March 27, 2021

Jesus washed his disciples’ feet: the disciples of abusers wash their cars

One thing that struck me reading the 31:8 safeguarding review of now-disgraced Anglican leader, Jonathan Fletcher, was the observation that Fletcher had his interns or ministry apprentices wash his car or mow his lawn.

Why did it strike me? Because that was my observation of another leader who has been caught up in an abuse scandal as well. Do the gardening. Sweep the path. Wash the car.

While I’m inside doing the work of ministry.

While I am inside doing ministry (subtext: because I have arrived at humility), you can learn humility by me leveraging the power disparity between us and wash my car.

In fact a former ministry trainee turned apprentice in the organisation I was involved with in the UK said that when he read this new report, he remembered the time he was in a more senior role in the church that he took to getting his apprentice to do those menial tasks too. That’s what he’d had to do himself. So it stands that he had to make others do it too when he’d “advanced”. And the bonus was that it felt good. Of course it did. He’d moved up the pecking order. And as we all know, gospel ministry is all about pecking orders.

My friend observed:

At the time I thought it was quite handy! But yesterday I was thinking what you just said – it wasn’t necessarily that they shouldn’t have been doing those things, but I should have been out there with them.

Nailed it. He should have been out there serving alongside and taking the sweet opportunity to chat and do life with a junior. Yet there was no sense from these “great” leaders that this is required of them. The fact they won’t stoop to help the intern in the garden is really just proof that when push comes to shove they probably won’t stoop to help in the ministry.

They are now beyond stooping. And as my friend observed, it’s a plague that is catching. Such ministry training is not so much handing on a baton, as a stick of dynamite.

The leader who becomes toxic or abusive has taken on what is called “great man syndrome” – the normal rules don’t apply to them. In a recent The Gospel Coalition article, Talented Pastors and the Plurality Principle, highlighted how Steve Jobs of Apple fame held this view of himself:

Apple employees coined the term “reality distortion field” to describe Steve Jobs’s ability to twist any fact to fit his own purpose. “At the root of the reality distortion was Jobs’s belief that the rules didn’t apply to him,” Walter Isaacson wrote in his biography. “He had some evidence for this; in his childhood, he had often been able to bend reality to his desires. Rebelliousness and willfulness were ingrained in his character. He had the sense that he was special, a chosen one, an enlightened one.”

Enlightened ones don’t wash cars. Don’t mow lawns. Don’t pick up their dog’s poo in the yard. That’s the job for the interns. The great one has moved beyond this menial work.

My wife observed that this is a form of bastardisation. Something like the army staff sergeant whose job it is to break the troops so that they instinctively say “yes” when a command is barked. Watch Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket if you dare. And the great leader means it to be so. There is a belittling behind it. A sense of trying to break you in order to fit a hierarchical structure, which of course, has the great man at the top.

And in my own experience, for all the talk of being ministry partners, there was no sense from the leader that washing the car with you, or doing the gardening together was a golden opportunity to have the shoulder to shoulder conversations that so many younger people in ministry long to have from their superiors.

Jesus washes his disciples feet, the disciples of abusers wash their cars, getting an occasional glance out the window from the great man writing his next talk for a conference.

Of course the reason given for the intern to have to wash the car and mow the lawn and do the little stuff is that they will learn humility. The great leader is there to teach the lesser one humility.

Trouble is, that wasn’t the way of Jesus.

Jesus did not teach humility to his disciples, he modelled it.

The role of a spiritual mentor is not to teach someone humility, it is to model humility to them. And perhaps why the likes of Fletcher and others who have been caught out, and who engaged in these “sensei” practices, didn’t model it, but tried to teach it, is because they didn’t have any humility within themselves in the first place with which to model! You can’t hand on what you don’t have.

These are proud, arrogant men who would never allow someone to cross them, or even demonstrate that someone in their sphere may be superior to them in some way. The safeguarding reports that now come out on a depressingly regular basis demonstrate this clearly.

Reading the Jonathan Fletcher report is sobering. And sickening. Here is a high level church man with immense authority in evangelical Anglican culture in the UK who beat young men with a gym shoe on the naked buttocks in order to – outwardly at least – instil some humility or self-discipline within them. There’s clearly some sort of sexual deviance and power grab going on there too, but for this to be viewed as somehow restorative treatment is appalling.

Fact: Jesus took a naked beating for us and too many Christian leaders think the way to teach humility is to inflict it on others. It’s either modelled or its not taught. End of story.

In the midst of all the gloom of such safeguarding reports it’s encouraging to know that many great leaders do model humility. And that makes them all the more influential.

I know a great leader who, after many a church function, would be in the kitchen doing dishes. Not because no one else would do it, there were plenty of volunteers; and not because he was humble-bragging saying “Look everyone, I’m the very model of humility and servant leadership!”, but because he actually was – and still is – a humble servant leader! He just modelled it. Humility was second nature to him. And it was second nature to him because he was close to Jesus. Whatever the gifts of these “enlightened ones”, true proximity to Jesus probably isn’t one of them.

If you’re doing a ministry apprenticeship and you’re with a leader who tells you that they will teach you humility by getting you to do menial tasks for them, then gently ask them if they would do those tasks alongside you so that you can chat and talk about ministry in the process.

Does this mean you should never wash the car or mow the lawn of your ministry leader? Course not. You can do that out of love, or when you sense time pressure on someone who has a full diary. It’s been such a blessing to have people come around with meals, or a “Can we help with the house?” in my life. But to ask it, or demand it, of a ministry subordinate in order to “teach them humility”? I’d rather cut off my arm.

If the look a “great one” gives you when you suggest doing the task together is the look of someone who has just stepped in something unpleasant, then it’s probably time to cut the ties and find someone else to mentor you who sees their task is to model humility to you rather than teach it. Because chances are, if they can’t practice humility alongside you, they don’t possess the humility you will also need to possess if you yourself are to be a leader worth emulating.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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