The story of The Exodus – the escape over three millennia ago of the Israelite people from slavery in Egypt and their subsequent journey homeward bound – is one of the greatest stories ever told. And it begins with a broken man being called to rescue this broken people from a broken tyrant overseeing a broken economy within a broken culture.
I was reflecting with Jim today on the brokenness I have seen lately in people around me, and in myself. This brokenness is not a bad thing: the opposite, in fact. Some of the people I most admire and look up to; those who have taught me how to live well; are broken.
Actually, on some level, we are all broken.
And the more I become aware of the brokenness around me, the more I realise that my leadership – in all areas of my life – must begin in the brokenness.
Moses told this to the Israelites; but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.
The people of Israel were so broken; their inward (and probably outward) cries of pain were so overwhelming, so unbearable, that they could hear and see and feel nothing that didn’t hurt.
We may not be slaves, we may not have experienced oppression to the same degree as the Israelite people under Pharaoh, but life hurts, doesn’t it?
Sometimes, life hurts so much that we can hear nothing but our pain.
Disillusionment, disappointment, anger, frustration, sadness, hurt: these things begin to shape our narratives: they become the dominant stories that we tell. We lose sight of the future we were promised. We forget that there might be promise beyond the pain. We become hope-less.
A few weeks ago, I had a particular day where a number of people asked me to listen to their pain, and to pray with them. Thankfully, I had my anointing oil on hand! Following that day, I made a decision to always carry the oil – at least, as much as I would remember to. I think this decision arose from a realisation that I am ministering to a broken people. Not that the people I minister to are an anomaly; rather, I see in them the brokenness that many of us wear as casually and normally as our clothes. With the oil, I am ready to hear their brokenness, to embrace and anoint the darkest of their fears, and to speak words of comfort and hope and freedom.
Broken people don’t listen.
Why should they?
And yet, the story we have to tell – of resurrection and life and love and hope – needs to be heard.
So how do we tell it?
Anyone called to or engaged in Christian leadership needs to be ready to minister to the brokenness. Sometimes, the pain of our people is so profound – and shapes their story so crushingly – that before we can begin any meaningful work of discipleship or teaching or building up we need to address the pain.
Effective leaders must be pastors, listeners, healers, and encouragers.
If our people are broken in spirit, then the first – perhaps the only – tasks of leadership are:
To understand the brokenness
To listen, painstakingly, patiently, undefensively.
To hear the story behind the story; the meaning behind the words; the pain behind the aggression.
To be able to retell the story back to the storyteller in their words.
To empathise, and not sympathise.
To be there, with no agenda.
To bind up the wounds
To speak little, but incisively.
To offer words of healing balm, rather than explanation, defence, challenge, or frustration.
To embrace, without turning away.
To earn back trust
To recognise this is slow work.
To teach by listening rather than talking.
To offer freedom, autonomy, and space to make mistakes.
To be ready to go back to the work of listening, hearing, understanding, when the pain crowds in and this inner work is too much.
As a church, we are broken, and we have a difficult time ahead. Trust in us as an institution – as with many institutions – is at an all-time low. The narratives all too often turn to desperation, failure, regret. We must learn to lead our people through despondency, through disappointment, through brokenness.
But these things must never come to define our story.
We are broken, but our brokenness is not the end of our story. The great story of the Exodus probably never felt like an epic tale of adventure to the broken Israelite slaves. At what point did they, as a generation, realise the extent to which their story would be told, retold and learned by heart?
My greatest heroes, my cherished role models, are all broken people. But it is their brokenness, and their embrace of that brokenness, that makes them heroic.
We are all on a path through brokenness to wholeness. And increasingly, we need leaders who have walked that path, and who are willing to walk it again with their people; as slowly and as painstakingly as it takes. The best leaders never sprint off ahead. The best leaders stay with – and unite – the group. The best leaders tie up shoe laces and wipe snotty noses and sit with those who have given up and hand out snacks and plasters and jokes and say,
“Look ahead – I think we’re nearly there“.
And there is the wholeness we glimpse in brokenness. It is in the people among us to are ready