At the close of one of our family life conferences, my wife and I were chatting with some attenders. As the large hall emptied, a woman approached my wife, Karen, and, glancing in my direction, said, "It must be wonderful to have a husband like Ron. He's obviously so thoughtful, courteous, and kind. I wish my husband were like that, and I wish he had been here!"
She was sincere. Karen smiled. I thanked the woman as graciously as I could, sputtered something about not always being that way, and left her with Karen while I packed the car.
The incident is now a decade old. The name and face of that woman have long since vanished from memory, but not the impression she made. Her compliment provided a profound commentary on how listeners can perceive a pastor or speaker. To her I epitomized the ideal husband and father.
How could she have thought anything otherwise? My real-life illustrations and anecdotes were positive ones with happy endings. I communicated that I was the head of a smooth-running, well-disciplined household. Everything was under control, my children obedient, my judgment and decision-making flawless. I was loving, affectionate, mature in all the Christian graces. I was, in her words, "together."
Confusing emotions swirled in me. I liked her compliment, but I also felt uneasy. While I did want to set a good example, I felt uncomfortable with the impression this woman had received.
Later, when I shared some of my feelings with Karen, I found that she too was mulling the same things.
"Do you know what I think?" she offered.
"I think they need to hear about some of the difficulties that we have as a family, too. They need to hear that we have some struggles and that things don't always go perfectly for us either."
I wasn't sure I wanted to hear more of what she was thinking, but she went on, "We need to communicate that lots of times the negative experiences outweigh the positive ones."
My wife was gracious. She used we and us, but I was hearing you.
"What good would that do?" I said, as something gut-deep within me reacted. "People have enough bad experiences already; they need to hear some good ones."
Karen agreed, but added, "Don't you think it would be good for them to know that we and the kids go through similar experiences of temper outbursts and anger, conflicts of will, quarreling, and that we sometimes hurt one another's feelings, just as everyone else does?"
"I don't think it's right for leaders to share those kinds of things," I countered. "We shouldn't talk about ourselves and our problems; we should turn people's minds to Christ. We should lift the standard higher, pointing them to something better."
With that she fell silent.
I did not understand then that what Karen was suggesting and what I believed to be the standard for Christian leaders were not incompatible. Leaders are to be good examples, but examples of what? Now I see that it is, in fact, crucial for these two apparent opposites to merge for our leadership to have maximum effectiveness.
That brief conversation ended with me less than receptive. However, it sparked lots of thinking about leadership.
We may fervently caution, "Don't look at me; look at Christ," but people look at Christ through us. We are their viewing lens. Paul did not shun this special relationship between the disciple-maker and the disciple, but recognized it, and even at times called his followers to it. "Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ" (1 Cor. 11:1).
Some may be tempted to conclude at this point that Christian leadership requires a perfection that surely excludes all but the sainted among us. But God has not called leaders to provide an unblemished reflection of Christ. He has called us to proclaim that we have a perfect, unblemished Christ to whom both proclaimers of the gospel and their listeners may come for grace. People want to know not how perfect a leader is, but how the leader has found and continues to know the Savior.
This truly provides a pattern worthy of imitation.
A Revealing Drive
Vulnerability can be frightening and appropriate self-disclosure difficult. How will people react? Will I be misunderstood? Will they think me weak, perhaps unfit for ministry?
All these worries loomed as I considered sharing some of the not-so-happy-ending experiences from our home. One family experience, however, helped me take a long stride toward this unconventional kind of leadership.
Our family drove to a church camp several states away where we had been invited to speak on family life at a gathering of ministers and their families. During the nine-hour drive, fatigue, frustration, and tensions mounted to the point that I lost my temper, jerked the car to a halt, soundly spanked our two sons, then angrily spun the car around and headed home.
As I sped along with my wife silent and my children whimpering, I muttered, "There's no point in speaking about family life when I can't even keep my own family life together."
When my wife perceived my blood pressure receding a bit, she touched me gently and said softly, "You don't think they invited us to speak on family life because we're perfect, do you?"
I couldn't believe she was asking the question! In my thinking the answer was an unequivocal yes!
But on that country road that hot summer afternoon, I experienced some unplanned spiritual growth.
After a few more miles, my wife urged me to stop, talk to the boys, and pray together.
I resisted, even though I knew what needed to be done. In the briefcase beside me were the notes of a sermon on family forgiveness I had just completed the night before. How I wished the gospel call to forgive and ask forgiveness wasn't so fresh in my mind!
Reluctantly I stopped. We walked around a little roadside park, talked, and prayed. Then I did something that until then was totally out of character for me: I asked to be forgiven for my emotional outburst. And my family forgave me.
Then—you guessed it—I turned the car around again.
Near the end of the program as Karen and I were sharing our message on forgiveness, I felt impressed to share our recent incident. I had come to see that family members, children, moms and dads, even when they serve the Lord as leaders, are not perfect, but they can know the experience of being forgiven by God and by one another.
That act of sharing was a giant step towards self-understanding. I sensed in a special way Christ's pardoning grace freeing me, allowing me to accept myself in spite of my imperfection and weakness. It was a humbling experience.
At the close many pressed around to say thanks. "We feel we can touch you now," one said. "You've given us the courage we need to accept ourselves and to be more real with our families and with our churches."