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Leadership, the AA Way

Getting real and leading authentically

I used to think Alcoholics Anonymous was all stale prayers and smoky church basements. I considered myself a distant admirer of the program, but even as a counselor, I didn't want to get too close. AA was a good idea for some people, but surely it wasn't relevant to my busy life of "making a difference" in women's ministry.

Last summer my stereotypes were shattered through a course called "Substance Abuse and Society," which gave me a firsthand glimpse into the program of Alcoholics Anonymous. Like the church, AA encourages people to seek healing and growth. But sometimes unlike church, AA prizes authenticity—in a Jesus kind of way. I was surprised at how much I gleaned about leadership in those church basements. Take a journey through a few of the Twelve Steps to examine your authenticity as a leader:

Adding Authenticity

During a thunderous summer storm, a slim and attractive woman in her forties stepped behind the podium at an AA meeting. Her chunky pearl bracelet slid up her arm as she pulled the microphone toward her. "Hi, I'm Christy, and I'm an alcoholic." During the next 30 minutes, Christy shared her journey to a sober life.

Her appraisal of herself, both in addiction and recovery, was gut-level honest. Yet she possessed strength that gave her an almost regal air. A huge thunderclap punctuated her closing words, "Surrendering saved my life."

Christy reminded me of the woman Jesus spoke to at the well in Samaria. When Jesus confronted the woman with an honest appraisal of herself, she ran back to tell anyone who would listen that "he told me everything I ever did!" (John 4:39). The story goes on to say that many believed in Jesus as Savior because of her testimony. Christy and the woman at the well both recognized their need for a Savior after an honest appraisal of themselves. Honesty didn't cripple them with self-condemnation. It transformed them into powerful witnesses of grace.

I consider myself a leader because of my ability to build consensus and solve problems. But serving God is about more than what I'm good at. It's about what he's doing in me to transform me into a witness of his grace and love. As a leader, do you strive to present yourself authentically? Do you resist the urge to "have it all together" for other leaders, church members, or friends? Are you willing to examine your own failings so that God might testify to his grace? Shedding the put-together image shifts the glory-spotlight back to where it belongs: on God's power, not our own.

The Confession Factor

Anyone who has walked through the Twelve Steps of AA anticipates step 4 with wide-eyed trembling. Step 4 says I have made a searching and fearless moral inventory of myself. There are many ways to complete this step, but most agree that writing down one's moral failures in the areas of fears, resentments, relationships with others, material possessions, and sexual integrity are important.

"I finally completed step 4," a recovering alcoholic told me as we talked about his spiritual health. "I met my sponsor at 7-11 and I asked him if he was ready to hear my detailed confession. He directed me to a parked car outside. I was terrified." He went on with a smile, "I spent about an hour telling this man about all the things I had done wrong. Turns out, it was a stranger my sponsor paid to be with me. My sponsor didn't need to hear my junk. I just needed to hear it myself and be released in forgiveness."

Jesus warned the Pharisees, some strict religious leaders of his day, that they were like "whitewashed tombs," appearing beautiful on the outside while full of hypocrisy on the inside (Matthew 23:27-28). The temptation to point others to clarity while avoiding it ourselves is strong. As leaders, recognizing the true landscape of our hearts is a step, like Jesus said, in cleaning out our insides.

Searching and Fearless?

As leaders, we must be willing to face our own issues with both a "searching" and a "fearless" heart. Richard Foster shares his own journey of self-examination in Celebration of Discipline: "I did not take the difficult step of laying bare my inner life to another out of any deep burden or sense of sin. I did not feel there was anything wrong in the least—except one thing. I longed for more power to do the work of God. I felt inadequate to deal with many of the desperate needs that confronted me."

Before my AA transformation, I was happy to keep my sins between God and me. As I began to share my true heart with my mentors and teammates, I was shocked by the grace and compassion I received—much more than I was giving myself. I discovered that my own self-driven perceptions and expectations were misdirected. When I openly shared my weaknesses, my team understood that I am a leader who makes decisions out of my own brokenness, and that I can't do it alone. Confession provided much-needed correction.

We cannot teach about the power in God's forgiveness if we haven't first subjected ourselves to its work. Do you have at least two people in your life who know where you are tempted to sin? Do you allow others to speak into your life and encourage you to pursue spiritual health? The result of such fearless soul-searching is a release of God's power to work in and through you in all areas of life, particularly as a leader.

The Humility Step

AA describes humility as "another great dividend we may expect from confiding our defects to another human being." A man in his sixties told me, "I'm just a selfish guy. By helping others in the program I keep myself sober." His gruff demeanor couldn't hide his sincere and humble heart. He had a clear understanding of who he was—a recovering alcoholic equipped to help, and be helped by, others on the journey.

