A double-edged sword: Trauma-shaped leadership
Leadership can be strengthened or compromised by personal trauma and crisis.
When trauma reminds us of our limitations and makes us more circumspect in our decision-making — when it causes us to rely more closely on God, Scripture, and the counsel of others — it is something that can enrich our leadership. When trauma becomes something that lingers in our present mind, haunting our every step, when every decision is taken in light of that trauma, it compromises our leadership and reduces our effectiveness. It becomes a bizarre sort of idol.
A case in point.
In 2004 U.S. Senator John Kerry ran for President of the United States. Kerry is a well-spoken, intelligent man. He had a commendable service record in the United States Navy. He had experience as a prosecutor as well as a considerable experience as legislator.
He lost the election to incumbent President George W. Bush, somewhat less well-spoken, with a less than stellar service record in the Air National Guard. Why? I cannot read the nation’s collective mind, but I can point to at least one reason John Kerry failed in his bid for the presidency. During the campaign, Kerry’s leadership was perceived by many (including me) as having been shaped by the trauma of Vietnam and as much as he was committed to anything, he was committed to not repeating Vietnam. He came across as obsessed with it.
The nation was attempting, at least in part, to wrap its collective mind around what had become known as “the global war on terror” in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. To many, Kerry’s extreme caution seemed to be a liability — not the sort of leadership needed during a two-front offensive against radical Islam. The trauma of Vietnam had shaped, and was perceived as having compromised, Kerry’s leadership in foreign policy matters.
And now to something that is occupying my mind as I prepare for the Fellowship of Presbyterians meeting in Minneapolis this week. How is trauma shaping the leadership of senior figures in our church.
Many senior leaders (pastors and executives) in the Presbyterian Church USA have been shaped by at least two traumas: the Civil Rights era and the trauma of separation of the Presbyterian Church in America in the early 1970s.
Senior leaders of the Presbyterian Church USA were early in their pastoral formation or ministry when the Civil Rights movement occupied the center of the nation’s attention in the sixties. Many saw in the Christian churches a recalcitrance on this issue that compromised the integrity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They saw churches more willing to uphold the status quo ante than engage in Gospel-shaped culture change. They said — never again.
In 1973 delegates from 260 the Presbyterian Church US (PCUS, basically the Southern Presbyterian Church) formed a new reformed body, the Presbyterian Church in America. They left the PCUS (one of the two denominations that together formed the Presbyterian Church USA in 1983) in order to form a church that they believed was more faithful to the Scriptures and the classical Reformed system of belief.
For many, this departure was more than simply an intellectual exercise it was a deeply traumatic rending of a church family. One pastor has described how his home church left the PCUS and never invited him to speak or come back once he chose to remain in the PCUS/PCUSA — we’re talking 40 years here. That’s traumatic — the tearing apart of relationships. Even today many in the PCUSA consider the PCA a cult; many in the PCA consider the PCUSA apostate (or at least heretical). That’s a messy divorce.
As the Presbyterian Church USA comes to terms with the deep divisions that exist within it, there are many leaders whose responses to the current situation are being shaped by the trauma of these two events — Civil Rights and ecclesial separation. Can we, they ask, risk being wrong about GLBT people? The culture is growing in acceptance, why can’t we? Are we repeating our missteps during the Civil Rights movement?
As conversations about new ways forward develop, including ideas for forming a new reformed body, the specter of the PCA split is looming for some leaders. The thought of departure invokes a deeply-visceral negative response for many of those who lived through the formation of the PCA.
Again, leadership can be strengthened or compromised by personal trauma and crisis. To the extent that trauma reminds us of our limitations and makes us more circumspect in our decision-making — when it causes us to rely more closely on God, Scripture, and the counsel of others — it is something that can enrich our leadership.
When trauma becomes something that lingers in our present mind, haunting our every step, when every decision is taken in light of that trauma, it compromises our leadership and reduces our effectiveness. It becomes a bizarre sort of idol. It causes paralysis.
It’s for this reason that I find myself relying on the Holy Spirit in praying for our church. I need deeper prayers than the ones I can form with my mind, heart, and lips. I need God’s prayers prayed through me for the Presbyterian Church USA.
Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Amen.