takes a special obedience, and occasionally an act of God, to move past our forms and really begin to worship.

We are encouraged when people tell us that the worship “spoke” to them, and when they thank us. Good feedback is hearing where God’s word and God’s Spirit meet a person—in this way we receive a note of encouraging return on our investment of time and effort.

We are encouraged when we have a sense that what we are doing in worship is working in tandem with what God is doing in your life. When a song speaks to a particular place, or where your presence in worship brings healing, comfort, or conviction, then we are encouraged to see that God’s hand has been present in our preparation beyond our knowledge and capacity.

We are encouraged when we can hear the congregation singing back to us. Nothing is worse than the feeling that you are alone. The problem is that our sound systems and monitors can isolate our worship teams, removing from them the awareness of the congregation’s effort. At times our enjoyment of public worship is shielded by our own technologies. But in those moments when we can hear the congregation swell, then it is a powerful reminder of the nature of the church as one body, praising Christ.

We are encouraged when we ourselves enjoy God’s presence, and when worship is fun. It is easy for the details to crowd God out of our own experiences of worship—to be so concerned with time, and how many times to repeat the chorus, and the mistake someone just made, that we forget to worship. But when we can remember to be worshippers first, and leaders second, then in those moments worship once again becomes fun.

We are encouraged when we transcend our own inhibitions and simply worship. Church services are not performances. When you stand in front of people, they are your friends, family, and coworkers. Churches inhabit political environments, pretences, and memories. Navigating all of these pressures can easily lay burdens upon worship leaders which inhibit their freedom to transcend inhibitions. But by God’s grace, we can forget all those fears and focus on Him alone.

I am, and have been, deeply impressed with the quality and dedication of my worship leaders. I have enjoyed watching God change our worship service these past years as well, to honor Himself more and more in our weekly worship. I hope, that in some small way, these simple reflections might help you in your life of worship as well.

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Four Essentials for Leadership

The world appears to be in a crisis of leadership. Regardless of circumstances secular or religious, institutions, individuals, and even nation-states worldwide struggle to earmark and support quality persons in positions of leadership. Governments are saddled with corrupt and inept officials. Churches are stewarded either by the obtuse and power-hungry or by avoiders who shrink from responsibility. Presidential candidates in America appear to lack basic skills of moral and personal restraint. While positions of social power already come ready-made with a host of dangers, added to these dangers Lord Acton’s words continue to ring true, that “power tends to corrupt.” The result is that not only are leaders fundamentally un-skilled in leadership, but access to power in their unskilled state magnifies their inadequacies. It is deeply troubling to acknowledge that, more often than not, individuals in effective positions of leadership lack some of the essential characteristics requisite for good leadership.

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I’ve been privileged in my work to spend a good deal of time reflecting on the nature of leadership, and while my reflections are birthed from the world of the Church, I believe they apply in a more global sense as well. So without further ado, here are my four essentials for leadership, paired with four tips for growing in each of these four areas.

1. Knowledge of Self. This is the single most important—and possibly most overlooked—characteristic required from any leader. The individual who knows himself knows his strengths, weaknesses, embodied life (mental and physical), and anxieties. To know your strengths is to know those areas where you can trust in your abilities, it is to possess an accounting of the assets you bring to your position. But knowing strengths means you must also know your weaknesses, to be aware of the limits of your capacities, and to know when to call in assistance. This means acknowledging that other people bring strengths which are different from yours. The individual with self-knowledge will also be aware of the impact of his or her embodied life on the work. The unaware person lives out a kind of unhealthy self-denial—unacknowledged exhaustion, hunger, burnout, depression, illness, and life changes become factors worked out at the expense of the people in the institution. In this, unacknowledged personal liabilities tend to become institutional liabilities. By contrast, the bodily self-aware individual will rest well, exercise well, recover well, exhibit boundaries in work and personal life, and make allowances for sickness and life changes. Finally, the self-aware leader will manage her anxiety well. Anxiety is the extension of worry into situations of personal powerlessness. Consumed with his or her own worries, the anxious person seeks to fix problems or to change people, not for the benefit of the organization, but to relieve his or her personal experience of tension. Feeling anxious about a job review, such a leader will project her anxiety on her coworkers. Anxious in the face of tension, a leader will create tension in his whole staff. For each of these four factors, power given to an individual without self-knowledge is a recipe for the wounding of the organization: He will not know his strengths; she will not know her weaknesses; he will not know how his embodied life shapes his perceptions; she will be unaware of how her anxieties impact the organization. Unaware of self, such an individual will in turn project these weaknesses, anxieties, and bodily changes onto the organization. Blind to the self, such individual naturally conclude that the problems are generated by others.

Hand Mirror

Buy it on Etsy from Storybook Artifact and increase your self-knowledge!

Tip #1: Journaling. Journaling is probably the single greatest tool for growing in self knowledge. So buy a notebook and take a little time each week to reflect back on the week. What were the highlights? What were the low points? What was going on with your body? What did you do well? What did you feel? Don’t make it belabored, but take 15-30 minutes each week to write out some reflections on the past week, and see how your knowledge of self grows in the process.

