10 December 2013

Sabotaging the Hero-Complex in Discipleship

Power is a tricky thing. I remember as a teenager discovering I had some speed and athleticism. I was no Superman but I was a fast little goober that could throw the ball on target. That was enough in my small school to push me to the front. I made the football team and found I had power on the field that evidently flowed into the halls of my high school. Being the quarterback gave me a compelling identity in contrast to my previous nobody ranking. Here’s the curious thing about power, I tried out for the team with a trembling spirit but within months I was relishing the attention that being a quarterback gave me. Internally I morphed into a hungry ego gremlin that began to ooze on the outside.

Powers Leverage 
My hypothesis is that most don’t seek power for the intent to dominate. Yet, power has leverage on our innocence and original intentions, eroding them both without our noticing. This is what occurred in my quarterback situation and I've seen it play out in various domains. I did not play for power but when it was attained it had an insidious effect on me. This is the moral of Boromir in the Lord of the Rings. Originally he's called “good hearted” but the Ring gave him command and influence. At first he did not desire the power of wizard-lords but only desired to protect his people. Eventually, the acquisition of power corrupted his character. Often we're not completely cognoscente of the power we've collected but when made aware of it, we can’t imagine living without it. Power offers us a firm status and more preferable identity..

Discipleship Hero-Complex
I’d like to apply this subtle power trajectory to the art of discipleship. Nothing fuels me more than the space of discipleship; I feel at home in this expanse. Discipleship is energizing as it affirms the good pulsing within, confronts the idols we cling to and sends us back into the world on mission. In most rooms I’ve been the defacto discipler since I’ve been a pastor for the last 15 years. Ten years ago I began to detect a lurking energy in the dynamic of my discipleship methods. Something about this unnamed energy was reminiscent of my time in high school. I now know a raw and real phenomenon actualizes in the discipling relationship. When guiding someone towards transformation something takes place - a power forms. A Hero-Complex sprouts in the transaction. In my good intentions to disciple, venom was simultaneously sneaking into my blood stream. This venom wanted to riddle my body with egotism. Honestly, I did not chase after this Hero-Complex, it grew in strength with my effectual influence and I ignorantly cozied up to it. I was becoming a little deity in my own little empire. Most are sharp enough not to wallow in this publicly but we know it; being a spiritual hero is intoxicating. 

Keeping an Untarnished Image
Spiritual Leaders are often taught to keep their weakness close to the vest, lest we cause someone to stumble. If it’s not taught directly it’s modeled indirectly. I rationalized why keeping my image visibly untarnished was good for everybody. I was genuine in my desire to be used of the Holy Spirit as a discipler but it could not compensate for the system I was a member of. It took a traumatic event to spotlight the egotism inherent in my approach. In 2003 there was an interruption to my Discipleship fantasy and it rattled me. I watched a deeply trusted leader collapse. My heart was cracked. I was close to this leader, I loved this leader, I was discipled by this leader. As I grieved I had an unnerving realization “I knew little of his inner world, How could this be? I was in close discipleship quarters with him. How was I not privy to his brokenness when I offered mine regularly?" Something unhinged in me. 

Agony in Vulnerability
I was done with infrastructures that created pseudo-popes out of spiritual leaders. My first impulse was to rail against all leadership that posed and protected but God’s Spirit confronted me to move beyond anger cloaked in a righteous agenda. God instead pinned me on my own unexamined discipleship practices. I needed reformation but I was confused at where to begin. Romantically, I thought I could construct a new way of discipling that had no power dynamics, no acknowledged leader. I was wrong. No matter the context there will always be a bit of deference to a defacto discipler. My fresh passion needed to be harangued into something valuable on the ground.

