Theology & Church

Hero-worship & our need of humility

Many in the Church have been rocked by the confirmations of serious and sustained sexual abuse which have emerged from the investigation into the Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias. An independent report laid bare decades of his coercive and abusive behaviour which have caused untold damage to victims. 

There have been similar reactions to the disclosures of the abusive behaviour of the Evangelical Church of England minister, Jonathan Fletcher. His coercion of others into naked massages, beatings and other humiliations have left a trail of trauma. The report from the investigation is yet to be published.

The suffering that these men inflicted on their victims and survivors is appalling and tragic. I don’t want to rake over the details which have been well documented elsewhere, but I want to focus on two connected problems which run deep within the Church: hero-worship and the inability to hold leaders properly accountable.

Elevating individuals

Despite the humility of Jesus, the Church has developed cultures which mean we are incredibly susceptible to elevating leaders into ‘heroes’.

Part of the problem is our insatiable need to be inspired. A vast business has developed to respond to this need: the books, talks, videos, podcasts and tours of individual ‘celebrity Christians’ are promoted and sold on an industrial scale. 

Veneration

As well as the obvious examples in Pentecostal and Evangelical cultures, there is a more institutionalised and hierarchical version in the veneration and pomp which surrounds Bishops, Cathedral Deans and Archbishops. In what other realms of life do leaders wear such ridiculously ornate robes and hats as a mark of their status?

Tragically, the Church often has a culture where people crave recognition and status more than the secular culture around us. The incongruity is stark because the Church exists to help people follow someone who showed a completely different example.

Institutionalised pride 

These forms of pride are not just a matter of personal behaviour. Cravings for status may be incubated in the heart of an individual but these problems then become embedded in organisational culture and practice.

This is why the strong governance which insists on proper accountability are a key lesson from these scandals. The extent and type of behaviour that Zacharias and Fletcher indulged in may be rare, but poor accountability within churches and Christian organisations is extremely common.

Too often, church leaders receive scant feedback and many are almost completely unaccountable for how they spend their time. Too few churches have any effective arrangement to give thorough and honest appraisal to influence its leader’s behaviour. This does no one any favours.

Accountability

When I was Chief Executive of a Christian charity, I had an appraisal led by 3 trustees every year.  This included 360 feedback from managers and also some key people external to the organisation. Sometimes this feedback could be painful to hear, but ultimately it led to a far more honest and truthful appraisal of my work. 

And, what would you know? It turned out I was good at some things and not so good at others. Going through this process made me feel more secure because it reflected reality. The difficult issues were not hidden but were brought into the light. Again, I learnt the truth that if we prepared to hear it, reality is liberating

There is no reason why all churches and Christian organisations could not adopt a similar process. Sadly, I am not optimistic that many will.  But if Zacharias and Fletcher had made themselves properly accountable to such a process years ago, perhaps it could have helped manage their behaviour?

Specific actions

Humility is not primarily about people being modest or self-effacing. Rather than a state of mind, it is more about making a choice to be accountable, honest and open. When these values are embedded in the culture and practices of organisations, it helps safeguard the vulnerable.

These would be my suggestions for discussion:

1. No Christian organisation should be named after someone who is still alive.  It’s both poor theology and naïve management to invest the whole identity of an organisation on the name of one person. The wreckage of the Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) should stand as a lasting warning against this error. This goes for the name of blogs too: it’s better to chose a name which relates to your content than one which promotes your identity.

2. Preachers must remain practitioners. Preaching and teaching should always remain rooted in pastoral work: what is said on platforms needs to connect to what is done on the pavement. For the same reason, Christian speakers or authors should always remain part of local churches: they need the grounding and authenticity of community. 

3. All leaders need proper accountability. However large or small the ministry is, no leader should be in a context where they are not properly accountable about how they behave, use their time and the organisation’s resources. No-one is strong enough to be unaccountable and everyone’s work should be regularly and honestly appraised. When leaders get defensive or evasive, it shows the need for this even more.

Grace and truth in leadership

Avoiding the tragedy of abuse and its terrible effect on the vulnerable is about the application of good theology. We all mess up, we all get things wrong, we are all weak. We all need God’s grace.

But it is a dangerous and cheapened form of grace which elevates leaders, places them on pedestals and justifies havens of unaccountability. Authentic grace can never be used to avoid truth.