2. Knowledge of Others. The person who knows only herself and not others is self-absorbed—her capacity to encourage, embolden, and galvanize a group of people will be severely curtailed. Because of this the knowledge of others is a second essential skill in the life any leader. At the most basic level, knowledge of others means possessing an outlook on life that is open to input from other people. Knowledge of self without knowledge of others is a closed system; I take myself as the measure of all things and project my own understanding upon everyone around me. Situations that don’t fit within my own small perception read as incomprehensible to me; I am the measure of all things, and the result is a remarkably small world. By contrast, knowledge of others demands the capacity to read (among other things) the strengths, weaknesses, embodied life, and anxieties of your coworkers, and to take that data in and seek to shape it in a way that strengthens the operation of the organization. Simple data acknowledgement and collection is the rudimentary level of the knowledge of others—the mature leader will strive to empathize with the people he leads. Empathy is an imaginative engagement with the perspectives that others bring to the table—it is the effort a person makes to understand a situation as the other person understands it. Patrick Lencioni in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team observes that people will go along with something, even if it’s something they disagree with, so long as they feel that their concerns have been heard and acknowledged. Only an empathetic leader, robust in his knowledge of others, can truly extend such understanding to the people within his organization.

Walk a Mile Criticize

Tip #2: Read a Novel or a Biography. If you struggle to get into the heads of other people, there’s no better place to practice than in reading a novel or a biography. Novels can provide us with great insight into our own emotional lives by helping us to empathize through the eyes of the novelist. Biographies help us to see how other people have handled other difficult situations and surmounted them. Set aside some time each day to read for 15 minutes. You’ll cover a surprising amount of ground and be greatly enriched in the process!

3. The Capacity to Learn from Your Mistakes. In this leadership essential we come against a widespread cultural misperception—namely, the idea that mistakes are always and in every way unwelcome. Institutions often demand perfection—or at least the illusion of perfection—at every level. But in time such unacknowledged errors become buried and then quietly embedded into the DNA of an organization. Pretense develops and people (especially leaders) who continue as humans to make mistakes labor to present themselves as perfect, and to do this they look to pass the buck of blame on to others. The result is that the lesson most learned is not one of being perfect so much as it is of not getting caught. Additionally, people who make mistakes are also people who are willing to take risks. A mistake-free institution is also likely to be a risk avoiding institution. There is no question that wise and well-functioning institutions work to limit moral and institutional errors, but an institution which ignores the human factor will cripple itself. After all, the most stable and long-lasting growth comes not from unchecked success, but from surmounting obstacles, and to do this institutions require leadership that can make mistakes, own up them, and grow through and by means of them. This is why institutions require individuals who have the capacity to learn from the mistakes they’ve made. For the leader, this is an attitude of humility, a recognition that even at his or her best he may not always be right. This is in turn combined with his knowledge of self and of others, and with these combined tools such a leader will be able to discern the point of error, go back, and correct it accordingly. Furthermore, a leader who can own his or her own mistakes will be better equipped to manage the mistakes of others, helping the institution to grow as a whole.

Sorry Dog

Tip #3: Feedback. Solicit feedback from people working under you about areas where you can improve, or places where you might have made a mistake. Add that feedback to your journal and reflect on the experience, imagining how you can grow through that mistake.

4. Skills Commensurate with Your Field. This is the final essential factor required for leadership, and it should be obvious, but often is not. To lead well in a given field you will require the skills necessary for that employment. To lead as clergy I require, among other things, knowledge of the Scriptures and knowledge of the human heart. To lead as a business owner I require knowledge of the product, the market, and production. To lead in a financial capacity I require understanding of mathematics and administration. No amount of self-knowledge and knowledge of others will surmount the difficulties in leadership if I am fundamentally incompetent in the field in which I am working. Unfortunately, institutions are often not very good at communicating what, precisely, are the skills required for a position of leadership. The best source of information then is to speak to other individuals in similar fields.

Speaker at Business Conference and Presentation.

Tip #4: Pro-D. Want to succeed in your career? Take a class. Read a book. Attend a seminar. Take other similar professionals out to lunch and pick their brains for how they work. Do whatever you can to round out your skill-set. Don’t be afraid to cross-pollinate as well. If you’re in business, read a book on social relationships. If you’re clergy, read a book on science. If you’re in administration, read a book on art. Surprising benefits can come from attention given to sources outside your specific field!

It ought to go without saying that all four essentials are, well, essential. But you don’t have to be active in a position of leadership to begin developing them. So whether you are in a position of leadership, or considering one, I encourage you to begin the process of self-development even now. Your life will be enriched, and very likely the lives of people around you as well.

The Problem with “Leadership Training”

Perhaps the most ambiguous line in my job description is the one that instructs me to “train leaders.” The phrase itself fills me with uncertainty. What is being asked of me here? What does ‘leadership’ mean? What is it that the people who wrote this really desire? How am I going to go about this? Over the past years as I have sought to execute my job and as I have considered the culture of ‘leadership training’ in the church, the more I have come to feel that these two simple words, “train leaders,” are representative of a methodological (and theological) red herring.

