Take Off the Mask: Why Being an Authentic Leader Matters

Originally posted by Grant Vissers, here. 

Should I be vulnerable as a leader? How much do I share? What do I share? What if someone uses it against me?

I think everyone in a position of leadership questions whether or not, and to what extent, they can be vulnerable. It’s a tricky piece of leadership to navigate. How much of yourself do you share with those you are leading? I heard a great piece of advice a couple of years back from a Christian leader who said, “I only share the parts of my story that can’t be used against me.” In a longer explanation he continued to say that he only shares those parts of his story that have been healed and aren’t raw wounds waiting to be re-injured.

That makes sense to me. Because, I think in order to be a good leader, and a good pastor, you need to be vulnerable. In other words, a leader needs to be real.

Good leaders are real, vulnerable and honest

About a year ago, my wife and I found out that our unborn baby had a fatal birth defect that was irreparable and 100% fatal. We were devastated. After weeks of prayer and waiting, we lost the baby, at 14 weeks. God has been faithful. God was in control. God continues to guard our hearts and our minds. Months after that part of our lives was over, and once we had begun to really feel like God had done some solid work healing our hearts, I preached a sermon that talked about our journey.

It was hard to share. I don’t actually think it was the best sermon I have ever preached. There was nothing brilliant about it. But after the service was over, a man came up to me and thanked me for the message. Not because I had said anything profound but simply because I had been honest about a real-life struggle. I didn’t pretend like I was anything other than devastated and angry with God. In his words, “That made you real to me.” I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment and it will continue to shape my preaching and speaking for the rest of my life.

How are you real with those you serve?

People are becoming better and better at spotting fake leaders; leaders who have public and private lives that are so distinct from one another you would hardly be able to recognize them as the same person. And good! I would never want to follow a fake leader, so I definitely don’t want to lead as a fake leader.

Hypocrisy is probably the biggest challenge to the church right now. I know a lot of people may disagree and say that outside threats to the Church’s way of being is the greatest threat, but, I actually think our greatest enemy is ourselves. Christians do the most harm to our own witness in the world.

So, why do I think it’s important for leaders to be vulnerable? Pete Scazzero writes, “As the leaders go, so goes the church.” If its leaders are vulnerable and authentic people, then the church will learn to also be vulnerable and authentic in the way they live out their faith.

Here are 3 Suggestions for how you can be vulnerable today.

1. Be Honest…You’re Not Perfect

The majority of people in a congregation only see their pastor one day of the week. Sure, there are small groups, Bible studies, pastoral care meetings, leadership meetings etc. For the majority of people, Sunday is the only time they see the pastor of their church. That’s problematic. Here’s the reason why: pastors are often at their best on Sundays. The message is well thought out, planned, and often showcases the best communication skills the pastor has to offer. That’s not a bad thing. We all try to communicate the message of the gospel to the best of our abilities. However, it often creates an illusion that pastors are something they are not; perfect. As pastors and leaders, we all know it, we’re not perfect. So why pretend to be? The best thing we can do with our congregations and organizations is be real, and honest, and admit that we are not perfect.

2. Build an Honest Culture: Encourage Vulnerability

The challenge to creating an honest and vulnerable culture is that not everybody is safe to be honest and vulnerable around. That’s problematic. So as leaders we need to be very careful and make sure that we’re only putting safe people into positions of leadership. Does that mean you have to be perfect in order to become a leader? Absolutely not! But you do have to be on your own personal journey of healing with Jesus.

Bonus: What’s the number one thing I look for in safe leaders? They demonstrate a personal and ongoing relationship with Jesus, and they don’t feel the need or attempt to fix others.

3. Eliminate Shame

Let’s face it, nobody is going to be honest or vulnerable if they’re worried about feeling ashamed. And, for different reasons, the church has been a place of shame for many people.

Eliminating shame, eliminates fear, and I think is the single greatest thing we can do to create an honest and vulnerable culture. So how do you do it? I think it all comes back to the honesty and vulnerability of the leaders. If they are vulnerable and fearless in sharing struggles, I think the church will begin to see that they can be fearless too.

A vision of the Church as vulnerable and authentic—that’s a vision I’d fight for—because that is a vision of the Church as it was meant to be. That is a vision of the Church that reconciles, heals, builds up, and has earned the right to be heard in the public sphere.

