The Seduction of Leaders

Today's ministry leaders face an enormous amount of pressure from all sides. Many times, there is pressure from our superiors to produce more or grow larger churches or ministries. The "bottom line" mentality has crept into the church so that numbers are how we gauge success. Then there are the pressures from the people, our congregation. There are calls on every side to attend to this need or that, complaints that we aren't satisfying their expectations of church and pastor. Parishioners leave out of boredom or the lack of any tangible project. Like Aaron who was pressured by the children of Israel into making a golden calf out of their jewelry, pastors are tempted to pander to the demands of a congregation prone to idolatry.

But to make matters worse, there is a pressure from within, a seduction we are often unaware of, that can prove to be far more damaging. It is a voice we may never fully escape because it is our own. We find it difficult not to enjoy the attention, the influence– the power– that comes with leadership.

This seduction has its roots in that old Eden story. Adam and Eve were drawn by the serpent's promise of becoming God-like. It was suddenly not enough to be with God; they had to be like God. Now, with every crowd's applause and each open door we feel ourselves become more powerful, more God-like, and it becomes harder to resist its appeal.

Images My tutor in this seduction came over my sabbatical as I read Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Though Tolkien insisted he was not trying to write an allegory, the large themes he paints with broad strokes are unmistakable. Nevertheless, to spare myself copious comments from Tolkien junkies, I'll say this is merely my take-away from the book:

1. Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely
The phrase is Lord Acton's, a 19th-century English historian. He goes on to say that it is simply heresy to assume that the "office sanctifies the holder of it". In other words, just because you have power doesn't mean you are worthy of it. Even when it's earned, there comes a point where the kind of power given to a human surpasses a human's capacity. This was something the ancient Greeks sought to teach through the Myth of Promethius. The power of the gods cannot be handle responsibly by mortals. The Hebrews talked about the human heart as "deceitful and desperately wicked", "prone to wander". 

Tolkien's Ring is, of course, a metaphor for absolute power. "One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them; One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them." The Ring has a strange effect on most who are near it, maybe none stranger in the first book than on Boromir. Boromir was a noble warrior who had travelled the perilous journey as part of the Company, the Fellowship of the Ring. He has tirelessly and courageously fought to protect Frodo, but near the end of the book the Ring's appeal is too difficult to resist. He tries logic to persuade Frodo to lend him the Ring. When that fails, he becomes angry, threatening violence.

" 'It is by our own folly that the Enemy will defeat us,' cried Boromir. 'How it angers me! Fool! Obstinate fool…It might have been mine. It should have been mine. Give it to me!' "
 
When Frodo escapes, Boromir tearfully comes to his senses. "What have I said?…What have I done? Frodo, Frodo!…Come back! A madness took over me, but it has passed."

2. Power, when it falls in your hands, must be "destroyed".
Good people who become powerful always vow to use their power for good. (Recall any presidential campaign speech you've ever heard.) Yet when one person can become too powerful, even when he means to do good. 

Of all the Elven kings and dwarf warriors and human heroes in Tolkien's tale, none is grander or more noble than Gandalf. Early in the story when Frodo realizes the magnitude of the ring that has fallen to his care, he tries to offer it to Gandalf. Gandalf's response is gripping:

"No!…With that power I should have a power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly…Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me!"

Gandalf knows there is only one thing to do with that kind of power, for its seduction is great even to those who wish to do good through it: destroy it.

3. Power is destroyed by distribution.
Tolkien's "One Ring" was dangerously corrupting because it nullified the other rings. It was a power that made ineffective all other power. It concentrated power on one individual– the ring could be worn by but one finger. That is why it had to be destroyed. For us, power is destroyed by distribution.

