Just as leadership overflows with opportunities and blessings, it also overflows with peril to leaders’ hearts and souls. Excessive demands, superhuman expectations, and an orientation to serve others can combine to make a dangerously toxic sludge that overflows into our souls, poisons our hearts, and sours our minds. Serving others becomes a chore and the positive, hope-filled labor in the Master’s vineyard sours into begrudging resentment, sometimes at Him, sometimes at ourselves, and almost always at those we serve. That toxic sludge has a name – cynicism – and its primary ingredient is disillusionment.
The Dangers of Disillusionment
The toxic sludge of cynicism forms around the nucleus of disillusionment. Christian leaders become disillusioned when those we lead reveal that they are not always “saintly” in their attitudes and behavior. Disillusionment grows when our expectations of joy-filled, fruitful ministry are obliterated by the reality of sin in human hearts, when words don’t match actions, when appearances are deceptive, and when our own ideas and assumptions about people and ministry are unrelentingly dashed against the granite rocks of reality. In short, disillusionment is a product of assumptions and expectations that do not mesh with reality. This is the stage of learning from “bitter experience (bitter because of its reality),” which many, if not all, Christian leaders must pass at some point in their lives.
At the point that our encounter with reality generates disillusionment we have to choose how we will respond. We can make a positive response to disillusionment, which will be addressed below. Or, we can choose a negative response which leads to cynicism. The third alternative, to not choose, most often leads to cynicism as well. Choosing to not make a positive response to disillusionment inevitably leads to a negative, downward spiral. In the downward spiral cynicism sets in, and the toxic sludge begins to overflow inexorably into our attitudes, thoughts, assumptions, and language. By the time someone recognizes us as a cynic because of our hopeless, negatively-tainted, and sour language, the toxic sludge has infiltrated our lives to a degree that we don’t recognize it. Our negative response to reality has produced a kind of self-focused unreality within our hearts and minds.
Several things indicate the presence of the toxic sludge of cynicism—hopelessness, negativity, pessimism, gracelessness, anger, and increasingly legalistic attitudes, among others. For example, hopelessness happens when we expected that ministry would be continually a positive experience and dealing with God’s people would always be a blessing. The amount of time it takes for that false expectation to be blown up is debatable, but somewhere between one week and three months is the norm! The reality is, ministry is often difficult and just because people are in the church does not make them “saintly” in their behavior. Hopelessness is a direct result of failing to place our hope completely in the only source of true hope—Jesus Christ. If we hope that this church will be better than the last, our hope is in the wrong place. If we say, “I’m not hopeful that this can ever change” then we are not hoping in Christ Jesus. He can and often does change things we could not possibly change.
We are living in an age when disillusionment abounds. There is no condemnation for sometimes feeling disillusioned; it is part of our human condition. But, as leaders we are called to do better than to allow ourselves to slide into cynicism. We must take positive action when we are disillusioned.
The Benefits of Being Dis-illusioned
There are positive aspects to becoming dis-illusioned. I use the different spelling to distinguish that this dis-illusionment is the removal of our misconceptions, false impressions, and false judgments in life. Dis-illusionment is the state of coming-face-to-face with reality—sinful human beings sin; life is not always fun or comfortable; growth often happens through pain; and leadership is not easy. At that point – face-to-face with reality – we must choose. Choosing to respond well to dis-illusionment means we are willing to learn from our errors in judgment, to change our minds about what is really real, and to unlearn our faulty beliefs about people, ministry, the church, and Christ Himself.
Dis-illusioned leaders are freed from the burden of unreality, which is a much heavier load than we may think. If we expect sinful people to sin we are living in reality. When we expect Christians to be a sometimes perplexing mix of both saint and sinner we are living in reality. That doesn’t mean that we are encouraging or condoning sin, it simply means we are living in accordance with reality instead of respond to it in constructive ways. I learned my own lesson in this when I one day realized that I was expecting my children to act like little adults – an astounding example of living in unreality. I would always tell them, “Just do your best,” living in the unexamined unreality that anyone, especially a child, could always do their best. Always doing one’s best is defined as perfection, and only One meets that standard.
