Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson
Blog, Church, Leadership

Leaders Who Become Weird

Travel book writer Rick Steves notes, “You learn a lot about your country by leaving it and looking at it at a distance.” He’s right. You can’t help but see how incredibly rich we are. How ethnocentric we can be. How vain we must seem. We sometimes believe the world revolves around us—until we go abroad and find that most are not really thinking about us. If they do, our politics must seem silly, our complaints look petty, and our ingratitude incomprehensible. 

You also learn a lot about yourself. Sometimes, it can be painful. 

Take this morning. My Nepalese students and I were talking about change. I began by noting that real leaders bring change—real change! Leaders and change are joint travelers on the same road. Creating change requires wisdom. I shared the 12 laws of change (Involve People; Aim for the 80%; Expect Losses; etc). I quoted from notable experts, like Kotter (Leading Change) and Johnson (Missing Voices). Impressed? Shared my notable experiences, my passion to be a change agent. I talked about the need today for leaders who are more than transactional. Effective leaders are transformational!! BUT WHERE ARE THEY?

It all sounded so inspirational, so remarkable…to me.

The truth is, while my culture might embrace change, their culture is not so inclined. People are more committed to staying with the known than stepping into the unknown. Life is turbulent enough. Change only exacerbates the chaos. Churches here seldom change, for leaders rarely change. They almost never move. They stay until they die. And often the church suffers as the next generation of leaders are left waiting for their opportunity. 

This was a signal for me to shift from teaching to preaching. It was here my passion took hold. I underscored that this is the problem in so many places—pastors tend to love their position of prestige and power. They know in a shame/honor culture, like Nepal, that it is a sign of respect to allow leaders to remain. It would bring shame on the whole community to release them, even if they become impaired. And so pastors take advantage of this. Instead of doing what is best for the body, they do what is best for themselves. Just like other leaders, they love their control. 

I was just starting. I urged these young leaders to be courageous. It’s time to go against cultural traditions. Confront the status quo. Splash cold water on people’s complacency. SAVE THE CHURCH! It all sounded so urgent, so right…so, so…strange.  

The truth is, I was sounding WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic). I was becoming obtuse, imperceptive, dull-witted—and most of all—insensitive!!! 

There’s a reason most pastors stay—even when they are old and debilitated. In a place like this—and many other parts of the world—there is no other income. They have no other place. The only Social Security in this country is for those who retire from government jobs. And pastors barely survive on the pay they get—if anything. And unless they continue to pastor, they starve. 

It’s more. For many pastors in this culture, they have made a vow. They will serve their communities until the Lord takes them home. Unlike many in my culture, they are not moving from one church to another, climbing the ecclesiastical ladder. They are not committing religious pornography, lusting after other congregations (to use Peterson’s words). They stay because this is their community, their family, their people! It would be unthinkable to move.

Yes, these young leaders will have to do some fresh thinking. It’s important that they not seek to save themselves at the church’s expense. There has to be a better way.

And yes, there is a better way for me to teach–like starting with listening. It is what travel teaches you.



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