Sabotaging the Hero Complex in Discipleship

Power is a tricky thing. Even people who want to use their powers for good can fall prey to a hero complex, the kind obvious in the worlds of sports, comics and church-planters.

Sabotaging the Hero Complex in Discipleship

Power is a tricky thing. Even people who want to use their powers for good can fall prey to a hero complex, the kind obvious in the worlds of sports, comics and church planters. I remember as a teenager discovering I had some speed and athleticism. I was no Superman but I was a fast little goober that could throw the ball on target. That was enough in my small school to push me to the front. I made the football team and found I had power on the field that evidently flowed into the halls of my high school. Being the quarterback gave me a compelling identity in contrast to my previous nobody ranking. Here’s the curious thing about power: I tried out for the team with a trembling spirit but within months I was relishing the attention that being a quarterback gave me. Internally I morphed into a hungry ego gremlin that began to ooze on the outside.

Power’s Leverage

My hypothesis is that most don’t seek power for the intent to dominate. Yet, power has leverage on our innocence and original intentions, eroding them both without our noticing. This is what occurred in my quarterback situation and I’ve seen it play out in various domains. I did not play for power but when it was attained it had an insidious effect on me. This is the moral of Boromir in the Lord of the Rings. Originally he’s called “good hearted” but the Ring gave him command and influence. At first he did not desire the power of wizard-lords but only desired to protect his people. Eventually, the acquisition of power corrupted his character. Often we’re not completely cognoscente of the power we’ve collected, but when made aware of it, we can’t imagine living without it. Power offers us a firm status and more preferable identity.

Discipleship Hero Complex

I’d like to apply this subtle power trajectory to the art of discipleship. Nothing fuels me more than the space of discipleship; I feel at home in this expanse. Discipleship is energizing as it affirms the good pulsing within, confronts the idols we cling to, and sends us back into the world on mission. In most rooms I’ve been the defacto discipler since I’ve been a pastor for the last 15 years. Ten years ago I began to detect a lurking energy in the dynamic of my discipleship methods. Something about this unnamed energy was reminiscent of my time in high school. I now know a raw and real phenomenon actualizes in the discipling relationship. When guiding someone toward transformation something takes place—a power forms. A Hero-Complex sprouts in the transaction. In my good intentions to disciple, venom was simultaneously sneaking into my blood stream. This venom wanted to riddle my body with egotism. Honestly, I did not chase after this Hero-Complex, it grew in strength with my effectual influence and I ignorantly cozied up to it. I was becoming a little deity in my own little empire. Most are sharp enough not to wallow in this publicly but we know it; being a spiritual hero is intoxicating.

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Keeping an Untarnished Image

Spiritual Leaders are often taught to keep their weakness close to the vest, lest we cause someone to stumble. If it’s not taught directly it’s modeled indirectly. I rationalized why keeping my image visibly untarnished was good for everybody. I was genuine in my desire to be used of the Holy Spirit as a discipler, but it could not compensate for the system I was a member of. It took a traumatic event to spotlight the egotism inherent in my approach. In 2003 there was an interruption to my Discipleship fantasy and it rattled me. I watched a deeply trusted leader collapse. My heart was cracked. I was close to this leader, I loved this leader, I was discipled by this leader. As I grieved I had an unnerving realization: “I knew little of his inner world. How could this be? I was in close discipleship quarters with him. How was I not privy to his brokenness when I offered mine regularly?” Something unhinged in me.

(There’s more: page two covers vulnerability in leaders, and dealing with Egotism)

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Dan White
Dan White Jr. co-leads Axiom Church, a developing network of missional communities in the urban neighborhoods of Syracuse, New York. After being a full-time pastor for fifteen years, his family along with four other families moved into the city to pioneer a discipleship-centered, mission-oriented, community-shaped, neighborhood-rooted approach to being the church. Dan works as a consultant and missional coach with the V3 Movement, which trains, plants, and seeds missional expressions throughout the country.