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The Unmasked Leader

I took a class called Ministry Life and Leadership and the requirement for our final paper was to pick a biblical leadership model and write a paper on how you relate to it. After wrestling with the idea of picking a biblical leadership model to write a paper on, this is what I wrote:

“Many churches create standardized and uniform methods and ideologies for achieving their own desired outcomes. It is a way of creating or copying ‘expert strategies,’ believing they will work regardless of context.”[1] Could it be that the methods embraced by our churches today have resulted in a culture of church leaders relying on technique and attempting to emulate “successful” models so much so that they have forgotten themselves? If we are to remain faithful to the Great Commission and not lose ourselves, we must be willing to acknowledge and engage our shadow side and come to understand why we do what we do. This is where leaders are able to be who they have been created to be, masks removed, and embrace the unique leadership model God has instilled within them.

Parker Palmer defines a leader as “someone with the power to project either shadow or light onto some part of the world and onto the lives of the people who dwell there.”[2] A leader who projects shadow tends to embrace his or her masks, hiding their inner life from others and themselves, leading to isolation and eventual burn-out and/or downfall. A leader who wants to move from projecting shadow to projecting light must come to understand what Bisschops says: “The lack of self-confidence, fear of failure and, more generally, the fear of not being good enough often prove the most formidable obstructions to developing personal qualities and putting them to work. A healthy dose of self-knowledge and self-worth always takes the sting out of such anxiety.”[3]

As the church has embraced various models hyped by “experts” to drive successful results, in order for success to be attainable, church leaders have tended to show a preference for positional authority. This has driven church leaders toward more outwardly notable roles such as the media star, manager, and/or popular leader for themselves to emulate. These leadership models have been elevated above others as the need to entertain, mobilize congregants, bring in money, and build bigger buildings have become popular ways to measure success. Although this type of leader can do good, they have a tendency to lose themselves within this pursuit of success, which results in their leading from what works to achieve what they view as successful leaders and what they believe others want to see rather than from their own true inner self.

This is in sharp contrast to the leader who projects light into the world. The leader who is able to project light is doing the hard work of the inward and downward journey[4]. These leaders are increasingly becoming “completely irrelevant and stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.”[5] Vulnerability spoken of here is the ability to “reclaim that unadorned self…and give love regardless of any accomplishments.”[6] This is where we come to see that when we make it a priority to first become an unmasked leader, the leadership model that is a part of our deepest design, will naturally flow out of us.

In order for a leader to begin their journey toward light, they must embrace who they are when no one is watching, be aware of their motives, and be vulnerable. This mask-less individual understands who they are, whose they are, and knows their part in their “quiet, slow, and almost secret,”[7] growth toward Christ-likeness. This kind of leader understands themselves to the point that they can say with certainty, “I am a bearer of the Kingdom of God.”[8] This kind of leader knows that they are made in the image of God, marred by the fall of humanity, and made whole through Christ. This kind of leader is willing to do the hard work it takes in order to dig through their past, face their faults and their pain head-on, and find healing. They understand their strengths and motives. This kind of leader knows their need for a healthy rhythm to life that includes spiritual practices.

A church leader who is un-masked is vital to creating more disciples whose lives are truly changing into the likeness of Jesus. Keith Meyer says, “formation must start in the hearts of individuals. It cannot become corporate until it is personalized.”[9] And Joseph Handley says, “transformation in society, in the city, in the state, in the neighborhood, and in the church always begins with transformation in the lives of individuals—and this usually ignites from the transformation of the leader.”[10] A church will not be a transformative community unless the leader is an un-masked leader.

Having grown up in the church, I have spent most of my life observing leaders within a church context. It has been heartbreaking and discouraging to see how many church leaders have not been able to withstand the time and pressures of living in the limelight. The few who have been able to survive the pressures and heartaches are the very ones who have remained true to the person God created them to be. These are the ones who have done the hard work of removing their masks. These church leaders have spent their lives learning about themselves, facing their true inner selves, and know where they fit within the larger context of God’s story.

I long for the day when church leaders lead from humility and vulnerability! Imagine leadership, specifically church leadership, that is unmasked, committed to spiritual transformation, and living their lives within a community as though they were the very embodiment of Jesus. I know that this cannot happen until church leaders come to the place where they are able to look at themselves and learn to love the mask-less person God created them to be.

