Shake the dust off your sandals...

In the recent edition of The Christian Century, M. Craig Barnes writes about the loneliness of a leader. It is worth the time - and found me at exactly the right moment. (check it out @ I was feeling blue - grieving on a few different levels, to be sure - but also a bit ambushed, too.

Usually I have the self-awareness after a funeral to disappear for a few hours. I am vulnerable and tired and rarely my best self. I know that many people want the pastor to hang-out and visit after the liturgy - sometimes go back to the house and talk more deeply, too - but I can't do that. I am totally played after a funeral. Spent. Toast. And no good for anyone - myself included. I know this about my soul. I've learned to practice self-care over the years and usually slip into the darkness after such an event. 

But for some reason I didn't do what I know to be best yesterday. After greeting folk on their way to coffee and refreshments, I lingered for a time in the Sanctuary. That's where I got ambushed - and while I could feel it starting to happen as I stood there listening, I was just too tired to put up a fight. So I got knocked around a bit verbally all with a smile and a sweet voice. Complaints, criticisms, triangulated snippets of gossip and other trash talk all shared in the dulcet tones of "I just want to be helpful." All offered like a knife between the eyes.

That's how soul vampires work, you know? They have a unique and well honed ability to sniff out your most vulnerable moment and then pounce when you are most defenseless. Those who aren't pastors - or church professionals - will think I am being paranoid here and I don't deny it; but for those who haven't worked in the institutional church, just ask around a bit - take a walk in your pastor's shoes, too - and you'll discover I am being overly gentle in my soul vampire description. Because, you see, there is almost nothing compassionate about a soul vampire's 
content or timing. Doing my own inner work, I can learn about my shadow from these vultures, but it requires an enormous amount of simultaneous translation. Left alone, their words and actions are poisonous.

Think about it: would you dare pick the first five minutes after a profound funeral to dump your accumulated criticisms on anyone? Of course not. Such an act is not only totally insensitive and inappropriate, it is cruel. Even mean-spirited. And that is the point: the style, content and timing of a soul vampire is designed to both personally hurt and then bleed a leader's insecurities. M. Craig Barnes notes that this is why leaders become lonely - you can't really lead people into new ways of living through consensus and focus groups - you often have to charge forward on your own. This leaves former power brokers in the dust, so leaders have to plan to manage their reactions. And leaders must also make certain they minimize the places where they might be ambushed.

In other words, there are very few people who know the challenges of the office and are prepared and able to stand with you in solidarity. That goes with the territory. Barnes is insightful when he writes: 

Pastors often talk about their loneliness, even though in their work they’re surrounded by many people. What pastors mean by loneliness is not what most people think of it as. And it’s not unique to their calling. According to more than one editorialist, President Obama has given up on building a grand American consensus and is now focused on what he always wanted to do as a leader. His old slogan “Yes we can” has become “I’ll figure out a way.”

This makes me wonder exactly what goes on in the mind of a leader who tires of building consensus and just strives to get things done. Americans have never agreed about anything. So our greatest presidents eventually found ways to be loyal only to the still small voice that kept whispering in their ears, “You know what you need to do.” This is how Washington found himself leading a revolution, how Lincoln got us through the Civil War, and how Roosevelt pulled the nation out of a depression. They were never leading a parade.

Opponents threw everything they could at them. All of these presidents had flaws that made them easy targets for gossip. And the politics of accomplishing their goals were staggering. At the end of every long day they were completely alone, but they kept moving in the right direction, haunted by a still small voice that would not let them stop.

Three thoughts have been swimming through my head since yesterday's encounter:

+ First, I am so very grateful that I have learned to NOT react immediately when I get whacked. Long ago I learned from Fr. Ed Hays that there is a wisdom to our wounds that more often than not teaches us how to grow into the Spirit of Christ. When something happens that makes me want to punch another, I must be peaceful. When I want to run away, I must pause and be present. When I feel furious, I must listen more carefully. And, of course, I must to do in a context of quiet contemplation before making any response.

+ Second, I am even more grateful that I have a life-partner - and a few colleagues on my staff - who both get the challenge of the soul vampire and trust and care for me enough to help me through the ambushes. They are true life-savers and I love them all more as each day goes by.

+ And third, I have come to see that these ambushes can be times of validation, too (after steps one and two, of course!) If we weren't making real and vibrant changes for the better, I wouldn't be getting complaints from the ancien regime. Without trying to romanticize or sentimentalize the problem, I think Barnes gets it right when he writes:

The most striking portrait of John F. Kennedy depicts him standing alone in the White House with his head bowed down, lost in a ponderous thought. I think he’s arguing with the still small voice. I can hear him saying, “They will never buy it.” But the voice just kept pushing him into his lonely convictions about leadership. It doesn’t matter if you are leading a nation, company, congregation, school, or family—a time comes when you just have to do what you believe to be right. You give up on consensus, being admired, or even appreciated. It’s the inner voice you have to serve.

This is never how the leader begins. Even the process of being chosen implies a contract to serve those who made the choice, and all leaders assume that means figuring out a way to bring everyone together around a spectacular dream. But it just doesn’t work out that way in the end. We shoot our dreamers. Sometimes literally, but always metaphorically.
There is something in our ever-so-democratic, antihierarchical, big-on-transparency, questioning-the-process affections that make us resist this core of leadership. But the Bible is filled with examples of women and men who had a vision from God and knew they had to throw their lives into fulfilling it even if it meant leaving town in a shower of rocks. It’s hard to find a prophet, apostle, or Jesus in search of a grand consensus.

I recently asked my current generation of church leaders to read and then re-read the "renewal document" that was fashioned as part of the process that led to my call.  It is a humble and even tame collection of ideas that were fiercely resisted by many who knew the church had to change but refused to give up their small, private favorite fiefdoms.  Some resisted sharing the power-making process; others refused to welcome the music of the 20th century into worship; still others were afraid to make an Open and Affirming commitment; and on and on it goes. I was called - some would say hired but the truth is I was called - to both implement this plan for renewal and then reshape it for our lived experience.

The first three years were complicated - exciting and challenging - but filled with resistance and fear. In time, trust was created, new staff brought into the mix, new lay leadership organized and the culture of the congregation began to shift. Not completely, and never all at once, but still profoundly. My ambush yesterday was a sobering reminder that we are on the right track. It is also proof that "rust never sleeps" as Neil Young sang so well. Just below the surface is an anger from some that our renewal has worked - and is working. The soul vampires among this cadre are relentless. Note to myself: NEVER forget this and NEVER (if you can help it) let yourself get sucked in the mire again. 

When I was back in seminary, my mentor - Ray Swartzback - used to say to me: we want every soul to be embraced by the loving goodness of our Lord - we just want some to experience this sooner than others! He also said that in every ministry there comes a time when the pastor and his/her team have to practice "shaking the dust off our sandals" and moving on. Amen and amen. As the ancient church fathers and mothers used to say from time to time:
illegitimi non carborundum."


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