“Pain removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul.” – C.S. Lewis in the Problem of Pain
Here’s a dirty little secret: we leaders need to be needed. Within the context of spiritual leadership, this is particularly grueling as we have expectations that the lives, minds, hearts and words of these kinds of leaders are sacred just like the deity they represent. Many leaders are infected with the false idea that we can ‘fix’ ourselves if we just get involved in the work of ‘fixing’ everyone else. Sometimes, spiritual leadership at it’s root, is a masked attempt to live out an addiction to a need to be needed. You have a broken leader who is sent to lead a broken people with broken motives and broken expectations. This is a recipe for disaster. In the words of Charlie Brown: Good Grief!
This is not how we start out however. At the beginnig there is the desire for glory, the lofty ideals of changing the world and standing up in a world gone awry. We answer the call, we throw our stick in the fire at summer camp, we walk the aisle after an emotional plea from the stage. At some point our heart-strings are tugged and we see the light. It’s difficult to exactly locate the timing, I think it is between the 3rd verse, the key change and the bridge, right before the crescendo of the 4th verse. This is at least somewhat what it felt like for me, but when the song and service were completed, I was alone with my new lifeling commitment. I missed the part where someone told me that answering this call to this kind of lifelong leadership would lead me down a horroring path of loneliness, alienation, ridicule, dissertion, hardship, loss, suffering and soul pain. As a leader, there are many days and nights of mourning. Grief is a killer.
Leadership of most any kind can lead you to a place of utter isolation. This is where Shelley Trebesch’s book “Isolation: A place of transformation in the life of a leader” comes in. Shelley describes these places of isolation in terms of desert or wilderness experiences. They are unwanted, unplanned and avoided if at all possible. Her thesis is that we don’t try just to survive, endure or get past these times, but to begin to see them as the very transformational experiences that may be preparing us for another journey. Within the crucible of pain, grief and isolation, we can learn and grow in powerful and transformational ways that only suffering can do. We shouldn’t try and ‘avoid’ these times, but we should embrace them as a kind of ‘good grief’. The crucible of pain reveals the shallowness of our previously held goals and expectations and God desires to deepen our life into more of what the truth really is about ourselves and our world. In this way, the truth very much does hurt. However, it is also only the truth that sets us free.
Trebesch is speaking directly to the broken leader I found myself to be in my first semester at seminary as an outwardly successful rising star in evangelicalism, but internally a disallusioned, exhausted and lost wreck of a human being. I’ll never forget the chapel speaker Viv Grigg, a New Zealander, who was begging us American hotshots to come and walk amongst the poor with him in Calcutta. I thought his plea was quite odd, but then he said it. He said he had only one question for us aspiring young leaders in America, “Who told you to be successful?” And then he sat down. In one interogatory sentence, he undressed my entire worldview, personhood and personal identity. I couldn’t move, I found myself at 26 outwardly successful, but inwardly undone. This ushered in a 5-10 year isolated desert experience of learning for me. I had to go completely back to the drawing board and ask the fundamental questions of who I was, why I was here and what did I want to do. Some days were excruciating and painful, other days were more of a kind of “good grief“, much like a sabbatical. The wilderness was a complete transformation.
Trebesch describes this kind of isolation experience well this way:
“Instead of finding identity in the ministry or in what one does, transformed leaders find identity by looking at the Artist, by looking toward the Author. Having experienced the stripping and wrestling that reveals who God has created them to be, broken leaders can now embrace their true identity wholeheartedly and enter ministry knowing their giftedness as well as ther weakness. Thus, when the pressure comes to perform or be someone they are not, leaders can return to the roots of who God has created them to be.” (50-51)
We need not seek to avoid these times, we can embrace them. We don’t like grief, it’s painful, but in the hands of the One who made us, there is such a thing as ‘good grief’. We can find Hope even in the most grievous of times and circumstances. In utter darkness, light can yet shine through. I love these words from Henri Nouwen:
“Hope is not dependent on peace in the land, justice in the world, and success in the business. Hope is willing to leave unanswered questions unanswered and unknown futures unknown. Hope makes you see God’s guiding hand not only in the gentle and pleasant moments but also in the shadows of disappointment and darkness.” (60) Turn My Mourning To Dancing
Good grief is when a leader can embrace a time of mourning with the hope that transformation is good for their very soul and the souls of the ones they serve. I’m still learning.