As leaders, we should seek to understand who we are outside of Christ. Another mentor once said, "I thought about the trajectory my life would be on without Jesus working on my heart. I know I would be a self-obsessed person set on greed and ambition." When we understand who we really are, we appreciate our influence and power as leaders with humility. We are willing to allow God to control the outcomes of our sincere attempts as leaders. We want others to provide contribution and direction, because we don't base our self-worth on the results of our leadership.

Talking about our past ways and current "drunken" areas—however large or small they are—keeps us from stumbling in pride. 1 Timothy 1:16 reminds us, "God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners." Accepting grace requires understanding need. Reminding ourselves of our own brokenness and sin removes the "us and them" mentality that can creep into ministry leadership. It keeps us as desperate for Jesus as the people we desire to serve.

As in the AA way, we should seek clarity on who we are apart from Christ, and make sincere attempt to move toward who he wants us to be in him. As a leader, do you have a grasp on your strengths and weaknesses? Do you encourage others around you to recognize their strengths and accept their weaknesses?

The Devotion Quotient

AA members know that devotion is critical for success in recovery. Day or night, a recovery group is probably meeting near your home. "It only works if you work it" is the mantra of every AA meeting, and newbies are encouraged to attend meetings daily.

In a particularly busy season of ministry, I found myself struggling to keep up with the demands of leadership, motherhood, and counseling. I met with a trusted mentor who gently asked me, "Are you more in love with your Creator—or his creation?" The tyranny of the ministry to-do list makes it easy to forget that I must hear from God in order to follow his direction. Above all else, my heart must be devoted to God—who he is as my father and Lord. As a leader, do you ruthlessly prioritize personal devotion? Do you spend time each day creating space for God?

Unity Dividends

"AA leaders at one point considered removing the name of God from the 12 steps," explained my class instructor. "In a vote, the majority chose to change the language, but many disagreed. In the spirit of unity, they decided to keep it the way it was."

In the spirit of unity, I mused in class, twiddling my pencil. I wrote in my notebook, "How often do I sacrifice my own agenda in the ‘spirit of unity' " Over the coming months, I began to listen to the way I asserted myself in my team. Was I willing to listen with an open heart, allowing the possibility that my mind could be changed? Was I willing to sacrifice my own ideas for the greater good of the ministry or the church? Unity in ministry sets us apart as Christians. It speaks to our desire to "submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Ephesians 5:21). A group of leaders who listen to one another's burdens, love each other in their weaknesses, and submit to one another is a powerful testimony of what it means to be like Jesus.

The Tissue Variable

I stepped up to teach a large-group Bible study last week in a full sob. My heart was heavy. The burdens of those I love and counsel seemed much bigger than I could handle. Special music at the beginning of class evoked surprising emotion, and I didn't suppress my tears. My introduction question went from a smooth tie-in to the biblical narrative to "does anyone have a tissue?"

I felt exposed and raw. And it felt right. Leadership doesn't always look like strength. But if it's real, it is powerful.

The Authenticity Quotient Quiz:

1. I can readily name a couple of areas of temptation to sin.

Always Sometimes Rarely Never

2. I maintain the same sense of self at home, at work, and in ministry.

Always Sometimes Rarely Never

3. I regularly take time to take a "searching and fearless moral inventory" with God and with myself.

Always Sometimes Rarely Never

4. I have confessed my sins, fears, and/or insecurities with a trusted friend.

Always Sometimes Rarely Never

5. I have sacrificed my own agenda for the sake of my team.

Always Sometimes Rarely Never

6. I consistently seek ways to promote unity within my ministry team and the church as a whole.

Always Sometimes Rarely Never

7. People who know me well would consider me humble.

Always Sometimes Rarely Never

8. My devotion to Jesus comes before anything else in ministry.

Always Sometimes Rarely Never

9. I can name several of my strengths and weaknesses.

Always Sometimes Rarely Never

Give 3 points for Always, 2 for Sometimes, 1 for Rarely, 0 for Never.

23-27 points: you have a good grasp on authentic leadership. Your example is a model for others to experience the freedom of authentic relationship with God and others.

17-23 points: You have areas of authenticity in your leadership, but also some growth opportunities. Consider why you've needed to mask yourself in leadership, and how you can take the next step in authenticity.

10-17 points: Genuineness seems to be an issue for you. Perhaps past difficulties have created some patterns of relating where you feel you have to "act" a certain way. Consider asking a trusted friend if he/she agrees with your assessment, then act on incorporating some of these areas into your life.

0-10 points: Red Alert! You are headed for ministry injury—to yourself or others. Read this article or this issue of the Kyria digital magazine to find ways of relating more authentically. Or consider visiting an AA meeting as a guest to experience an environment of humility, confession, and devotion that can inspire you to make some much-needed changes.

Nicole Unice is a writer and speaker who serves in family and student ministry at Hope Church in Richmond, Virginia.

February01, 2012 at 9:50 AM

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