Don't Try to Make Disciples Until You Deal With This Problem

Power is a tricky thing. I remember as a teenager discovering I had some speed and athleticism. I was no Superman, but I was a fast little goober that could throw the ball on target. That was enough in my small school to push me to the front. I made the football team and found I had power on the field that evidently flowed into the halls of my high school.
Being the quarterback gave me a compelling identity in contrast to my previous nobody ranking. Here’s the curious thing about power: I tried out for the team with a trembling spirit but within months I was relishing the attention that being a quarterback gave me. Internally I morphed into a hungry ego gremlin that began to ooze on the outside.

Powers Leverage

My hypothesis is that most don’t seek power for the intent to dominate. Power has leverage on our innocence and original intentions, eroding them both without our noticing. This erosion occurred in my quarterback situation, and I’ve seen it play out in various domains. I did not play for power but when it was attained it had an insidious effect on me.
Boromir, a character in the Lord of the Rings, exemplifies this lesson. Originally he’s called “good-hearted” but the Ring gave him command and influence. At first he did not desire the power of wizard-lords but only desired to protect his people. Eventually, the acquisition of power corrupted his character. Often we’re not completely cognoscente of the power we’ve collected but when made aware of it, we can’t imagine living without it. Power offers us a firm status and a preferable identity.

Discipleship Hero-Complex

I’d like to apply this subtle power trajectory to the art of discipleship. Nothing fuels me more than the space of discipleship; I feel at home in this expanse. Discipleship is energizing as it affirms the good pulsing within, confronts the idols we cling to and sends us back into the world on mission.
Since I’ve been a pastor for the last 15 years, I have often been the defacto discipler. Ten years ago I began to detect a lurking energy in the dynamic of my discipleship methods. Something about this unnamed energy was reminiscent of my time in high school. I now know a raw and real phenomenon actualizes in the discipling relationship.
When guiding someone towards transformation something takes place. A power forms. A Hero-Complex sprouts in the transaction.
In my good intentions to make disciples, venom was simultaneously sneaking into my blood stream. This venom wanted to riddle my body with egotism. Honestly, I did not chase after this Hero-Complex, it grew in strength with my effectual influence, and I ignorantly cozied up to it.
I was becoming a little deity in my own little empire. Most are sharp enough not to wallow in this publicly, but we know it. Being a spiritual hero is intoxicating.

Keeping an Untarnished Image

Spiritual Leaders are often taught to keep their weakness close to the vest, lest we cause someone to stumble. Even if it’s not taught directly, it’s modeled indirectly. I rationalized why keeping my image visibly untarnished was good for everybody.
I was genuine in my desire to be used by the Holy Spirit as a disciple-maker, but it could not compensate for the system of which I was a part. It took a traumatic event to spotlight the egotism inherent in my approach.
In 2003, there was an interruption to my discipleship fantasy and it rattled me. I watched a deeply trusted leader collapse. My heart was cracked. I was close to this leader, I loved this leader, I was discipled by this leader. As I grieved, I had an unnerving realization “I knew little of his inner world. How could this be? I was in close discipleship quarters with him. How was I not privy to his brokenness when I offered mine regularly?”
Something unhinged in me.