What, after all, is being asked of me when I am asked to “train leaders?” The task itself presupposes not only that I sufficiently know what it means to be a leader, but that I also am possessed of such self-awareness and proficiency that I might effectively impart this knowledge to others. In other words, it presupposes that I am an ‘expert leader’ and that I can teach others to lead. But this is by no means a guarantee. My experience of leadership is inextricably linked to my call. Because I am called to be a pastor, I am therefore invariably called to lead people (and, as a corollary, to not lead would be an abdication of my call). In other words, I am not a leader because I have been trained to be a leader or am an expert at leadership; I am a leader because I have been called to be a leader. The idea of ‘training leaders’ seems to imply that I can somehow transmit my call and my task to others. And the task of ‘training leaders,’ seen this way, is impossible. After all, discovering your call is quite a different matter from the modern idea of ‘training people to be leaders.’

And furthermore, what does ‘leadership’ even mean? When we pause and think about it, we discover that ‘leadership’ is itself a highly ambiguous idea. Now, many people might claim that leadership is that set of personality traits and innate skills that, when developed, earmark certain persons for positions of authority. But wait a moment—who determines which qualities and skills belong on this list of leadership traits? How do we even arrive at such an abstract list of qualities?

Actually, I think we come at that list from three sources—but all three are unreliable guides. First of all, we can examine a personal experience of being ‘led;’ that is, we can extrapolate from the experience of being a follower to try and determine what makes a leader. The problem is that this doesn’t account for the occasions of leadership—what if it is leadership of a school project? Wouldn’t that be different than leadership in a military campaign, or leading a museum tour? Our experiences of being led are too occasional to develop a comprehensive theory of leadership. A second way to develop criteria for leadership would be to extrapolate from our experiences of being ‘in charge.’ Assuming that you’ve ‘worn the pants’ on occasion, what can you derive from that experience which can teach you about what it means to be a leader? But what if you were in charge because you were voted into a position that no one else wanted? What if you were in charge because you spoke the loudest? What if you were in charge because you’re a bully? The experience of being ‘in charge’ can, at best, net us only a limited understanding of leadership. Third and finally, we can develop criteria of leadership through the study of the lives of other great leaders and attempt to pattern ourselves after them. This sounds the most promising to begin with, but quickly we shall realize that we are neither as intelligent, bold, nor as brave as those other leaders, and neither do we live in similar circumstances to them. While it may be a useful study, it is also unlikely to reward us with genuine leaders. The problem of ambiguity, in the end, is that leadership is not a monolithic, abstract entity or idea which can be universally applied. Because of this I would suggest that few people have any real concept of what constitutes leadership or what composes the leader’s personality.

This problem of defining leadership goes even deeper, because once you have collected this list of qualities and characteristics which are relevant to ‘leadership’—a list that is, by now, quite vast—how do you reduce this vague, occasional list of personal qualities into a program which trains novices into leaders? The problem, then, is not merely one of defining leadership, but with the logistics of developing a programmatic training scheme to guide people effectively into these preconceived characteristics.

There is another question to ask as well: what is the practical goal of the well-intentioned people who wrote my job description? After all, when they wrote that clause about leadership training they had something specific in mind—that is, they want me to identify and train certain people to fulfill certain roles within the church. But let us be clear about this: the real goal was not to develop a culture of leaders, but to raise up a corps of volunteers. I am not actually being asked to teach people to lead according to an abstract standard of leadership qualities, I am being asked to get others to do the work of the church. And in the end, ‘leadership training’ is often a code word—maybe even advertizing lingo—for marshalling helpers. Because of this, it is also just a little dishonest.

Faced with the problem of leadership, and yet saddled with the onerous task of ‘training’ leaders, I turned to a number of books on the subject of leadership. After all, I must figure out how to accomplish this task. Where better to look than books on leadership? Sadly, few such books have been particularly helpful. But one such book that I recently read helped to crystallize my concerns with the Christian culture of leadership. That book was J. Oswald Sanders’s Spiritual Leadership. It had come highly recommended to me by pastors, youth leaders, and members of the church. It was being used to train leaders, as a guide for small groups, and for private study. Heeding the strong recommendation of my peers, I procured a copy. However, upon completing the book, I found it to be representative of everything that I find wrong with the culture of ‘leadership training.’ A brief assessment of its contents will strengthen my point.

Sanders’s book is a chapter by chapter summary of qualities and characteristics of leadership, drawing form both biblical and secular sources, and quoting liberally and frequently the words of great, historic leaders. The book is not really an argument about leadership, but rather a description of what Sanders considers to be the essential qualities of ‘spiritual’ leadership. But while his book is interesting enough as a documentation of these qualities (perhaps as a kind of encyclopedia of leadership traits), his catena of quotations amounts to a book that is more inspirational than useful.