I had studied social psychology and found some valuable insights there but it was the oddity of Jesus that confronted my leadership principles. In one of Jesus’ weakest moments in the Garden of Gethsemane, a place of intense strain, he does something foolish in the school of leadership. Jesus invites Peter, James and John in close to behold his struggle. Jesus pioneers space for others to witness his knee-knocking fragility. “Dad, I’m afraid, could you please take this cup from me?” (Luke 22:42). Jesus is violently vulnerable. Don’t domesticate what Jesus did. In our culture this would be called “seeing someone at their worst”. The Hero Jesus was exposing disciples to the drama of his own humbling. (Phil 2) The wisdom of this is hidden from leadership experts. There is an agony in Christ vulnerability. Theologically I knew about the weakness of God on the cross but my senses were opening to how this flowed into real-time discipleship habits. To participate in Christ is to participate in weakness with others. 

Self-Sabotaging Egotism
Leaders are notorious for offering idealized reflections of themselves. We’re all tempted to suppress anything that would threaten our guru image. We must take a sledge to that superiority soaked in sage spiritual insight. Discipleship has a power dynamic that must be sabotaged. I’m convinced the nucleus for change is the self-imposed offering of vulnerability. God was not calling me to stop discipling but was inviting me into a new tension; a tension that God in Jesus inhabited with 1st Century disciples. I needed to offer teeth clenching vulnerability in the very discipleship huddles I was piloting. Over the years I’ve learned this is easier said than done. First, I’ve had to learn (still learning) how to be naked in my insecurities, fears, idols and unrepentant angers. Downloading vulnerability into my own discipleship approach has risked rejection. We're all weak most of us are just too afraid to admit it. Second, I’ve learned that vulnerability from a discipler can be disorienting for apprentices. A discipler off their pedestal looks iconoclastic to some. Many find confidence in having access to a leader who appears quixotic in their connection to God. Even the most progressive among us lives vicariously through the strength of leaders, online celebrities and writers. Having spiritual leaders secured in their place provides us with a solid point of reference. We want our spiritual leaders to be spiritual maharishis.

Taking Shortcuts
There are ways pastor’s shortcut around this; they banish their struggles into a container. One of those tricks is vulnerability in preaching or from a media/writing platform; I call this pulpit protection. There is an unspoken detachment in a platform or a pulpit. Vulnerability from a pulpit can actually prop up our image with people. This does not mean you should not model a fitting vulnerability from public platforms but please understand its serious relational limits. The other shortcut: pastors are solely vulnerable with other pastors. I used to think this was the only appropriate domain for me. I thought only they could understand. This has proven to be well intentioned but misguided leadership wisdom. If you want to call others into covenant-community you cannot contract your vulnerability out to some off-ramp or pit-crew.  

Opening Up Space
Discipleship has changed dramatically for me in the last 10 years. It has been awkward and discomforting at point blank range. Yet I've discovered something afresh, mutual vulnerability opens up space for the Spirit of God. A mini-temple springs up between us; a temple the Holy Spirit enjoys hanging out in. No longer am I convinced God needs my brilliant strength more than he needs my weakness. So be on the look out for sophisticated ways we photoshop ourselves. No matter what tool you employ in discipleship, it must include a power sabotaging element. Institutional Leaders do not offer people deep meaning, incarnational ones do. 


  1. Well done! Thank you for sharing. I feel like every pastor needs to be reminded of this. The conversation on Fitch's blog about celebrity leadership led me here (but I regularly check in on your blog and find your writing helpful:). This piece works well with Fitch's blog post.

    Jesus' example of humble submission while in a position of powerful leadership is such a beautiful thing; and so different from what seems to be the norm.

    Submission to God and one another has been something I've been thinking a lot about recently. I find it not only a power sabotage, but actually the source from which our power comes.

  2. Hey Ryan,
    Thanks for checking in. It is hard to believe that vulnerability w/ God and others can actually be a source of power. This is something I've been slow to really learn over the years.

  3. Awesome. The scope of you're insights reveal some pretty deep reflections. Love your blog bro.

  4. Thanks Dan for your authenticity- really is refreshing and I'm grateful to learn it from you in action! I especially love the football and lord of the rings analogy and then that example of jesus's vulnerability with His disciples, never took time to ponder on that but- so true!!

  5. Replies
    1. Amanda, Love having you a part of our community. You have a lot to contribute. Serious.

    2. Now this is a post that is screaming out for specifics!

      You gotta give some details here.