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  • Writer's pictureJoshua Ziefle

Inside Out Leadership

Christian leadership, even at its best, ought to be a sobering thing. The public privileges and prominence that can accrue with it are present, certainly. But there are also responsibilities and realizations too.

The tasks required of leadership are multiple: motivation of others, vision for the future, negotiation of competing interests, and simply getting the job done. There is a fair amount of work involved. Beyond that, though, is the somewhat public nature of the leadership role. Even in relatively modest scenarios, serving as a leader means having other people recognize you as a leader. It means having people you lead. As time goes on and leadership grows, it can become even more public--no longer tied to just those specific individuals in your group or organization, but a larger and broader following. Think here of the lead pastor and their church--she or he not only oversees and directs a staff, but also is a leader for church members, adherents and, possibly, the local community at large. And, in this world of podcasts, blogs, and video, this pastor may have people who "follow" them all around the world.

Such kinds of public leadership can certainly open the door to criticism--the kinds of stuff we see in public comments on Youtube videos. This is simply part of the experience. But being "in charge" can also mean you are afforded a kind of prominence or respect. Some people will defer to you. They will see you as heroic or inspiring. They might refer to you by a title or honorific. This can be an affirming experience and--let's be honest--feel pretty good. When we look inside ourselves, though, questions can emerge.

In Matthew 23, Jesus talks about some religious leaders--the Pharisees. In verses 27-28 he calls them hypocrites. He uses the image of "whitewashed tombs" to describe how nice they look on the outside and the wickedness that can be on the inside. It is a stark picture.

I think I like this set of reflections because, as I think of leadership, it calls to mind two things. First, that human beings are a mess. As the Scripture teaches us, we are sinful and broken people. Let's call that wickedness. Desires that are disordered. Hatreds that flare up. Disregard for neighbor and selfishness. These things can affect human hearts. In this sense, we can all be "tombs" inside. Though I do believe that some human lives can be more "tomb-y" than others and that the work of the Holy Spirit can begin to clean things up in the heart of the Christian believer, in this life we continue to have the struggle with the inner sepulchre.

The critique of the Pharisees is notable for a second reason as well: the charge of hypocrisy. Verses 27-28 indicates that it not just the tomb that is the problem, but the whitewash over it. The discontinuity between what we are and what we seem to be. No one likes to see this. I wonder, though, whether there is sometimes an assumption that hypocrites always create their own hypocrisy. They whitewash their tombs themselves, creating images of goodness on purpose simply because they are jerks. And I suppose this happens. But I also wonder if there can be something else at work. For those of us who lead people, there is a natural tendency for others to want to look up to us and think the best of us. We can sometimes start to believe our own press and ignore the problems inside. Additionally, we can feel trapped or motivated by not wanting to "let down" those who follow us. In the middle of all this, we let others cover us with whitewash. We add some of our own in spots they have missed. Over time, may even forget there is anything inside this old grave we carry around.

Though complications of this nature may start out small, they can grow increasingly malignant over time. The gap between appearance and reality can increase to almost tragi-comical size. In response, what do should we do? Not add more whitewash--I can tell you that. Rather, we should first cut through the layers of whitewash behind which we hide ourselves from ourselves. In other words, own up to the death we carry inside us. The ways in which we are wounded and wound others. We should seek help and wholeness from God in those broken places in our lives. While I know I will carry the marks of human sin and folly with me throughout the journey of life, that is no reason to wallow in them and let them grow. It is time to face them.

Second and finally, having admitted to ourselves and God and sought after help, we need to take care to dismantle the hypocrisy assembled around us. It is a problem that needs to be addressed. Whether we have built it or others have constructed it on our behalf, we need to take it down. There needs to be wisdom in how we do so, but it needs to be done all the same. Because hypocrisy is a deadly poison. It brings disillusionment in its wake. At heart, it is a destructive lie.

While we can seek and receive healing for our brokenness, there is nevertheless a real sense in which human life always carries a little of that sinful death with it inside. This is not entirely avoidable. We are always tombs of a sort. This said, there is no reason why we need to let such tombs get whitewashed. Though it seems like a good idea at the time, in the end it can make things much worse.



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