In the end, Sanders’s book is deeply flawed for two significant reasons. First, the book gives too much information. Not that it is too long (it is only 150 pages), but each chapter is a list of characteristic after characteristic that the leader ought to have. As a result, I suspect that it is almost impossible for a person to remember and learn all these characteristics. In one chapter, “Qualities Essential to Leadership I,” Sanders briefly describes no less than six characteristics (Discipline, Vision, Wisdom, Decision, Courage, and Humility). One could easily pen a book on each characteristic, but Sanders merely touches on each one. The problem is not in the fact that Sanders has written a survey of these characteristics (undoubtedly it is true that ‘spiritual’ leaders possess each of these), the problem is that a leader who is leading is never thinking of these characteristics while leading. Leadership, in short, is unconscious of itself in the moment of leadership. If you’re busy thinking about all of these characteristics in the moment when you ought to be leading, then chances are you’re not leading. And this is but one chapter’s worth—the book goes on an on with these lists and quotations.

Another flaw is that Sanders’s book contains no steps for how to attain these characteristics. The reader is left with an uncomfortable situation: leadership has been described, but no direction has been given to reach it. Now, in the same way that I might describe Chicago for you in all its majesty—Lake Shore Drive, the John Hancock Building, Soldier Field—if I don’t include a road map, my description will be nothing more that nice words. We are left to ask as readers: What must I go through to become such a person? Sanders leaves us without an answer.

But my intention is not to slam Sanders. He is, I am suggesting, symptomatic of the whole problem of leadership training today. And perhaps I would summarize the whole problem by saying that, when we think of ‘training’ people to be leaders, we are thinking of leadership in abstraction. We have examined qualities we believe are characteristic of people who are leaders, then removed those qualities in order to create a kind of syllabus for leadership. Then, when we are looking to appoint people to positions, we examine those persons for specific sets of traits which we believe are necessary to leadership. If they have those traits, we appoint them to positions accordingly. If they lack those traits, we don’t appoint them. To ‘train’ leaders, then, presupposes that one can equip people with these qualities and characteristics at will, and that with the appropriate modifications in place a person will finally, objectively, be ‘fit’ to be a leader.

But leadership never happens in abstraction, always in a context. Leadership, in other words, is always occasional because a leader is always a leader of a particular situation, of a particular group of people, in a particular group of circumstances, and at a particular time. Remove Napoleon Bonaparte from 19th century France, and he might just be a nobody trudging an office job in the city. But place him in front of an army of French Nationalists, and he becomes a powerhouse. Remove Martin Luther from 16th century Germany and he might be no more than an irritable and cranky religious nut. But place him in a German monastery at the height of the abuse of Indulgences, and Luther becomes a spiritual giant. The leadership of individuals cannot be removed from their situations, because leadership is what happens when people with certain qualities find those qualities evoked and put into place by the situations they face. A particular occasion is what it takes to evoke the quality. And when it comes to Christian leadership in particular, the occasion to lead is always prompted by a call.

This process of abstraction poses a further problem, because when leadership is an abstraction it can become an expertise. As we refine our idea of the ideal leader, we begin to look for only a certain kind of person. In the process we may overlook many people who don’t outwardly reveal our standard of leaders, but inwardly only await the right occasion. Furthermore, in thinking of leadership as an abstract expertise, another tragic thing happens: many people conclude that they are unfit for leadership because they are not experts. They look at the criteria of this lengthy job description and remove themselves from consideration. Their sentiment is justifiable, but the effect is devastating, because leaders are never experts, they are only obedient amateurs.

This, in the end, explains why Sanders’s book is useful in describing components of historic leadership but next to useless in creating leaders, because the most important characteristic of leadership is a sustained, plodding, careful, and self-examined obedience. The leader is not a person who possesses abstract qualities, but a person who is obeying God out in front of other people, who through his personal obedience guides others into their own deeper obedience to God. Leadership is not about learning a set of characteristics, memorizing and training yourself to follow them, but about learning to be obedient in any and every situation in your life. And, unlike a list of 200 characteristics of what it means to be a leader, obedience is a thing you can successfully keep in your mind. It is simple, and therefore possible.

To attempt the alternative—that is, to prepare someone to be a leader by attempting to build in that person a preconceived set of personality traits (what most leadership training amounts to)—would be an exercise in casuistry. I cannot train people to be prepared in every contingency by teaching them all the contingencies. Instead, to truly raise people to the potential of leadership (in a given situation), my primary job is to train people to be obedient followers of Jesus. The question is not, “Will you be a leader?” The question is, “Will you be obedient when Jesus calls you?”

How can I do this best? The first and most important thing is that I must strive to be an obedient follower of Jesus myself. I am leading by being obedient out in front of others. And from that God-ordained position, through my example and through my teaching, I must drive people to depend more and more on Jesus—to learn his voice, to know his commands, to obey him. This, in short, is discipleship. And discipleship has little to do with the modern cult of leadership, for it has no expertise and no abstraction, but is summarized by the proximity of a soul to Jesus Christ the risen Lord. No other criteria matters.

What did obedience look like in Takashi Nagai’s life?