The great thing is, nobody is perfect. Hopefully this encourages you to continue to grow – wherever you find yourself today.

How about you?

What do you think about vulnerability in leadership?

Good Reads for the Interior Life

Our sermon series “Inside Out: Pursuing the Interior Life of Jesus,” comes to a close in a few weeks. So, I thought it might be helpful to identify some ongoing resources. For individuals who feel that further reading on the interior life of Jesus or how to become integrated themselves would be helpful, here are ten books that I would recommend. Many of them I have mentioned in the blog throughout this series, others are just excellent reads.

10. Making All Things New: An Invitation to the Spiritual Life, by Henri Nouwen is a short reflection on what it means to live a spiritual life in the current cultural context. Though it was published in 1981, it remains just as true (if not truer) to our secular context today. Nouwen writes, “Worrying has become such a part and parcel of our daily life that a life without worries seems not only impossible, but even undesirable…Our worries motivate us” (15).  He delves deeply into what it looks like to live settled and worry-free, centered in a deeply rich spiritual life with Christ. Plus, for those with a short attention span, this is about an hour and a half read!

9. Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster, is a much better read than it sounds! Foster looks at twelve different spiritual “disciplines” that can help take us deeper in our walk with Jesus. The disciplines vary from fasting to worship. Much research and insight from the early Catholic church mothers and fathers on the interior life went into the making of this book. Foster offers refreshing practical advice and application for the challenges we face in living a spiritual life in a bustling world.

8. Lament for a Son, is anything but a fun read; but for those who have experienced tremendous grief or loss, it is a must-read. Nicholas Wolterstorff, is a brilliant professor of philosophy and theology, who has influenced thinkers all over the world. But beneath his professorial exterior lies a tender-hearted father who lost his son. Lament for a Son is as refreshingly honest as it is profound. Wolterstorff digs deep and calls the reader to dig deep as he practices lament through the art of writing.

7. A Hidden Wholeness, by Parker Palmer, might be the most pertinent book to this series. Palmer explores “the journey toward the inner life” in this short volume. He discusses the various facades that we wear in life and how to integrate our inner and outer lives through a deep-rooted spirituality. Palmer writes, “Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other. In the process, we become separated from our own souls. We end up living divided lives” (4).

6. Meditation on Psalms is a compilation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s work edited and published posthumously by Edwin Robertson. While Bonhoeffer suffered tremendously for the sake of the Gospel, imprisoned by the Nazi’s in World War II, he maintained an undivided life reliant on Jesus and the high calling of scripture. Bonhoeffer wrote some more complex theological books as well, but this one is more of a spiritual reflection, dealing with the reality of war and testing of his faith. He was eventually martyred in the war.

5. The Problem of Pain, by C.S. Lewis, is his quintessential work on theodicy. He explores the question, “If God is good and all-powerful, why does he allow his creatures to suffer pain?” He answers this questions with philosophical and theological insights from the perspective of an atheist-become-believer. This is one of the books that influenced my post “Where is God in Our Suffering?”

4. Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, is part of a five-part spiritual theology series developed by Eugene Peterson. He weaves almost textbook-like research into personal narrative flawlessly as he explores what it means to not only read the Scriptures, but to experience them in everyday life.

3. Wounded, by Terry Wardle looks at “how to find wholeness and inner healing in Christ.” Part personal narrative and part spiritual analysis, Wardle explores the depths of human emotion and what it means to incorporate Christ into the wounds of the past. This work aligns with Wardle’s Healing Care ministry.

2. The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery, by David Benner, explores the connection of knowing God and knowing yourself. Relying on psychological research and spiritual insights, Benner looks at Augustine’s ideology: “Grant, Lord, that I may know myself that I may know thee.”

1. The Interior Castle, by St. Teresa of Avila, explores the interior life of a nun in the sixteenth century. St. Teresa is known for this work, among others, as well as her visions of Christ. Written from a Catholic framework, some of her material might be foreign to Protestant thinkers, but she still offers one way to pursue the interior life in Christ. Though she herself was crippled by guilt, she yet offers some beautiful images of pursuing life in Christ.

I would recommend any and all of these books if you are interested in further reading on this topic. Do you have any books you would recommend on this topic as well?