Agony in Vulnerability

I was done with infrastructures that created pseudo-popes out of spiritual leaders. My first impulse was to rail against all leadership that posed and protected. But God’s Spirit confronted me to move beyond anger cloaked in a righteous agenda.
God pinned me on my unexamined discipleship practices. I needed reformation, but I was confused at where to begin.
Romantically, I thought I could construct a new way of discipling that had no power dynamics, no acknowledged leader. I was wrong. No matter the context there will always be a bit of deference to a defacto discipler. My fresh passion needed to be harangued into something valuable on the ground.
I had studied social psychology and found some valuable insights there, but it was the oddity of Jesus that confronted my leadership principles. In one of Jesus’ weakest moments in the Garden of Gethsemane, a place of intense strain, he does something foolish in the school of leadership. Jesus invites Peter, James and John in close to behold his struggle. Jesus pioneers space for others to witness his knee-knocking fragility. “Dad, I’m afraid, could you please take this cup from me?” (Luke 22:42).
Don’t domesticate what Jesus is doing here: Jesus is violently vulnerable.
In our culture this would be called “seeing someone at their worst.” The Hero Jesus was exposing disciples to the drama of what was, according to Phillippians 2, his humbling. The wisdom of this is hidden from leadership experts.
There is an agony in Christ’s vulnerability. Theologically, I knew about the weakness of God on the cross but my senses were opening to how this flowed into real-time discipleship habits. To participate in Christ is to participate in weakness with others.

Self-Sabotaging Egotism

Leaders are notorious for offering idealized reflections of themselves. We’re all tempted to suppress anything that would threaten our guru image. We must take a sledgehammer to that superiority soaked in sage spiritual insight.
Discipleship has a power dynamic that must be sabotaged. The nucleus for change is the self-imposed offering of vulnerability.
God was not calling me to stop discipling. God was inviting me into a new tension; a tension that God in Jesus inhabited with 1st Century disciples. I needed to offer teeth clenching vulnerability in the very discipleship huddles I was piloting.
Over the years, I’ve learned this is easier said than done. First, I’ve had to learn, and am still learning, how to be naked in my insecurities, fears, idols and unrepentant angers. Incorporating vulnerability into my discipleship approach has risked rejection. We’re all weak most of us are just too afraid to admit it.
I’ve also learned that vulnerability from a discipler can be disorienting for apprentices. A discipler off their pedestal looks iconoclastic to some. Many find confidence in having access to a leader who appears quixotic in their connection to God. Even the most progressive among us lives vicariously through the strength of leaders, online celebrities and writers. Having spiritual leaders secured in their place provides us with a solid point of reference. We want our spiritual leaders to be spiritual maharishis.

Taking Shortcuts

There are ways pastor’s shortcut around this; they banish their struggles into a container. One of those tricks is using vulnerability in preaching or from a media or writing platform. I call this pulpit protection.
There is an unspoken detachment in a platform or a pulpit. Vulnerability from a pulpit can prop up our image with people. This does not mean you should not model a fitting vulnerability from public platforms but please understand its serious relational limits.
The other shortcut: pastors are solely vulnerable with other pastors. I used to think this was the only appropriate domain for me. I thought they were the only people who could understand. This has proven to be well-intentioned but misguided leadership wisdom. If you want to call others into covenant community you cannot contract your vulnerability out to some off-ramp or pit-crew.

Opening Up Space

Discipleship has changed dramatically for me in the last ten years. It has been awkward and discomforting at point blank range. I’ve discovered that mutual vulnerability opens up space for the Spirit of God.
A “mini-temple” springs up between us; a temple the Holy Spirit enjoys hanging out in. No longer am I convinced God needs my brilliant strength more than he needs my weakness.
Be on the lookout for sophisticated ways we photoshop ourselves. No matter what tool you employ in discipleship, it must include a power sabotaging element. Institutional Leaders do not offer people deep meaning, incarnational ones do.
This article was originally published as Sabotaging the Hero-Complex in Discipleship at
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About the Author

Dan White Jr.

Dan co-planted Axiom, a faith community in Syracuse, NY with the compelling commitments of tight-knit community, locally-rooted presence, and life-forming discipleship. He works as a consultant and missional coach with the V3 Movement. He also co-founded The Praxis Gathering. Dan is the author of Love Over Fear: Facing Monsters, Befriending Enemies, and Healing Our Polarized World ,Subterranean , and co-author of The Church as Movement winner of InterVarsity Press Book of the Year 2017. Dan is married to Tonya, dad to Daniel and Ari, and can be found enjoying conversations at Salt City Coffee.

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