In her work on the surprising power of vulnerability, Brene Brown identified shame as a primary source of our resistance to the risk of wholehearted openness, the kind of emotional and spiritual openness, which can bring us deeper joy and energize greater effectiveness.
Often, shame grows from wounds to our sense of self that others inflict on us. As we all know from our childhood experiences, we suffer some of those wounds in school.
In “Daring Greatly,” Brown writes, “One reason that I’m confident that shame exists in schools is simply because 85 percent of the men and women we interviewed for the shame research could recall a school incident from their childhood that was so shaming it changed how they thought of themselves as learners.”
She continues, “What makes this even more haunting is that approximately half of those recollections were what I refer to as creativity scars. The research participants could recall a specific incident where they were told or shown that they weren’t good writers, musicians, dancers or something creative.”
Those shaming wounds and lingering scars, unless acknowledged and healed, may interfere, across a lifetime, with people’s ability to exercise their creative gifts.
I think that many church leaders – both clergy and laity – have “leadership scars,” difficult reminders of wounds they received when they attempted to offer their leadership gifts.
As with “creativity scars,” some of those wounds may go back to painful experiences in leaders’ childhood and adolescence; a parent, teacher, coach or mentor was harshly critical of their initial attempts to lead.
An adult said things that didn’t merely evaluate the child’s or adolescent’s performance but his or her personhood.
The comments were not aimed at improvement so much as at blaming or even punishing; the words lacerated the heart, and what bled out were the courage and willingness to be “upfront” or “on the line.”
Leadership scars might also come from early forays into church leadership: chairing a committee or coordinating a team that gets gridlocked by procedural squabbles and fails to achieve anything meaningful; heading up a proposed mission project which never really gains traction; proposing a change that falls on deaf ears; serving on a staff that is segregated into silos and rife with conflict; or being put down and held back by an older leader who’s more concerned with preserving power than nurturing younger leaders’ potential.
Once a person bears such leadership scars, it’s crucial that they find experiences that will provide opportunities for healing.
Such healing may come through education, training, peer learning and support, therapy, mentoring, coaching or consultation, but only if such experiences are grounded in a grace-born awareness that leadership development involves more than growth in knowledge and skills.
In the Apostle Paul’s well-known reflections of the role of congregational leaders (“pastor-teachers”) in Ephesians 4, he says that their task is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”
We rightly understand “equipping” to include training gaps in knowledge that need to be bridged, gifts to be turned into skills, and talents to become practices.
Such training contributes to the competency and confidence of people who take up leadership responsibilities.
Equipping is more than training though; it is also about healing.
The family of words from which “equip” comes is used also in Matthew 4:21 for a fisherman’s mending of nets; in 1 Thessalonians 3:10 for restoration of what is lacking in one’s faith; and in 1 Peter 5:10 for God’s power to restore – more literally, to rehabilitate – someone who has struggled and suffered.
Outside the New Testament, this family of words is used to speak of a physician’s setting of broken bones.
To equip, then, is to provide the possibility for healing: to help someone trust that, even though they have failed and made mistakes, and, more deeply, despite their having been shamed when they dared to offer their talents and gifts, it’s still possible for them to lead effectively and serve meaningfully.
Frayed edges can be rewoven. Brokenness can be restored.
People who train and encourage leaders need to remember that we all need grace and mercy, and that we always need them.
To be sure, high standards of excellence matter. Achieving goals, producing deliverables, meeting deadlines and communicating clearly are all undeniably crucial.
Most deeply, though, all who lead – and all who follow – are beloved children of God whose hearts have been broken and whose spirits have grown weary.
Sometimes what we need, not just as leaders, but also as human beings, is a reminder that the love we offer others is also for us.
Guy Sayles is a consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches, an adjunct professor at Gardner-Webb Divinity School and a board member of the Baptist Center for Ethics. He will join the religion faculty at Mars Hill University in Mars Hill, North Carolina, in the fall. A version of this article first appeared on the Center for Healthy Churches’ blog and is used with permission. Sayles’ writings can also be found on his website, From the Intersection.