“I need this.” Reading the recent investigation on claims of Ravi Zacharias’s sexual misconduct, I was caught by the statement multiple women reported hearing from him. Having worked with Christian leaders around the world, I hear more in those words than a pick-up line. I hear the plea of men and women caught up in the isolation of their ministry success and feeling desperately in need.
“In need of what?” their admirers may wonder. Beyond fame, fortune, and following, these leaders evidence amazing riches in God’s wisdom and power. If that isn’t enough to satisfy, then what is? Yet so many leaders end up enmeshed in immorality and scandal that news of it is hardly more surprising than that of another dip in the stock market or sighting of a hurricane. Unsurprising, yet damaging, those whose lives they influenced are left to grapple with doubts over what was real and what was not.
Henri Nouwen, who served in the L’Arche communities founded by now-disgraced Jean Vanier, identified the conditional nature of the world’s love as a source of enslavement, particularly to those in its limelight. Gifted leaders who perform well are elevated to hero status, with the caveat that they consistently meet and exceed expectations. “These ‘ifs’ enslave me, since it is impossible to respond adequately to all of them. …It is a world that fosters addictions because what it offers cannot satisfy the deepest craving of my heart.”
Ours has become a culture in which leaders are either sanctified or vilified, with very little room for being human. We are familiar with the idea that power corrupts, but we fail to recognize how our image of leaders undermines their capacity to live as beloved children of God, made of weak flesh and in need of ongoing nurture. This in no way excuses their indecent behavior or abuse of power, nor does it downplay the devastation of broken lives and disillusioned communities left in their wake. But there are multiple forces at play driving good leaders to end up in bad places. To the extent we can recognize and work to change these, we can alter the increasingly familiar narrative of fallen leaders and discredited ministries.
Without constantly cultivating the childlike intimacy with God that usually defined David, leaders will fall prey to a tempting barrage of unmet needs and entitled excuses.
Sex scandals among leaders are as old as the Bible. David’s abusive treatment of Bathsheba fits the pattern perpetuated among leaders from Seattle to Sri Lanka. Taken at face value, his public statement of confession (Psalm 51) reveals a heart that did not intend for things to end up where they did. But the toxic mix of unquestioned authority and pedestalized isolation led this otherwise godly leader to seek his next “high” in the wrong place. For the many like him, fanfare as addictive as a “Like” button can combine with a dizzying height of social expectation to create a lifestyle fueled by a perpetual adrenaline rush. Add to that long work hours, constant travel, and the pressure to perform, and it is no surprise that the Davids of our time suffer from a deep inner hunger. Their souls are starving, and the quickest “bite” they can grab is a shoddy stand-in for true intimacy, not to mention one of the very lambs they have devoted themselves to shepherding.
Leaders are responsible to safeguard their flocks, their families, and their souls. Without constantly cultivating the childlike intimacy with God that usually defined David, leaders will fall prey to a tempting barrage of unmet needs and entitled excuses. Thomas à Kempis’s words, penned long before the invention of global media, point to the need for leaders to regularly step back from the microphone, to abstain from social dialogue, and to engage in guided soul-searching: “No one can safely appear in public who does not enjoy seclusion. No one safely talks but he [she] who gladly keeps silent. No one safely rules but he [she] who is glad to be subordinate.”
Our leaders need us to see them for who they are and not just what we want them to be
But we also have a role to play in safeguarding our leaders. Paul repeatedly requested the loving engagement of the communities that he led, disclosing his weakness and begging their prayers. Whether or not they invite it, our leaders need us to see them for who they are and not just what we want them to be.
That is what our leaders need. Our leaders need us to be Samuels and Nathans who mentor and supply needed guidance, Jonathans who provide intimate friendship and peer support, and Abigails who intervene and call forth the best in them when we see danger ahead. Only then can we work together to put an end to the blight of scandalous shepherds and victimized sheep.