The last five years have been my journey inward, which has led me to some pretty painful de-masking. It all started when I learned about the Enneagram. The more I read about myself, the more disgusted I became with me. My way of life had become all about everyone else, leaving me a stranger to myself. I had embraced the need to be needed and depended on everyone’s need for me. Seeing this in myself was almost more than I could take until I quit. I stopped doing anything that could possibly be linked to helping anyone. I stopped going to church. I stopped cooking, doing the dishes, and cleaning the house. I stopped walking the dog. I stopped having people over for dinner. This lasted for about a year. Looking back, I see that it was something I had to do in order to understand what my motives were. My journey inward had to start by figuring out why I did what I did even down to the most basic things.

Once that year ended, we moved our family to Europe. This ended up being two years of a lot of time spent in solitude, which created the space I needed in order to discover my true self. I learned a lot about shame and how “it is a primary means to prevent us from using the gifts we have been given.”[12] I also learned that “healing shame requires our being vulnerable with other people in embodied actions” [13] and that “we are only as sick as the secrets we keep. And shame is committed to keeping us sick.”[14] I learned that “shame is the variable that mediates that fear of rejection in the face of vulnerability.”[15] Through this, I learned that my motives were driven by the shame I felt for not believing that anyone would ever want to love the real me. Once I was able to give voice to that belief, I realized how ashamed of my true self I was.

This was a groundbreaking discovery for me because now I had words to express my deepest fear! Once I was able to say it out loud I was able to begin the hard work of telling and re-telling my story and face the masks I had worn throughout my life in order to protect myself from the deep pain and hurt I had felt from being rejected. Through this telling and re-telling of my story, I found deep healing and freedom. For the first time in my life, I felt free of shame.

The inward and downward journey of an unmasked leader is where a leader is able to embrace their true self and be able to lead out of who God has designed them to be. As a church leader who has lived so much of my life masked and then having experienced the true freedom of a life un-masked, I see a desperate need for unmasked leaders. I see myself as standing on the shoulders of strong leaders who have dared to take off their masks in order to live free and vulnerable lives and gently daring others to do the same.

Footnotes [1] Paul Sparks, Tim Sorens, and Dwight J. Friesen, The New Parish : How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 62. [2] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak : Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 78. [3] Anke Bisschops, "Personal and Spiritual Formation of the Pastor in Training," Studies in Spirituality 15 (2005): 209. [4] Palmer, 79. [5] Henri J. M. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus : Reflections on Christian Leadership with Study Guide for Groups and Individuals (New York: Crossroad Pub. Co., 2002), 30. [6] Ibid., 28. [7] Lesslie Newbigin, "The Good Shepherd": Meditations on Christian Ministry in Today's World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 135. [8] Dallas Willard, Living in Christ's Presence: Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2014), 77. [9] Keith Meyer, "A Pastor's Lessons in Kingdom Life from a Master Apprentice of Jesus," Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care 3, no. 2 (Fall 2010): 309. [10] Joseph W. Handley, Jr., "A Reflection on Contemplative Mission," Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care 6, no. 1 (Spr 2013): 79. [12] Curt Thompson, The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 13. [13] Ibid., 14. [14] Ibid., 31. [15] Ibid., 124.


Bisschops, Anke. "Personal and Spiritual Formation of the Pastor in Training." Studies in Spirituality 15 (2005): 201-16.

Handley, Joseph W., Jr. "A Reflection on Contemplative Mission." Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care 6, no. 1 (Spr 2013): 76-81.

Meyer, Keith. "A Pastor's Lessons in Kingdom Life from a Master Apprentice of Jesus." Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care 3, no. 2 (Fall 2010): 296-310.

Newbigin, Lesslie. "The Good Shepherd": Meditations on Christian Ministry in Today's World. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977.

Nouwen, Henri J. M. In the Name of Jesus : Reflections on Christian Leadership with Study Guide for Groups and Individuals. New York: Crossroad Pub. Co., 2002.

Palmer, Parker J. Let Your Life Speak : Listening for the Voice of Vocation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.

Sparks, Paul, Tim Sorens, and Dwight J. Friesen. The New Parish : How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Thompson, Curt. The Soul of Shame : Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Willard, Dallas. Living in Christ's Presence : Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2014.

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