As a Christian leader I was guilty of living in the same unreality with members of my congregations. I was quite sensitive to the unrealistic expectations and demands they placed on me, but I was totally unaware of the unrealistic expectations I had placed on them: gladly and willingly follow wherever I lead; always be supportive of change; and, it’s okay to sin as long as you don’t sin against me. Unreality! The result of my unreality was unhealthy disillusionment. Apart from God’s gracious “awakening” of expecting my children – and Christians – to “always do your best,” I would probably still be living in that unreality. It is grace that allows us to recognize and let go of our illusions. As Christian leaders, being dis-illusioned leads to healthier, more constructive relationships and more effective leadership.
Pursuing Dis-illusioned Leadership
Several factors contribute to dis-illusioned leadership. At the top of the list is transforming the image of leader as a hero to leader as a servant. Looking back I can see so many examples of living with the image of leader as “hero” who steps in with just the right words and just the right time to “save the day.” My favorite “superhero” was Underdog, whose tag line was “there’s no need to fear, Underdog is here!” As embarrassing as it is, I think my first years of ministry leadership were an attempt to live out that illusion, and as you have probably figured out already, it didn’t go so well. The Bible doesn’t present images of heroic do-gooder saints as leaders. It presents leaders as real human beings with real strengths and weaknesses. Moses, David, Peter and Paul, some of the best leaders were shown to be truly human with a mixture of good and bad, strengths and weaknesses. In fact, the biblical leaders who were least successful were those who lived under the illusion of their own “goodness” and “power,” like Saul, Samson, and Nebuchadnezzar. Perhaps that is a reflection on God’s purpose to be the only One who is perfect, whose strength, wisdom, and grace are sufficient for imperfect human leaders? Rather than heroes, Christian leaders are servants, who focus on loving and leading for the best of others.
A second big picture reality is accepting that we are totally and perfectly loved by God, even when we don’t “do our best.” Many Christian leaders seem to struggle with this reality. In combination with the hero illusion, the expectation that I must somehow “deserve” to be loved by God is poison. The only one who wants you to believe that lie is the one who whispers it in your ear – and you know who that is – he smells like smoke and hates all who call on the Name of Jesus.
Living in the dis-illusioned reality of servant leadership in the overwhelming love of God takes effort. It doesn’t happen automatically. Perhaps because our “hearts are wicked” or we have a common enemy, or both. Either way, it is important that Christian leaders are tenacious in their pursuit of hope, humility and honesty. As Romans 5:2 reminds us, “we boast in the hope of the glory of God.” As mentioned above, disillusionment can be a result of placing our hope in the wrong person. Tenacious refusal to hope in anything or anyone other than God, through faith in Christ, is a basic element of dis-illusioned leadership. In fact, Romans 5:3-5 teaches us that the sufferings and pain that can be sources of disillusionment are actually sources of growth and hope when we live in reality.
Living in reality also means tenaciously pursuing humility, as Philippians 2:5-11 teaches. Christ’s perfect example of humble servanthood should be an encouragement to Christian leaders in all circumstances to use their abilities and position to serve others, never themselves. True humility also means that leaders are able to acknowledge and embrace their strengths and abilities as well as their weaknesses. For me, humility is closely related to gratitude, not just to God, but to others and for others. Romans 12:3-8 spells out the basis of the Christian leader’s gratitude – the gifts and contributions of so many others. No one leads alone. No one ministers alone. And gratitude for others, gifted and sent by God, is intertwined with humility in servant leadership. Finally, dis-illusioned leaders tenaciously pursue honesty, in the sense of sober self-evaluation and awareness (Romans 12:3). Obviously, sober self-evaluation is intricately related to living in reality. Illusions begin inside our heart and minds, and it is at that level that we do battle to be completely honest with ourselves and God.
There are many benefits to dis-illusioned leadership, not just to leaders but to their co-laborers and churches. It takes tenacious work, but God’s Kingdom is worth the effort. May you be blessed as you pursue the freedom and power of being a dis-illusioned leader.
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