Accepting Trials

Last week I looked at what it meant to accept blessing. Pastor Andrew preached a sermon a couple of weeks ago, about God bestowing a blessing on Jesus in the story of the transfiguration. Then this past Sunday Pastor Grant preached again on Jesus blessing the little children. On the one hand, it is hard for some individuals to accept blessings, particularly if they have been hurt, or if they have a tendency to believe the lies the world tells about them. But I think even more difficult than accepting blessing is accepting trial.

Sometimes people give the false notion that if you follow Jesus, then your life will come up roses, he will take away all your pain, and you will be filled with earthly blessings. Occasionally this may be the case, and indeed it is the case that God blesses His beloved children with love and wholeness. But when people look at faith this way, when trial strikes, they are apt to lose faith. God doesn’t prevent Christians from suffering. However, God does suffer with us. Read more on this topic here.

But Jesus actually says to His followers in Scripture, “Take up your cross,” and, “Whoever wants to be first shall be last.” These are powerful words that do not avoid trial, but rather call Christians to accept trial and even engage it. James, one of the disciples, goes even farther, saying, “Consider if pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance” (James 1:2-3). Notice that James does not say, “if you face trials,” James says, “whenever you face trials.” Trials are a surety.

We are assured of blessings with life in Christ, but we are also assured of trials. But life in Christ teaches us to accept trials and suffering for the sake of the other. Matthew 5:43-45 says, “’You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.’” God calls His children to meet trials and persecution with love; but Jesus also makes clear that both the righteous and the unrighteous will encounter blessing and trial this side of eternity.

So what do we do with this as believers? First, I think we learn to accept blessings from God, becoming whole children, whole people, who know their gifts and that they are loved. But second, we must accept trial alongside blessing.

Jeremiah, one of the major prophets during the Babylonian exile of the Israelites, provides a worthy human example to follow. I preached a sermon on this last fall, that you can listen to here. Jeremiah was a man who understood what it meant to be afflicted by substantial trials. He stands alongside Paul in that respect, being internally and externally afflicted for the sake of his faith.

In Jeremiah 15, he had reason to complain to God, understanding that awful things were about to happen for Israel. He complains to God, and not in a sanitized, churchy way. He cries out to God in frankly insulting lamentation. “Why is my pain unceasing?…Truly, [God], you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.” Our verbiage today is a bit different than Jeremiah’s context. But these insults have weight in the desert, a land with scarce water! Besides, I don’t know many church-goers who would call God “deceitful.” But Jeremiah does, and he does not get struck by lightning.

Instead God calls him out on his attitude in love, and with a path forward. God says to Jeremiah that first he needs to turn from his self-pity, and then he tells him he will make him stand. Self-pity as a turning in on one’s self. But God calls Jeremiah out of that self-pitying posture and to a posture of standing. When you curl in on yourself, you no longer see the bigger picture. You no longer see God. You can no longer heed God’s plans. And it is a miserable way to live! But when you stand, you can see the bigger picture, you can witness how God is with you in the midst of pain, and you can step forward.

Learning to accept trial alongside blessing is part and parcel of the maturation process in Christ. It is a life-long battle for most people (like me), but I am learning that bad things happen to good people and vice versa, and every combination therein.

I imagine that when I get to meet Jesus face-to-face, and ask him the questions I want to ask, he will show me a beautiful tapestry with a magnificent work of art on it. And then he will show me the thread that my earthly life represents. It necessarily goes through ups and downs, because that is the only way to weave together fibers. But my life is part of a bigger picture, and I cannot see the meaning of it all. Maybe my life doesn’t or won’t always make sense at the time, but I am learning the necessity of accepting the bad alongside the good and moving forward regardless.

Learning to accept trial is not “getting over it.” It is allowing pain to enlighten you, not cripple you. It is allowing Jesus to walk with you in the pain and allowing him to help you move forward. It is allowing events, circumstances, and traumas to affect who you are, but not be who you are. Accepting the good with the bad is part of life as a Christian. But our hope is in the resurrection!

In John 16:33, Jesus says, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” And that changes everything.

Journal Questions:

  1. Read Jeremiah 15:15-21.
  2. Write about a time in your life where you felt self-pity. What emotions go along with that?
  3. Think about a time when God brought you to a place of acceptance. What did that look like?
  4. What in your life right now do you need to accept?
  5. What might it look like for you to “stand” and be able to accept it?

