01 April 2022

Superheroes, Senior Pastors and the dark side of power

I’m an unashamed superhero fanboy. Sure, I’m never expecting academy award winning performances from these films, but Marvel and DC franchises are welcome reminders that even in alternate universes, Lycra is still hands down, the fabric of choice. But beneath the Lycra and CGI, the superhero story is, I think, a long conversation about  power. As Uncle Ben would say to Peter Parker “with great power comes great responsibility.” And this ancient maxim does convey much of the metanarrative in this genre - the gift of power, the use, the abuse and the fear of power.

And to that end, power is also the subtext beneath much of our lives. To be crafted in the image of God is to be inherently and distinctively powerful. And with that power does come great responsibility – to steward, to subdue, to rule, to reproduce, to name, to cultivate, to co-create. The first chapter of the bible reveals power, at least in principle, is a gift bestowed on all, for the common good. Power rightly conceived, enables all people and all creation to flourish.

And yet like the increasingly conflicted superheroes of Marvel and DC, power has a very dark side. Friedrich Nietzsche, (possibly the original proponent for our first modern superhero Superman), believed that all life is ‘the will to power.’ That to seize and exploit power by whatever means, is to seize life itself. 

And that, sadly, is where we land most of the time in the power conversation – people seizing life from others. Sometimes its blatant and premeditated, like Russian cruise missiles or the Taliban barring Afghan girls from an education. But mostly it’s anonymous, unassuming and quietly coercive. It lives behind closed doors in family homes and at the office, in the social media feeds we scroll and in the tension between races, cultures and gender. Overt or covert, power when abused seizes life, and births great trauma and shame in it's victims. As you read this, I recognise that you, reader, may know and feel this with a clarity and depth that I can not begin to imagine.

Power wears many costumes today. It shape-shifts between charisma, knowledge, gender, celebrity, morality, rank and religiosity. Spotting it is often hard because on first appearance it looks heroic and we are attracted to those who possess it. The legendary Stan Lee says “a superhero is a person who does heroic deeds and has the ability to do them in a way that a normal person couldn’t. To be a superhero, you need at least one exceptional power and you need to use that power to accomplish good deeds.

According to that definition, we are well accustomed to elevating people to superhero status. We seek out giftedness, and heroism and surrender to their exceptional confidence, eloquence, their abilities and sometimes, their narcissism. It might be a musician, a celebrity, a sportsperson, a spiritual leader or just someone we find particularly successful. We love these superheroes because we love powerful, gifted, beautiful people who use their abilities in messianic ways. If we can’t be them, we can at least follow them and try to emulate them. The influencer trend sweeping our digital landscape is simply another iteration of the superhero phenomena. We actually want to be influenced. We want someone to lead us, to save us. We are simultaneously charmed and harmed by the superheroes of our own making.

Leadership in any form is a massive privilege and burden. The more people look AT you, the more they look TO you. This is especially prevalent in church leaderships. The church leader (be it pastor, priest, or any official leadership role) leads not only from their charisma and capabilities, but through character. A leader must not only do their job well but do their life well. The stakes are so incredibly high. You may wow everyone with your superpowers, but if your life doesn’t essentially match your message, all that power eventually turns to poison and people get terribly hurt.

In recent years, we’ve witnessed a steady procession of superhero leaders/pastors (I think all male) failing in their personal lives.  Most recently its been Pastor Brian Houston from Hillsong, though he is one of many well known leaders who have been dismissed due to some form of misconduct. Personally, I’ve also witnessed gross misconduct in the church up close and felt its devastating effects. And when this happens there are heartbreaking and dehumanising consequences for their victims. Many never recover from this kind of betrayal. They leave the church, they leave the faith. In truth, everyone loses - the  families, the friends, the church, the reputation of the gospel and of course, the perpetrator.  

I am struck by how many ‘heroic’ leaders finish poorly in ministry and I take every new case as a sobering reminder of my own fragility and need to tread so very carefully. That old Phil Keaggy song plays in my head each time...

 “But It could have been me, I could be the one to lose my grip and fall, it could be me the one who’s always standing tall…for unless you hold me tightly Lord and I can hold on too, then tomorrow in the news it could be me(link here for full lyrics).

I kinda understand why the next generation of young Christian leaders say they are reluctant to become senior leaders/pastors. Who would want either the complexity, the burden or the risk? But perhaps the type of men and women we need are the ones that don’t want to be alpha leaders? A leadership based not in the right-handed sense of power as Nietzsche described but in that left-handed kind of power we see in Jesus. A power borne in selflessness, humility and sacrifice. That a true seizing of life, is to surrender power, not attain it. 

We love our screen heroes in all their farfetched glory. And back in the real world, I doubt we will ever stop exalting certain gifted individuals, for that is just human nature. Nor do I think individuals will ever stop blowing up their lives and hurting others, for that too is human nature. But I do hope we can wise up to power and its potentialities. For starters...

Stop thinking you don’t have power –  My natural bias is to downplay the significance of power in my leadership, but I've learnt thats a perilous mindset. Your positional or personal power is real and it’s either naivety or false humility thinking you don’t possess it. Know which 'superpowers' you possess as a leader and how they affect and influence those around you in positive and negative ways. Your strengths and abilities taken to their limit often become your weaknesses and blindspots. 

Handle power responsibly – now that you know you have power, be careful how you steward it, especially with those who are vulnerable or who will want to please you or get close to you. How do you lead those around you in non-manipulative or non-exploitative ways? What are the  conflicts of interest you need to manage? What guardrails and accountabilities do you have in place for yourself and those you lead? Identify structures in your organisation that elevate some and disempower others? What is in your organisations culture that could make people vulnerable to the abuse of power? 
Are you listening to people who don't have the same power? How do you empower people in your setting to give feedback or commentary on your leadership?  If you don't regularly get push back or 'constructive' feedback as a leader, then maybe it's because those you lead don't really think they have permission to give it, or they are afraid of how you will receive it? If so, you have a power issue.

Give power away –the best thing you can do with your power is progressively give it away, especially to those who are systemically disempowered by gender, culture or circumstance. Include people not like you in your decision making. If you are male, ensure you have a large representation of women in your team and decision making processes. Share your knowledge, share your contacts, delegate authority, not just tasks. Learn to get out of the way more often. Your job is to do yourself out of a job by giving others more of it.

Cool that charisma – we don’t really need mythical superhero leaders through whom we vicariously live. We need leaders who are confident yet humble, authentic, accountable and consultative. Organisations built on a charismatic individual often flounder after that leader is gone.

Build the right brand - there is a place for social media and great communication to a wider audience. But be careful that the brand or platform you are building doesn’t have you as the ultimate destination. It’s really not all about what you can do for Jesus. It’s simply all about Jesus. His glory not yours.

And finally, don’t be too enamoured with anyone, including yourself. Partly because people are never as good as they look - I'm not, you're not. But mostly because in the end, there is only one real superhero worth our adoration – Jesus.