[Adapted from Sunday’s message at The District Church.]
Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck writes in his book The Road Less Traveled that one of the stages of growing up is “giving up the distorted images of one’s parents,” in other words, realizing that they’re not perfect. This also holds true for other leaders in our lives—we learn that our political leaders, our youth group leaders, our mentors, our teachers aren’t perfect. This isn’t always a bad thing, because sometimes we feel like our leaders let us down but it’s actually because we had unrealistic expectations of them—such as being perfect, such as never making mistakes, such as not doing everything you want them to do.
(Pretty much nobody I know does everything I want them to do. That doesn’t make them failures; that makes me have to examine what kind of expectations I’m putting on them!)
So I’m not talking about that kind of let-down. I’m talking about those situations we’ve all experienced where we’ve been let down by some kind of failure on the leader’s part: just this week, Pastor David Yonggi Cho, the founder of one of the largest churches in the world—750,000 people, and he’d been pastor there for almost five decades—was found guilty of embezzling almost $12 million; I’m talking about that kind of let down. I’m talking about:
- a father who wasn’t present—physically or emotionally,
- a pastor who had an affair,
- a youth leader who ended up turning away from God.
Those are the ones that are most devastating, right? But it doesn’t even have to be that dramatic: a small group leader who wasn’t present when you were going through something, a supervisor or boss at work who doesn’t listen or seem to care.
Everyone can relate to the feelings of hurt that come with being let down by a leader, the damage it can cause to our trust in people, the effects of unease or fear of commitment that maybe still linger to this day as a result. Our experiences of leaders letting us down will impact us for the rest of our lives. The question is whether we allow them to help us grow or to hold us back, whether we allow God to work and twist and weave them into something beautiful or whether we simply try to ignore them, which can lead them to turn into resentment and bitterness and mistrust, which will in themselves keep us from living full and wholehearted lives. And who doesn’t want to live a full and wholehearted life? That’s what God wants for us, after all. Jesus said, “I have come that they might have life to the full.”
It’s real important for us, as we go about the work of restoration and rebuilding, as we invest in our neighborhoods and hopefully see them change for the better, to address this question of what happens when leaders let you down—both on a personal/individual level and on a communal/systemic level. If we don’t learn how to deal with being let down, we’ll end up getting increasingly cynical and jaded and disconnected, and we’ll burn out and check out and get out, and nothing will ever change except that we’ll have scars that we try to hide or we don’t want to talk about but that make us wince every time we move. Or worse, we’ll end up hurting the people we end up leading in the same ways we were hurt by those who led us.
The people of Israel knew what a crisis of leadership looked like; the prophet Ezekiel wrote:
34:2 Woe to you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4 You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.
The people of Israel knew what it meant to have shepherds who did not care for them, to have leaders who let them down. And we do too, right? It’s pretty easy for us to think of folks who clothed themselves and fed themselves and built themselves up on the backs of the people they were charged with leading; we can think of leaders who dominated rather than cultivated, who wounded instead of healed, who abused instead of cared for, who neglected their responsibilities. We could all share stories of how we’ve been let down, of the wounds we still carry.
- Your pastor was power-hungry and dominated others; that’s why it’s a wonder you’re even part of a church now—when pastors ought to be some of the most trusted people.
- Your father—that most primary of relationships—was abusive or maybe wasn’t even present at all, and that’s carried over into your relationship with God; trying to see God as Father doesn’t conjure up good feelings at all, when it should be the most natural idea in the world—Abba, the word Jesus used for God, is one of the first words a Jewish child learns to say.
- Maybe something happened to you as a child that you blame God for, that you see as a failure on God’s part, and so you’ve been shaking your fists at heaven all your life, instead of knowing the comfort of a God who wants you to live life with him.
In John 10, Jesus said:
11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
14 I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.
Right before this passage is that line in John 10:10 that I referenced earlier, where Jesus says, “I have come that they might have life and have it to the full.”
One of the things that marks us as Christians is that we acknowledge Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Lord = the one who leads us. The one we follow. The one to whom we submit ourselves and our lives. The one who will take our broken hearts and heal them, who will cradle our wounded souls in his hands and nurture them back to health, who will take our tattered, ratty, dirty pasts, our shame and our sorrow, and somehow make something beautiful out of them. The one who will never let us down.
Three parting words:
1. While we don’t always get to choose the leaders in our lives—our bosses, our parents, our older siblings—where you do have some control, seek those who are Jesus-centered, humble, and willing to apologize. Throughout my life, I’ve been blessed with mentoring relationships and accountability relationships with people I know are human, with people I know will mess up, but ultimately the goal is not perfection but faithfulness, and I know they will encourage me and keep me accountable in my walk with Christ. One of the most impactful moments of the last few months was when my dad apologized to me for not responding well during a conversation we were having. My dad is one of the wisest, most gracious, most humble, most Christ-centered people I know, and to read his words—“I knew my heart was not right, and I am sorry”—meant the world to me.
2. Seek to be those who are Jesus-centered, humble, and willing to apologize. Jesus is the framework not just for what a good shepherd looks like, what a good leader looks like, but for what a good human being looks like. This is not only the life we are called to, like it’s some kind of duty, but the life we were made for: a life of vulnerability and courage, a life of love and faith and hope and joy, a life partnering with God in his great story. Don’t miss out.
3. Ultimately, this is about Christ. Put your hope in Jesus. Human leaders will disappoint: politicians will turn out not to be who they claimed to be; parents will lose their temper, fathers will be absent, mothers will enable; bosses will try to build themselves up at your expense; small group leaders will be unfortunately oblivious, pastors will let you down. Christ will not. Trust in him as Lord, as your leader, to walk with you in whatever you’re going through, to lead you through this journey of life. Trust in him as your healer, to bind up the wounds, to soothe the scars, to heal the trauma. Trust in him as your restorer, the one who sought the lost and never gave up on the wandering. Put your hope in Christ, the good shepherd, the coming king, the leader who will never let you down.