The term “success” may only have secular connotations in the minds of most Christians, but we cannot deny that every one of us has some concept of success. Success, in itself, is not a bad thing; it is man’s skewed concept of success that causes problems. I do not, in any way, exempt Christians from this generalization, nor do I exempt myself from it. During my short time in missions, one of the most difficult, yet rewarding and growing experiences I have had is the realization of the conflict between my concept of success and God’s.
During my relatively young life, I have been in many stage performances. I have acted in plays, performed in classical musical settings and engaged in public speaking overseas. But I can say with full confidence that I have never before been so thoroughly observed by critics as I currently am. Never in any stage performance have I felt such caution as I do now that I am a leader in YWAM Montana’s School of Biblical Studies (SBS). I do not hesitate in the least to compare my job to a performance. If I have learned anything about leadership, it is that there is most definitely an element of performance to it. In no way do I mean to imply that one must be artificial. A leader’s performance must be genuine. Genuineness, however, is part of why leadership can be so difficult.
Many times I have heard the statement, “Everything you do teaches.” In other words, a teacher can say a number of things that are good and true, but what really matters to people is the goodness and trueness of his or her actions. As an SBS staff, I give a 2-3 hour Bible teaching in front of my students about six times a year. A teaching responsibility presents a challenge in itself, but it is not the 24 hours a year of prepared lectures that I am referring to when I speak of a stage performance. It is, however, the 45 or more hours a week of contact with others that is closely observed and carefully critiqued by an interactive audience. Personal interaction is what truly displays the quality of one’s life to those who are watching. This is the “performance” I am referring to. In my opinion, leaders in a Christian circle are always on some form of a stage, and it can be very tempting to make that stage as comfortable as possible by attempting to remove any sign of imperfection. What I mean is this: I don’t want those who look to me as their leader to see my imperfections. I don’t want them to have any chance to criticize me because, in my mind, revealed imperfection equates to failure. I fear that if someone who looks up to me sees my imperfection – if they see that I struggle – they will no longer respect me as their leader.
If revealed imperfection equates to failure, then success must equate to efficiency in concealing my imperfections. In other words, I will make an effort to hide my imperfections because, if I don’t, people (namely, my students) will not love and respect me. If they see the side of me that struggles as they do, they will no longer look to me as someone who can walk alongside them in their struggle.
Having brought into light what seems to be a complete and utter failure of perspective, I must acknowledge that my outlook is quite different when I consider those who I see as my leaders. If a leader were to be open and honest with me about his or her shortcomings (appropriately, of course), I would walk away having even more respect for them. For instance, if a person were to be honest about their sexual struggle with their leader, they would have most likely assumed beforehand that he would be able to relate with his protégé in some form. If a leader implicitly communicates to his protégé that he has had no real sexual struggle in the past, he would have much more difficulty walking alongside the person within their struggle. I want my leaders to be open and honest with me.
There is clearly a dichotomy between what I expect of myself and what I expect of others. Why do I have such a mindset? My most practical conclusion is that I struggle with social fear. About a year ago, I read a book by Donald Miller titled Scary Close. My biggest takeaway from this book was the truth of the nature of vulnerability. Miller explains the relationship between being known and being loved. It is impossible for someone to love us if they do not know us deeply. Our hearts have an understanding of this concept, but our hearts also understand that it is not impossible for someone to know us without loving us. Therefore, being deeply known by others is one of our greatest fears. At the same time, one of our strongest desires is being loved by people, which is only possible if we allow ourselves to be known by them.
We as the church find ourselves faced with an almost romantic challenge: In order to achieve what we truly desire (love), we must overcome what we truly fear (exposure). How does this pertain to success? If, in God’s eyes, success were the immediate transformation of a person to a flawless state that will be seen by others who will then strive to be flawless with that same immediacy, the Gospel would also have been communicating the same message for the past two thousand years. But the Gospel has never communicated that message. According to the Bible, the weaknesses of man now testify to his desperate need for God (2 Cor. 12:9). I strongly believe that God does not at all want His children to be seen as void of weakness. At the same time, we must not accept our weakness and assume that we are being conformed to the image of Christ if we choose to be complacent regarding our shortcomings. A person with a drinking problem will continue to have a drinking problem if their acceptance is not followed by effort. Our shortcomings must be acknowledged out of a desire to change, not a desire to remain the same. Man’s weaknesses should communicate the fact that God alone is good. In reality, man has never hid his weakness out of a desire to give God glory. Man hides his weakness out of a desire to glorify himself. But It is not man’s self-image that must be preserved; it is God’s. Man is successful when he gives glory to God, when he is honest about his weakness, for his weakness boasts of God’s goodness and trueness.
I can be a very vulnerable person, but the motive behind my vulnerability is not always genuine. I have chosen to be vulnerable in order to be known and accepted by others. I have also chosen to be concealing so that I could avoid being known and rejected by others. As I walk into my second year of staffing the SBS, I intend to be vulnerable for the purpose of glorifying God rather than being accepted. This will entail trust in God more than anything. In choosing to be vulnerable, I need to trust that I have properly conveyed my need for God. I don’t want my students to think for one minute that I don’t need Christ just as much and just as often as they do. Vulnerability gives God a chance to use other people to bring redemption to our lives. He speaks truth to and through His children. Life will always consist of stages and performances. May we see these as opportunities to show our critics just how good and true God is.