There are other helps in the training of souls for this divine obedience, but one of my favorites is the reading of Christian biographies. But here we must avoid a trap: we are not reading to discern the qualities of leadership so we can apply them to our lives. We are not reading to abstract these saints’ lives into a set of qualities of leadership, but rather to discover what particular form Christian obedience took in their lives. We must not ask, “What made Martin Luther a leader?” We must ask, “How was Martin Luther obedient?” We must not ask, “What made Augustine great?” We must ask, “How was Augustine obedient?” We must not ask, “How can I have a mission like William Carey?” We must ask, “How was William Carey obedient?” This guiding question answers the problem of occasion; we will never be truly like them in our circumstances, but we might approach them in our obedience. In the end, it is only when we have taken stock of that obedience that we might be better prepared and encouraged to be obedient when God’s call comes to us.

Leadership Training will always remain an elusive goal as long as leadership is viewed in abstraction and considered an expertise. Instead, it is only when we come to recognize our need for deep, consistent obedience to the call of God that leaders will spring up from our midst—not, perhaps, the people we expect, or the people earmarked for greatness by the standards of the world, but the obedient people. Then we will take note, gazing at their service, “that these men had been with Jesus.” Only when I have done that will I have fulfilled both my job description and my call.

The Problem with (Some) Christian Books: Gibbons’s The Monkey and the Fish

“The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.” ~ Søren Kierkegaard, quoted in The Monkey and the Fish.

It is always the mark of a dispiriting reading experience when the quotes that open a chapter are the best part of the book, and such, unfortunately, is the case with Dave Gibbons’s The Monkey and the Fish: Liquid Leadership for a Third-Culture Church (Zondervan, 2009), a thoroughly forgettable, overly optimistic, disorganized, and altogether vague foray into the subject of Church leadership today.

I stumbled upon Gibbons’s book while browsing a $2 book bin while on a family vacation (for the record, I typically have great success with the $2 bin). Since I am undoubtedly not only in church leadership but indeed cross-cultural church leadership, this seemed like a potentially rewarding read. The back cover offers the promise of a “third-culture way of being the church” and “creative applications that can help any church of any kind anywhere make a difference in the world.” Hey, I’m an American of Puerto Rican heritage working with Vietnamese people in Canada—I’ll take all the help I can get! In other words, I paid my $2 and read the book.

Why care to write a review of a book I found so unmemorable and vague? Because it exhibits a number of what I perceive to be common, unfortunate habits of popular Christian literature. Therefore talking about the book gives me the opportunity to vent my frustrations. And, of course, much like the owner of a roadside diner giving advice on road conditions ahead, a book reviewer should alert a potential reader to the book conditions ahead. Of course you can read it if you like, and maybe you’ll enjoy it. But you can’t say I didn’t warn you if you don’t.

So then, what are these distasteful habits of popular Christian literature that Gibbons’s book exhibits? I’ve picked four to talk about here: Undefined Terms (which I’ll discuss at length), Incomplete Thoughts, Formatting, and what I’ll call “Mystic Appeal.”

Undefined Terms

When I graded papers for professors in seminary, it was a continually astonishing fact that few masters-level students possessed any concept of the thesis. Sure, they could write word counts—words flowed from their computers like water from burst pipes—but the process of stating a claim, then working through an argument, was woefully lacking in the vast majority of essays that I assessed. The simple lesson, so often missed, so easily overlooked, is that when you are writing a work to make sure, at the outset, that you state what you are talking about clearly. This is more essential, perhaps, even than the thesis, because it gets you and your reader both on the same page. It is a matter of defining the terms of your argument. Now Gibbons’s book is based on the invention, or at least unique application, of the term “third-culture.” It is identifying and applying this idea that drives the whole engine of his theory. But the crippling problem is that the very idea of “third-culture” is never adequately defined.

Let’s consider how this plays out. Early in the book (page 21), Gibbons offers his first definition of what it means to be third-culture. He draws first from third culture children, whose parents are one culture (say, American), but have grown up in a different cultural environment (say, in Japan). He writes,

When third-culture kids become adults, they possess a heightened sensibility and intelligence about embracing and bridging cultural differences wherever they go. They’re accomplished ‘culture-nauts,’ so to speak. Throughout their lives, they are able to relate to people of vastly different cultures far more easily than most people can. And because of their deeply ingrained convictions about the inherent richness and value of different cultures, worldviews and perspectives, they seek to expose their own children to the diversity of the world’s people and cultures. They celebrate culture. They treasure it. They respect it.

Now this is all well and good. We are getting the idea that “third-culture” seems to mean a kind of cultural conversance. But the very next sentence throws this off a little:

As we unpack the third-culture way, I think you’ll see how it is at the core of the gospel and who we are called to become.

Now, this is an obvious overstatement: how can any single thing other than the gospel can be at the core of the gospel? We have shifted from one definition of Gibbons’s special term to another within the space of about two heartbeats. But before we have a chance to consider this more carefully, Gibbons is going to illustrate his point with a story about a man named Julio who was mugged but shared the gospel in the process. He asserts, at the end, “that Julio’s response was third culture. It was an embrace of pain and an extension of generosity—learning, loving, and serving all wrapped in one amazing young man.”

Clear definitions mark the life or death of an argument!

