Recently there have been situations in church leaderships of which I am aware, that have made me cringe to the roots of my boots.
There are elders who have fallen out with each other and won’t be reconciled. There are elders who have sidelined other leaders. There are leadership teams that have truly blundered in showing partiality to their friends. Others have ridden roughshod over procedures laid down in the church constitution, but would rather bluff their way through than own up to making a mistake. All this can put the very unity of a congregation in jeopardy. But on they go. ‘Sorry seems to be the hardest word,’ sang that great theologian (?) Elton John.
Why is it that church leaders find it so difficult to put up their hands and to say ‘Sorry – we got it wrong?’
After all, Scripture shows us plenty of God’s people who are leaders, who mess up and have to repent. Abraham, the very father of the Jewish people, gets it wrong about Hagar but was at least prepared to eat humble pie before his wife Sarai (Gen. 16:6).
Moses, marked by his humility, was not at all quick to defend himself when he was accused (even falsely) – he let the Lord do that (Num. 12:3, 8). And sometimes, in the heat of the moment, he did get it wrong (Deut. 32:51).
The apostle Paul publicly apologised when he had reacted badly to Ananias the high priest (Acts 23:5). The Gospels seem to go out of their way to show the serious gaffs of the disciples, later leaders of the church. They are vying for position (Luke 22:24) having to be rebuked by Jesus (Mark 8:33) and, finally, to a man proving themselves cowards (Matthew 26:56).
With such a biblical library of leadership failure, why, for so many leadership teams, is ‘how can we cover our backsides?’ the first thing on the agenda? Why are so many preachers unable to accept even constructive criticism of their ministry?
The first motive may be a worry that if they are seen to get too many things wrong perhaps they are not very good leaders. No one likes ‘could do better’ on their school report. They think admission of failure might discourage the church. However, the answer is not to indulge in ‘white lies’, but to pull their socks up and do better.
But the bottom-line motive for the ‘spin doctors’ of leadership, of course, will be old-fashioned pride. Having to admit to failure hurts. This is very dangerous. It was pride which transmogrified God’s servant, a glorious angel, into the prince of demons (1 Tim. 3:6).
The vital ingredient for all good leadership is to deserve the trust of the congregation. The church has appointed you because they believe they can trust you. If they trust you as leaders then they will be willing to be led. But to insist you have got it right, when it’s quite clear you have got it wrong, is to destroy that trust. (It’s even worse if the whole truth has been covered up and only comes out later. God’s people will then feel they have been deceived – and how can they trust you then?)
But on the other hand if leaders humbly acknowledge when they have made a mistake, in the long run that will mark them out as honest men. They are not perfect (who is?) but they are straight in their dealings.
Here’s a thought: although He is right in all He does, never has to say sorry and is unchanging, nevertheless God Himself is prepared to use the language of changing His mind and ‘repentance’ (Gen. 6:6, 7; Jonah 3:10). But for some leaders, God’s language is beyond them.
James 3 speaks much to leaders. It talks about two kinds of wisdom – one from hell and one from heaven. The ‘wisdom’ from below (v.14) denies the truth. The wisdom from above (v.17) is ‘considerate, impartial, submissive’ – ‘easy to be entreated’ (AV); ‘open to reason’ (ESV).
It is the sign of wise leaders to say ‘sorry’ when they need to.
John Benton is en’s former Managing Editor and Director of Pastoral Support at The Pastor’s Academy, www.pastorsacademy.org