In recent days, many people have experienced profound grief as a number of respected and dearly loved Christian leaders have let us down. The disappointments run the gamut from abuses of power to sexual impropriety and more. What can we learn about discipleship in this?
For me, this season has been a reminder about the connection between healing and discipleship. You will not find a chapter about healing in most discipleship 101 textbooks, but perhaps there should be one. I’m not primarily thinking about physical healing here, but inner healing—emotional, mental and relational health. Leaders are not immune personally to the real challenges in these areas, but often feel they can’t talk to others about them because of their leadership role.
Just as disciples are expected to regularly pursue worship, community and a deeper knowledge of God’s Word, we who lead also would do well to regularly pursue healing. We are disciples of Jesus before we are leaders of people. The past few years have been a uniquely traumatizing time for many Christian leaders. As a denominational executive, I am well aware of the unique burdens COVID-19, political turmoil, pastoral abuse and racial unrest have been to us all. The normal pressures of life and ministry have multiplied, and whatever dysfunctions may have been present in us have been magnified.
But as disciples, we are not to persevere stoically through storms on our own strength. Instead, we must once again acknowledge our need for the strength and healing touch of God, who is ever willing to receive us: “He will not break the bruised reed, nor quench the dimly burning flame. He will encourage the fainthearted, those tempted to despair” (Isa. 42:3).
Here’s the thing: There’s no point in this life where we will be done healing. We are all broken and wounded in different ways, which is why all disciples––leaders included––need the ongoing, healing touch of Jesus Christ. In a fallen world, healing, discipleship and mission will always be closely connected. We will become more effective in our mission to help make the world whole to the extent that we are whole ourselves.
Why is it so hard for us to embrace this truth? Perhaps it’s because we fear admitting how vulnerable we really are, or we are unsure how others will respond when they see a leader admit honest struggles. Yet such attempts to operate out of strength typically result in further wounding of others and ourselves. So what does the pursuit of healing look like?
First, we all need one or more therapists on speed dial. Everyone understands that human bodies need regular physicals. It’s exactly the same with mental and emotional health. The word “therapy” derives from the Latin therapeuticus, meaning curing or healing. Therapeutic care is not only for times of crisis. That’s like never going to the doctor, then one day rushing to the emergency room only to be diagnosed with advanced heart disease or Stage 4 cancer. At that point, care might help, but how much better would it have been if you had been diagnosed sooner? Over the course of life and ministry, I have visited with at least five different therapists, both Christian and non-Christian, at different times and for different reasons. And it has made a powerful difference in both my life and in my discipleship.
Second, stay up-to-date on the many excellent Christian resources available today in the areas of mental, emotional and relational health—not only for those you serve, but also for you. Don’t miss classics like Peter Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality or newer works such as Scot McKnight’s A Church Called To, Sheila Wise Rowe’s Healing Racial Trauma, or Dane Ortlund’s Gentle and Lowly. When you have the courage to admit your need, you will find a wealth of resources to meet it.
A third, important way to pursue healing is to seek out one or two brothers or sisters with whom you can be totally honest about your struggles. Too many leaders are isolated and lonely and have no one to talk to about their real issues.
One of my favorite quotes by Martin Luther King Jr. is this: “Only through an inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit.” To the extent that we experience inner healing, we become equipped and empowered to extend that same healing to the world.