From this short example you get the sense—one that increases as the book continues—that the definition of “third-culture” shifts and bends depending on the chapter. Furthermore, what Gibbons means by it in any given situation is apparently equal to what Gibbons likes. And this is one of the tangential byproducts of Christian literature today, because it seems rather common for authors who don’t identify clear terminology to label everything one agrees with as symbolic of your thesis, and everything one disagrees with as opposed to your thesis. The result is books that lack argument, but catalogue the likes and dislikes of the author. What it appears, then, that Gibbons is doing is merely exchanging the word “gospel” for his term “third-culture.” If that is the case, then the story about Julio’s mugging/evangelism is a nice example of the gospel. But as it stands, loose definitions run the dangerous risk of rendering all terminology meaningless. Why invent new words if their invention only obscures the use of our already preexistent and perfectly good ones?

Writing that operates with badly or undefined is frequently an unwieldy mess. Consider this alternate explanation of the meaning of third culture from page 37 (for the record, Gibbons presents a variety of definitions, but with each one I found myself increasingly confused):

When I use the term third-culture church, I’m referring to a beautiful yet sobering reality: whether we’re in Manhattan or Beijing or Sao Paolo, our credibility and the veracity of our initiatives will be measured by our third-culture lifestyles—hence the need to understand the third-culture mandate in light of the purposes of the church prioritized by Jesus himself when he was queried about the greatest commandment.

Now, first off, this is a monstrous sentence: it is terminological, vague, and drifting. Second, it exhibits the unfortunate tendency to make an argument by repetition rather than definition: the words “third-culture” occur three times within it, but I still have no idea what he means, only that Gibbons thinks it’s important. Third, this sentence has all the appurtenances of importance, but I can’t seem to determine if it actually says anything of substance. What is it that I’m supposed to do? What’s beautiful about it and what’s sobering? How am I being judged by my third-cultured-ness? What is this mandate and how, if it is at the core of the gospel, is it to be understood “in light of the purposes of the church”? If it is at the core of the gospel then isn’t it already the purpose of the church?

But perhaps Gibbons has an answer for me already, because a few pages later he says (page 40), that,

Third culture is about adaptation, the both/and, not the either/or, mindset. It doesn’t eradicate color or lines but embraces and affirms who we are, regardless of differences in ethnicity, culture, or mindset. Third culture is the gift of being more cognizant of and more comfortable with the painful fusion and friction inherent in cultural intersections.

Well now, here we have yet another definition of third-culture, one that, in its affirmation of both/and and rejection of either/or, seems to imply that my desire for clarity is itself a defect. After all, I’d understand if I were more third culture! Perhaps the problem is that I merely lack the cultural cognizance to appreciate Gibbons’s argument.

For the record, I want to state that I don’t think Gibbons is necessarily wrong about what he intends to write (and he does say a few memorable things in the book). The problem is that how he has written it has gotten horribly in the way of whatever it was he was hoping to say, and to observe that a lack of definitions make for crippling reading. In the end, if you are going to write a book about a new idea for church leadership, you had better make sure you’ve adequately and clearly defined your term by the end of the first chapter.

Incomplete Thoughts

A second issue common to Christian literature is Incomplete Thoughts. Authors regularly make side points that require development, hint at stories left unfinished, and on the whole leave the reader hanging in anticipation of resolutions that never arrive. The author thus creates gaps in the reader’s mind, but rather than filling them (as good prose does), chooses instead (in my estimation out of neglect) to either go off in a different direction or end the chapter entirely. It is a profoundly dissatisfying experience.

In one place (page 102) Gibbons describes the life changing experience of meeting and ministering to a homeless woman, and how it changed his perception on the role of teaching versus action. A statement like this sprouts questions like crocus in the spring: What happened? How were you changed? But while he talks about meeting the homeless woman in abstraction, we never actually hear about the meeting, what happened, or what, particularly, Gibbons learned in the process. The omission is startling. (It is worth observing, actually, that in this episode Gibbons makes the point of praising action over teaching. This attitude is symptomatic of a further problem: if you neglect the ministry of teaching you become incoherent as a teacher. Hence, Gibbons succeeds here in naming a situation without explaining its lesson at all. It’s a kind of un-teaching—words without content.)

In another place (page 43) Gibbons asks, rhetorically, how one of his leaders, a man named Cue, whose background is unlike that of Newsong Church, ended up in such a radically different atmosphere,

The answer to all these questions finds it home in Cue’s pain. Cue epitomizes a new breed of leader, a leader who leads from what I call the pain principle. This is one of several attributes that mark a third-culture leader and a third-culture church. The pain principle grows out of two axioms: (1) For leaders, pain in life has a way of deconstructing us to our most genuine, humble, authentic selves. It’s part of the leader’s job description. (2) For most people, regardless of culture, it’s easier to connect with a leader’s pain and shortcomings and mistakes than her successes and triumphs.