Accepting Blessing

By Andrew Allison and Konnie Vissers

We live in a world where all too often people do not receive the kind of love and care they need growing up. Simply put…we live in a broken world. I believe this is not actually how God intended us to live. I believe God intends us to live into Jesus’ wholeness and love. Last week at SPL Church we looked at Mark 9, and the transfiguration, where Jesus is transfigured on a mountain top before Peter, James, and John (his inner circle of disciples). And the voice of God is spoken over Jesus, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” A beautiful blessing… “This is my Son, the Beloved.”

Andrew preached a sermon on this, ending with a blessing to those listening. He took promises and statements from various points in Scripture that God speaks to us, His beloved children. It was powerfully moving for me, and I would like to share that with you. This is the Father’s blessing that Andrew shared:

“Hear the Father’s blessing:

I see you.

 I’ve always seen you

  I’ve always seen you and I adore you.

I made you.

  I made you like Me.

    You bear My family resemblance

       My likeness is on your soul.

    I made you inside and out

  I know every bone in your body.

You are wonderfully and fearfully made.

I know your dad and I know your mom.

  I know the details of your conception and the day of your birth.

    I know the whole story.

       Child, listen, I brought you here.

You are My idea, My delight, My beloved.

I smile every time you wake up.

 I know your heart, and it is precious to Me.

  I’ve kept track of every toss and turn,

   Through the sleepless nights,

     Each of your tears are entered into My ledger,

      Each ache is written in My book.

I know your struggle.

  I’m well aware of the temptation that threatens to ruin you.

   I see how fear calls your name.

      When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,

       When you walk through the flames, you will not be burned.

      I have redeemed you.

   Child, you are Mine, I bless you.

Stop thinking these words aren’t for you!

   As though I’m speaking to someone else,

      It’s YOU I’m speaking to.

You are precious to Me;

 You were bought with a great price.

    Hordes of evil were fought to rescue you, and        

       Even now they are kept at bay because

       I love you.

I bless you.

  You have my favor.

    No longer live in fear.

      No longer carry shame.

        I don’t condemn you for anything;

         All is paid for.

You are free!

 Free to live, free to love, free to forgive and give away.

You are blessed so that you can be a blessing to others.

   Live from the fullness of My blessing, live generously.

      You are My daughter, My son.

   I AM the One who never leaves you,

     I will never abandon you.

      I will NOT change My mind about you or forget you,

  I can’t, I carved you in the palm of My hand.

Listen to Me! You are my child. I love you.”

Thinking through Scripture in this form changed something for me. It was no longer words on a page that I had read and heard time and time again. It was a love note. It changed the way that I saw the promises of God in the Bible. They are personal, not generic. They are written for each and every one of God’s created children.

When our identities are rooted in this—rooted in the promise that no matter what has happened to us, and no matter what we have done—we cannot be shaken from our foundation. When we accept that we belong to Christ, we have a firmer foundation than even the most perfect earthly upbringing.

It is one thing to hear these words. It is another thing to accept them, with your whole heart. For those who have been wounded in the past, or are jaded to the world around them, these are much harder to accept. For such people, I encourage you to read them often. Soak in God’s promises. If you hear something enough, you begin to believe it. This is certainly true with the many lies the world tells us: “You are not smart enough. You are not good enough. Nobody could love you after what you have done. Nobody could accept you or see the changed person you have become.” We hear things like this from the world. But God has different words for you…words of blessing, words of love.

Every time you are told a negative, a lie about who you are, think about God’s promises and the blessing bestowed on you through God’s words.

Journal Questions:

  1. Write about some of the thoughts and emotions that came to mind as you read the blessing above.
  2. What are some of the lies you have received and believed about yourself from the world (whether in childhood or adulthood)?
  3. What stood out to you in the blessing above? Was there a certain phrase that stuck out?
  4. What would your life look like if you lived as if you believed that blessing about yourself?

God-Sized Concerns: A Matter of Perspective

What are the concerns of God? What are the concerns of human beings? As we continue to work our way through Mark at SPL Church and look at the Spirit of Jesus “Inside Out,” I am struck by the poignancy of Mark 8:33. The sermon last Sunday laid the groundwork really well for this post. Jesus is telling of his coming death and resurrection, and Peter pulls him aside and “rebukes” him.

And Jesus replies with, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

How do we set our minds on divine things? What are the divine causes that we ought to set our minds on? A few verses in the Bible remind me of a bigger picture.