Rather, true grace provides the resources which enables truthfulness, transparency and a confident form of humility.  As ever, Jesus is our example. As the old hymn puts it:

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride

Related post: Our Addiction to Self-Promotion

13 thoughts on “Hero-worship & our need of humility”

  1. So thought-provoking and challenging, Jon. I love the way you effortlessly integrate the gospel and good leadership practice. Though short, this has some outstanding advice. Thanks again!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Huw for your encouragement. Just to say though I don’t find the integration ‘effortless’! Actually I find thinking these through quite difficult and have to grapple a lot to make sense of things! Take care, Jon

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Good article on a hugely important area. But you miss the point of robing and vestments in worship, a subject in itself. And Very ironic that the two men in question were not in the uniform of accountability in those photos!

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    1. Thanks David for reading and commenting. I know that robes and vestments can be argued for as a way of reducing the ‘human nature’ of the priests and emphasising their priestly role. This may work if the presentation was humble but it is undermined by mitres and the incredibly OTT ornate cloaks and stolls etc which look to everyone like bizarre fancy dress. Obviously both Zacharias and Fletcher neither operated within traditions who valued robes and vestments – do you think these elements would have increased their accountability?!

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  3. Many/all Church of England dioceses have 360 degree appraisal for clergy (including Bishops) and key lay staff. How far that addresses the issues you raise may perhaps be open to question. I suspect there may be two issues here (1) accountability of those in church ministry (2) the elevation of certain people as being “beyond reproach” which opens the door for undetected abuse. The latter I think has two sides to it (a) the way that those ‘in authority’ elevate themselves and allow themselves to be elevated and (b) the way human beings project their desires and insecurities onto others. If we were all less insecure – and more aware of our ‘belovedness’ as God’s children- that might go a long way to help. There is something here I suspect about theology and how far church life really helps people to embrace “fullness of life”. As always thought-provoking. Thank you

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    1. Thanks Mark for reading and your comment. I have to say that in my circles of C of E clergy friends and family the feedback around frequency and quality of appraisals is not very encouraging. Few seem to happen and when they do they do not really get under the skin of any real issues regarding ministry or mission. Also, clergy rarely seem to have the opportunity to feedback on the Archdeacon or Bishop they work with. But that’s just my contacts so it may be different more widely.

      I think your breakdown of the issues is spot on. Sometimes leaders ‘seize elevation’ and sometimes they have ‘elevation thrust upon them’ by people’s projection and need to put leaders on pedestals. Both need addressing!

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  4. Good article – and, yet, I think that there’s so much more to say in this whole area, which was one major factor in my personal move away from it all.

    I think that culture and cultural and other assumptions are very much the key to it, and far more so than individual personal attitudes and habits and the management of people in positions of power/authority (the latter, I think, being a consequence of the former, not a cause in itself that could be simply addressed by a change in management practices).

    Although I take what you say about the position of “authority figures” in institutional/bureaucratic traditions, I’ve come to the view that the culture, structure and framework around senior individuals in those organisations, whilst perceived as limiting (or “stifling”) is actually helpful in constraining them – and in ways that environments in which “charismatic leadership” (in the sociological, rather than theological sense) not only do not manifest, but are actively rejected at all levels.

    I think that as well as “management culture” change, there could also very helpfully be a focus on the fundamental dynamics of human psychology and emotion in it all – and, so often, of human sexuality other drives in the context of the charismatic exercise of personal and institutional power – and how environments in which personal charisma is lauded and promoted is inherently likely to facilitate the (at least occasional, but too frequent) emergence into powerful positions of individuals who have certain unhealthy and potentially dangerous traits and – and then rewarding and feeding them, until it’s too late.

    The regularity of these scandals is one thing; but the other thing, for me, is often the sheer level of egregiousness of what is uncovered. Not just the kind of low-level bullying of staff or financial impropriety that you get in the “regular” world of business and charity management, but major and often quite extraordinary and (as in these cases) bizarre and extended abuse of people and position, and so often with a sexual and/or serious criminal aspect to it.

    It does seem to me that it would be interesting to see research on the proportion of individuals in prominent leadership positions in that world of charismatic religious leadership who have “fallen” in this way relative to the incidence of that discovered behaviour amongst ordinary/non-leader members – and also of such leaders of such groups relative to groups/structures that are not…

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    1. Thanks Iain – there certainly is much to say and especially more than can be conveyed in a blog post! Just one thing, I agree that the constraint that good processes can put on a charismatic leader can literally be life (and ministry) saving.

      Like a seat-belt on a car. We have seen plenty of car-crashes in Christian ministry and if more leaders committed to forms of restraint then the human damage could be a lot less….

      Liked by 1 person

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