The first question that popped into my mind when I read this was, “Wait a minute, there’s a pain principle?!” Do you mean to say that in the middle of (inadequately) describing what it means to be “third-culture” Gibbons just introduced a new term—one that he will equally fail to explain in full? Indeed yes, and this is the kind of rabbit-trail prose that frustrates me in Christian literature: terms without definition, ideas without flesh.

And yet more, even, than the sudden arrival of new principles, a paragraph like this begs questions: How does Cue use his pain? How has Cue been “deconstructed to his most genuine”? And how does he then take this pain and apply it to Newsong Church? But there’s nothing about this, and I am left turning pages looking for answers. Here the omission is especially startling because points (1) and (2) are interesting and worth thinking about—how Cue does these things seems extraordinarily relevant! But as it stands, without explanation they’re just nice words; an example that is named, but void of content. As if I were writing a book about the right way to eat pizza and cited as evidence my friend Peter (an expert in eating pizza!), but never described Peter’s method at all. It is wholly dissatisfying.

Formatting

The formatting of Christian books is one of the criminal travesties of our time. And one of the prime examples of this criminal activity, exhibited by Gibbons’s book, is the use of lists. Now, a good list is a great thing, powerful, rewarding, and pungent in its effect. But it is profoundly dispiriting to discover that an author has formatted sections of text that are pure lists, characterized by things that are,

– Banal

– Insubstantive

– Containing one entry that doesn’t quite fit with the rest

– Repetitive

– Short

Nevertheless, the list gives off the appearance of significance because, of course, it’s in a list. It is a way of disguising the lack of argument through formatting, as if re-clothing a book could change its substance.

O Authors, lists do not an argument make! For the most part, they merely show us that you have copied your notes into your book without taking the time and effort to turn it into prose. It is lazy writing. Stop it!

Mystic Appeal

My last complaint about Gibbons’s book (and Christian literature in general) is what I’ve called “Mystic Appeal.” It is the allure of the different, usually the ‘eastern,’ as a challenge to the way we’ve done things in the west. Gibbons’s book opens with (and its title is drawn from) an “Eastern Parable” about a Monkey and a Fish. There is obvious appeal here. We’re getting an ‘eastern’ viewpoint (Gibbons, incidentally, is half Korean) which carries with it the allure of alternate ideas.

Definitely a sage man.

From within this framework, the chapter titles sound even more significant—titles like “Liquid,” “Wardrobe,” “Liquid Bruce Lee,” “Three Questions that Become the Answers.” (Is it too much to suggest that we should imagine Mr. Miyagi reading these titles to us? They certainly sound significant in his voice…) ‘Western’ people (that is, North Americans) seem to have a mystic (and often uncritical) appreciation for eastern ideas, and this is rooted both in the inherent challenge that different ideas bring to our way of doing things, and a good dose of WASP guilt over how the church has been run for the past, oh, 20 centuries.

For example, a chart (indeed, one of those rhetorically formatted ‘lists’) on page 105 contrasts bad and crusty ‘western’ ways of doing things with fluid and adaptive ‘eastern’ ways. It is worth stating, to set the record straight, that this contrast is optimistic at best. I, a westerner, work for an eastern (that is, Asian) church. I want you to know that the cultural practices are equally crusty and firm in the east as they are in the west, and change is equally hard because of it. It is a lie to believe that people of an eastern disposition are more malleable. While they often have a different way of doing things, they are just as committed to their traditions as so-called ‘western’ people are, if not more so.

Therefore, Christian author and Christian reader, be not deceived by the allure of the east—take what is good, of course, but do not consider what is different to be necessarily what is best. It might in the end be merely different.

Final Thoughts

Undefined terms, incomplete thoughts, formatting, and mystic appeal, Gibbons’s book was replete with these issues. By the end, despite my hopes, I was reading to finish the book more than I was to enjoy it. I had gotten all I was going to get out of it (slightly less, perhaps, than the $2 I paid for it), and had found myself, at the end, as irritated with this type of book as I was with its content. That content was not really a new philosophy of ministry, just Dave Gibbons’s hodgepodge opinion on what he likes to do with ministry; not a thesis, just a collection of disorganized thoughts, gathered under the ubiquitous heading, “third-culture.”

So, if you have read this to the end, and if you are ever hoping to write a Christian book of your own, please remember, not only for my sake but for the sake of all those readers you hope to reach, to please, please, define your terms, finish your thoughts, make arguments without relying on shenanigans in formatting, and remember that God’s truth is God’s truth, whether you are in the East, the West, the North or the South, and that no cultural information, however interesting or alluring, is a substitute for the Word of God.

Marshall Frady’s Martin Luther King Jr.: A Life

Portraiture, as an art form, seeks to encapsulate the character, rather than merely the likeness, of the subject in question. For some subjects this is more difficult than others—in some cases the public charisma of the individual hangs like a cloud between the artist and the subject. In other cases, the subject shiftingly squirms in the chair. Such a subject, on both counts, is Martin Luther King Jr., but Marshall Frady presses through these difficulties in his admirable 2005 biography of King, succeeding in painting a difficult, compelling, literary portrait of one of the best recognized figures of the 20th century.