Micah 6:8, “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” This is a God-concern. In Matthew 22, Jesus describes the Greatest Commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind…And Love your neighbour as yourself.” He even follows it up with, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” This is a God-sized matter. And finally, the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19, where Jesus says to his disciples, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Jesus provides a God-sized vision for what the disciple’s ministry will look like moving forward.

But as humans we often get caught up in the minutia of life. And, as humans, we inherently (and even to an extent biologically) want to know that we will be taken care of—some of this strikes at crucial core longings that God placed in our hearts, and other parts of it strike at the rampant narcissism of the first world. But as humans, we often get caught up in what Jesus calls “human things.”

This is a difficult topic, because nobody wants to admit when they have been caught up in human matters. If it’s something that does matter to us, then by definition, we have skin in the game and get heated about the outcome we want.

So, I am going to admit some of the human matters that I get caught up in and you can do it for yourself: 1-my husband throws his laundry at the hamper, not in the hamper. I don’t know how much time I have wasted trying to educate him on the necessity of this, but I still haven’t won.

2-What should I wear to church on Sunday? I know that people will not actually remember what I wear and probably don’t care at all what I wear (within reason), but I still spend invaluable time trying on outfits for Sunday. *In fairness, as a female pastor I do get comments about my hair and my shoes and the fit of my dress, but these are human matters that I allow myself to play into.

3-money: This one is a biggie! Money stress and concerns are some of the biggest arguments and conversations with many couples/families. Money causes stress in many forms: whether not having enough, or how to spend it wisely, or how to save, are high-stakes conversations. But often, they are at the level of human concerns.

And frankly, none of these three things are the greatest conversation. Sometimes I (maybe some of you can relate) allow myself to get all raveled up in these human concerns, as if they are the be-all and end-all of life, or of church, or of living out faith. Now some of these issues are connected with God’s concerns—like money; and some of them are totally unrelated—like hampers. Though I would like to say “cleanliness is next to godliness,” that is not actually in the Bible.

But we sometimes waste so much of our time on human concerns, that we miss opportunities to be living out God’s will in the world.

And one of the result of this is disengagement and cynicism on the part of unbelievers, who see believers wasting their time arguing over petty issues instead of engaging with their communities and the world.

So, how to break the cycle…well for starters, I think each person needs to recognize the myriad of ways they look to human concerns over and above God concerns. For instance, every time I nag my husband over his dirty socks, I miss an opportunity to enrich my marriage in some more beneficial way. And consciously recognizing this pattern is the first step in the right direction.

Each week I said I would provide some sort of practice to go alongside the blog to delve deeper into the “Inside Out” series. And here is where that practice comes into play. I think that if our lives were truly centered on God, we would not be so focused on our own concerns, and be more focused on God-sized dreams, visions, and plans.

So, what I plan to do each day this week is a meditation exercise called lectio divina. Some of may have done this before, but for those who haven’t, it simply means “divine reading,” in Latin. It is a process of meditating upon a scripture and allowing God to speak to you through it. In lectio divina you read a passage through several times, asking the Holy Spirit to stir something in you during the reading. There are somewhat varied ways to do it, but this is the version I prefer.

The first time just read the passage out loud. The second time, as you read, think of a word or a couple of words that speak to you. The third time through, think of a phrase that stands out. Write down what this experience is like and any takeaways you have from it throughout the week. The Psalms are an excellent place to start this. Read one per day, or even part of one per day.

As you do this throughout the week, notice how your heart changes, how you receive things, how you hear things, how you interact with others. See if getting in the scripture each day changes how you perceive human concerns versus God concerns. It helps me to align myself with God early in the morning, before the barrage of human concerns (mine, as well as others) come pouring in.  It is an exercise in discerning God’s will over our will.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to hear Jesus ever say to me, “Get behind me Satan!” Harsh words! But the part of the story that this misses, is that Jesus also told Peter he would build his church upon him. Even imperfect people like me, who don’t always have the big picture in mind, and sometimes get caught up in the petty, are called God’s beloved children.

Journal Questions:

  1. What human concerns do you pour over on a regular basis?
  2. What concerns do you most frequently argue about with loved ones? Are they human things or God things?
  3. Even as you think through the God concerns in your life, are there unhelpful ways you sometimes talk through them or miss the boat?
  4. What did you experience through the lectio divina exercise?
  5. Write in your journal about the experience of pouring over scripture, and what you felt God put on your heart through that.