The curse of being “Decent But Dull”

The biggest curse in leadership – whether that’s private, civil or in church, is to be decent, but dull.

That’s the only conclusion we can reach when we read comments such as this in The Times, critiquing the UK Labour Opposition’s parliamentary leader, Sir Keir Starmer:

Voters may be turning away from the Tories but they are not convinced by Starmer, who they see as decent but dull. 

Ah, the old “decent but dull” trick. The bane of every earnest boyfriend in a Rom-Com who is about to have his bride-to-be swept away by the dangerous but daring Hugh Grant/Matthew McConaughey. Mind you, given their Rom-Com days are long gone and they are like, you know, “serious actors” these days, and given no one seems to be filling the Rom-Com space any longer, perhaps we have moved on from such withering assessments.

Well in movies at least. For when it comes to politics and the church “decent but dull” is still problematic. Still problematic after all of the scandals surrounding flamboyant outrageous politicians. Still problematic after the line up of rotten church leaders who are described as gifted orators, great leaders etc, etc, but who are shoddy, corrupt, narcissistic, abusive, etc, etc.

What was the line I heard about one such disgraced former global leader?: “Well he gets things done.” By that it was meant he draws crowds, gets churches launched, gets books written. We can overlook a few of his peccadilloes in the character department because life is never dull with him around. Never dull at all. Just like life is never dull for the DV victim, always kept on her toes. So too life is never dull with such leaders around, especially for nervous staff always looking over their shoulders to see if they are soon to be on the receiving end of the less dull aspects of our hero’s character.

“Getting things done”, in Christian leadership it seems these days, is too often a hall pass for being a jerk. Yet I’m pretty sure Jesus won’t give it a hall pass on the last day:

“Well let’s see. Says here you burned a lot of my sheep, treated your family with disdain when you wished to, cut a lot of corners and were economical with the truth when you wanted your own way in church meetings, and you played the staff off against each other to ensure you were king pin all of the time. Oh and you were – and I quote – “greedy for gain”. But hey! You got stuff done!”

The pastor/shepherd who got stuff done the most was Jesus. So much so that he could say “It is finished!” on the cross. He got everything done, and he was not merely decent, but the one in whom there could be found no sin.

I wonder, if my daughter ever gets married, whether my wife will sit down and assess her potential husband and come to the negative conclusion that although he is worthy of the role, he doesn’t make the cut:

Sorry son, we think you’ve got potential, however we have come to the conclusion that you are decent but dull. We didn’t really see any great vision or spark about your first 1000 days program, and definitely no impression that you would make our family gatherings more exciting. And I’m not sure our future grandkids are going to be gripped by any of your plans and projects.

The men and women in ministry and life whom I have most admired over the years are those who, according to the curse of the day, are decent but dull. They are the quintessential people who live “a hidden life”; the type of people made searingly memorable by the movie of the same name by Terrence Malick. Decent people.

But when it comes down to it, not actually dull. A hidden life is not a dull life. Not at all Let’s call that word out for what it is – a misguided understanding of what matters in life. Get to know such dull people well – as it is possible to do, in contrast ironically to those with all the pizazz who are often all surface – and you see they are anything but dull.

Many live deep rich lives of gentle humour, loving acts, expressing creative genius in a single craft over a long period of time, and the ability to build ordered structures at work and home that allow other people to flourish and take some of the limelight that the pizazz people crave only for themselves.

Our churches – and indeed our whole Christian lives – don’t need an ALDI version of the latest YouTube preacher sensation doing the rounds, any more than our politics needs another charismatic fool running the country. We need the curse of more and more leaders who are decent but dull (which probably accounts for most of us anyway, so let’s lean into it).

Sure I love vision, sure I love excitement, and there’s nothing wrong at all with decent AND visionary/exciting/memorable leadership. But there’s something wrong with preferencing it over decent leadership, and we’ve been slurping at the Kool Aid of that particular problem in Western society for some time.

Dullness won’t keep you out of the kingdom of God, and decency won’t get you into it, but I reckon it will turn out that when Jesus says on the last day “Well done good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Master“, there’ll be a vast over-representation of those who fit the “decent but dull” bill who hear those wonderful words.