King’s likeness is difficult to capture for both of the above reasons. In the first place, King has been elevated to the level of a cultural icon; he has been sanctified by culture, and now the clouds of devotional incense that mark his sanctification obscure the original man. Nothing, after all, serves to cover a man’s faults quite like his becoming a hero. Consequentially, his iconic face has been largely ripped from its historical moorings. As a cultural symbol King’s face now represents ‘hope’ in much the same fashion that Che Guevara’s represents ‘freedom’—both faces divorced from the men who lived behind them; both figures elevated to supra-human stature; both figures become masks that movements wear to ascribe to themselves meaning and significance, the original personalities remaining only in silhouette. Such stature, and the hopes and dreams that are attached to the man, cast an obscuring veil between him and his memory.

But the second reason why King’s likeness is difficult to capture is because the man himself, without any help from history or the culture that followed him, wore obscuring masks of his own making throughout his life. King’s public image was of a minister of the gospel, a moral figurehead, a family man, and a brilliant thinker and rhetorician. But King’s private life was vastly different—we discover, through Frady, concerns about King’s ministerial call; was it genuine, or merely inherited from his father? We discover that he drank and swore in private, committed serial infidelity, and even plagiarized portions of his dissertation. This duality in King’s life is so severe that one comes to feel that even his famed and exalted rhetoric was itself a veil obscuring the man. In the end, we discover that King’s public face was a projection of what he wanted us to see, an edited persona for public consumption. And these twin factors—King’s elevated status and his own self-editing—make the innerworkings of King’s heart almost inscrutable.

Nevertheless, Frady navigates these difficulties with skill, and succeeds in giving us a picture of a man who was both great and terrible; who led a nation through a time of crisis, and whose private life was a shambles. And yet the most rewarding outcome, perhaps, from reading Frady’s account was the manner in which the arc of King’s life becomes instructive, as a negative example, for any life of leadership, and especially of leadership in the Church. From that life I want to make the two following observations.

1) As a minister, your life is rhetoric. The simple principle here is that if your character does not accord with the content of your message, then your message is invalidated. One does not lead by position alone, but chiefly by example. King, while he was living, was mostly able to hide his indiscretions and infidelities, and yet discovery of these things would have meant the discrediting not, primarily, of King, but rather of the Civil Rights Movement itself. As a leader, King’s life was rhetoric. And so the discovery that the great preacher drank and swore in private, that he slept around and liked to talk about it with his inner circle, that discovery revealed would have been deadly to the man’s image and his goals, not to mention the people he represented. As it stood, King lived in genuine fear of these discoveries—FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (out of pure malice, I should add) spied upon and threatened both King and his family with the information he had gathered. The result for King was added fear—not only did he have enemies who hated him for his work in the Civil Rights Movement, but he needed also to fear the enemy of the double-life that he had created himself. This fear, sadly, was not enough to motivate King to change his ways.

The tensions and stresses of life as a minister/leader are manifold, and one of the key ways to manage these stresses is to commit oneself to a life that is harmonious—consonant between outer and inner personae. Such a life is not subject to the consequent fear of self, and as a result is better able to manage the stresses of the work of ministry.

2) Power does not create, but rather magnifies, temptation. This is also a simple, but often overlooked principle. You cannot wait until you are in a position of power to deal with the temptations in your life, because the position will only magnify your preexistent temptations. James 1:13-15 says that no one should lay temptation at the feet of God, but rather recognize that it is our own evil desire within us that is enflamed and leads us toward death. Temptations, then, are like fault lines in the human soul—they are there, and when the stresses increase we discover that we are tempted along those deeply embedded fractures in our personalities. The stress fractures are small enough when we are not leading, but become great rifts as we are drawn into the pressure of public life.

King was subject to the trebly intense pressures of leadership, public expectations, and the figurehead-ism that accompanied the civil rights movement. Additionally, he was under the added pressure of his own hidden life. It is also clear that King mismanaged the elation of success—the powerful, drug-like euphoria that accompanies public successes and adulation. Hence, as the pressure in King’s life increased, his recourse to sinful activities also increased, such that on the night before his assassination, after a successful evening meeting, he embarked on what Frady calls “a final, all-night release into carnal carousal,” directing the energy of success into sleeping with two, and possibly a third, of his mistresses consecutively until dawn (203).

There is an urge to lay these temptations, and King’s submission to them, at the feet of the pressures he was under, and yet no one is to blame for how King acted other than King. He himself had managed his inner life poorly. He himself had surrounded himself with people who accommodated, rather than challenged, his private choices. And the lesson for ministers and leaders today remains the same: if you do not learn to manage the small temptations, you will certainly be unable to manage them when the pressure of being a public figure mounts. And furthermore, if you do not establish channels of accountability in your life, no one will help to keep you accountable.

King’s life leaves us with a troubling rumination—is the so-called ‘great life’ that flashes on our television screens of real lasting value when the actual man, the private individual, is so inwardly tortured and personally destructive? There may never be a satisfactory answer, and yet, as it stands, King’s life is like the buoy that alerts a sailor to a hidden reef, a flashing light to the danger that lies below the surface of ministry, and especially of ministry with power.