If there was ever a man who could have accumulated power on earth, it was Jesus. Yet He consistently refused. He didn't take Satan's bait when offered the kingdoms of the world and He tried to keep news of His miracles (read "power") quiet. At what was likely His largest crowd miracle, the feeding of the five thousand in John 6, He tries to sneak away quietly. The mob tracks Him down and offers Him what for the Jew was the pinnacle of earthly power: the Messiah's crown. What does Jesus do? Preach his most offensive sermon (eating His flesh and drinking His blood– forbidden by Levitical law) and lose almost all his followers. He was like in Dale Carnegie in reverse. 

Then within a week of entering Jerusalem– finally a city where He would be noticed instead of the Galilean countryside– He lets himself be betrayed by a friend and captured by the Romans. At the height of His power, Jesus laid His life down.

Even after resurrection, when "all authority in heaven and on earth" had been given to Him, what does He do? He gives it over to a band of over-zealous and slightly confused disciples. Jesus consistently refused to amass power; he continuously gave it away. 

I suspect He wants us to do the same.
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7 thoughts on “The Seduction of Leaders

  1. I love this perspective. I’ve seen the evident connections between the ring and the corruption of power, but never really looked at it in the light of distribution. But it perfectly exemplifies the kind of communal, Kingdom leadership that is all throughout the bible. Of course that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some form of chain of command, but in giving power away there’s a form of accountability that seems much stronger than simply “checking in” with someone who can rap your knuckles if you’ve sinned. When it came to many serious life decisions I’ve tried to “distribute” power over my life, to Christ, to my parents, to trusted friends and mentors. And there’s such a freedom in this perspective as well because the weight of responsibility doesn’t fall on one man to succeed or fail, but it’s shared, which also increases the joy of success by having others to share it with, and decreases the shame of failure by having others to help you stand again.
    Love it, Glenn. Great stuff!

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  2. Great article Glenn! Jesus gave away power by serving and it will do the same for us. That’s also how we become more like Jesus and thus more “God-like” – by serving and loving. God is love and He came to serve and give His life away. To love God and love others – our highest calling.

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  3. So, what is the implication for church government, then? The US government has used separation of powers to address this issue. Why do so many churches have one senior pastor who is the authority over all? Is it enough to have a “board of overseers” that is external to the church? Can an external board be close enough to prevent abuse of power? Shouldn’t the board of overseers (or elders) be internal and the church staff be submitted to such a board — a plurality of leadership so that the power is distributed?

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  4. David– thanks for your perspective. great application ideas on the distribution of power in a non-organizational sense.
    Jerry– thanks.
    Carol– a big AMEN!
    Mike– Great questions. The overseer board is good, but there must be more. I like what Pastor Brady has done at New Life. He has made the governing body a team of 7 Elders– 3 staff members and 4 non-staff members. All directional and financial decisions are made in this group. That feels a little more like the Jerusalem Council to me.
    In general, the government in most churches has a long way to go in terms of introducing plurality of leadership. I believe in a head– as a sort of first among brothers (like Gandalf to the Fellowship of 9 or James to the Jerusalem Council). But often, too much decision-making power lies in the hands of one “man of God.”
    Julie– Sigh. This would solve so many things, eh? So would my own becoming more like Jesus…This is on the ongoing work on the Spirit in all of us. May we al respond we humility and grace.

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  5. Great insight, Glenn!
    One book I read as we transitioned here to Colo Spgs was a book called “Top 10 mistakes leaders make” by Hans Finzel. It is a secular book written with great wisdom and many principles that helped me understand why things work and don’t work in dealing with groups of people.
    One of his big mistakes is when leaders surround themselves with “yes men” that always agree and support the decisions of the leader without questioning and considering all or other angles.
    I would imagine this being a great temptation as power increases. There are many who want to jump on the band wagon when things are successful, and we always look for “servant’s hearts”. But are the servants there to serve our purpose or God’s purpose? It is up to the leader to be wise about with whom he surrounds himself. A different point of view is healthy, even if it makes things less comfortable and easy.
    this also helped me personally as I always tend to be the “other point of view” and now I don’t feel so bad! =)

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