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

Agony in Vulnerability

I was done with infrastructures that created pseudo-popes out of spiritual leaders. My first impulse was to rail against all leadership that posed and protected, but God’s Spirit confronted me to move beyond anger cloaked in a righteous agenda. God instead pinned me on my own unexamined discipleship practices. I needed reformation, but I was confused at where to begin. Romantically, I thought I could construct a new way of discipling that had no power dynamics, no acknowledged leader. I was wrong. No matter the context there will always be a bit of deference to a defacto discipler. My fresh passion needed to be harangued into something valuable on the ground.

I had studied social psychology and found some valuable insights there but it was the oddity of Jesus that confronted my leadership principles. In one of Jesus’ weakest moments in the Garden of Gethsemane, a place of intense strain, he does something foolish in the school of leadership. Jesus invites Peter, James and John in close to behold his struggle. Jesus pioneers space for others to witness his knee-knocking fragility. “Dad, I’m afraid, could you please take this cup from me?” (Luke 22:42). Jesus is violently vulnerable. Don’t domesticate what Jesus did. In our culture this would be called “seeing someone at their worst.” The Hero Jesus was exposing disciples to the drama of his own humbling (Phil 2). The wisdom of this is hidden from leadership experts. There is an agony in Christ’s vulnerability. Theologically I knew about the weakness of God on the cross, but my senses were opening to how this flowed into real-time discipleship habits. To participate in Christ is to participate in weakness with others.

Self-Sabotaging Egotism

Leaders are notorious for offering idealized reflections of themselves. We’re all tempted to suppress anything that would threaten our guru image. We must take a sledge to that superiority soaked in sage spiritual insight. Discipleship has a power dynamic that must be sabotaged. I’m convinced the nucleus for change is the self-imposed offering of vulnerability. God was not calling me to stop discipling but was inviting me into a new tension; a tension that God in Jesus inhabited with first-century disciples. I needed to offer teeth clenching vulnerability in the very discipleship huddles I was piloting. Over the years I’ve learned this is easier said than done. First, I’ve had to learn (still learning) how to be naked in my insecurities, fears, idols and unrepentant angers. Downloading vulnerability into my own discipleship approach has risked rejection. We’re all weak most of us are just too afraid to admit it. Second, I’ve learned that vulnerability from a discipler can be disorienting for apprentices. A discipler off their pedestal looks iconoclastic to some. Many find confidence in having access to a leader who appears quixotic in their connection to God. Even the most progressive among us lives vicariously through the strength of leaders, online celebrities and writers. Having spiritual leaders secured in their place provides us with a solid point of reference. We want our spiritual leaders to be spiritual maharishis.

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Taking Shortcuts

There are ways pastors shortcut around this; they banish their struggles into a container. One of those tricks is vulnerability in preaching or from a media/writing platform; I call this pulpit protection. There is an unspoken detachment in a platform or a pulpit. Vulnerability from a pulpit can actually prop up our image with people. This does not mean you should not model a fitting vulnerability from public platforms, but please understand its serious relational limits. The other shortcut: Pastors are solely vulnerable with other pastors. I used to think this was the only appropriate domain for me. I thought only they could understand. This has proven to be well intentioned but misguided leadership wisdom. If you want to call others into covenant-community you cannot contract your vulnerability out to some off-ramp or pit-crew.

Opening Up Space

Discipleship has changed dramatically for me in the last 10 years. It has been awkward and discomforting at point blank range. Yet I’ve discovered something afresh: Mutual vulnerability opens up space for the Spirit of God. A mini-temple springs up between us; a temple the Holy Spirit enjoys hanging out in. No longer am I convinced God needs my brilliant strength more than he needs my weakness. So be on the look out for sophisticated ways we photoshop ourselves. No matter what tool you employ in discipleship, it must include a power sabotaging element. Institutional Leaders do not offer people deep meaning, incarnational ones do.

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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.