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Can We Handle the Truth?

Learning from the Good Shepherd about leading the sheep and telling the truth
Christian leadership requires leaders to tell the truth—and followers to hear the truth.

president. The only alternative to the politics of manipulation is truth. But any political leader who tells the truth stands little chance of being elected. As a nation, we demand truth while not having the courage to hear it.

What might all this have to do with the church? Am I implying that reflection about leadership in the church and how the church understands the politics that constitutes her life is misguided? I certainly do not think that to be the case, but I do think the politics of the gospel requires us to develop an account of leadership that challenges the world in which we find ourselves. The church is to be a community that expects that those who would lead us will tell us the truth—even if it means that the truth they must tell us is that they are not sure what the truth is in a given situation. And our leaders, moreover, are called to help us become the kind of people who can listen to truth because only the truth of Jesus Christ can provide freedom.

A community that demands its leaders to tell the truth does not then expect them to make up for the deficiencies of the community. Instead, leadership is necessary because the church is an institution constituted by the conviction that without truthful speech we cannot sustain the trust necessary to be a people who abide in Christ and with one another. Accordingly, some are set aside to exercise the authority necessary to sustain the disciplines of truth telling and truth hearing that make our abiding possible.

To exercise such authority is an exercise in power. Any community that cares about goods in common depends on offices of power, so it would be false to understand power and authority negatively. In the Gospels Jesus is referred to as the Good Shepherd who cares for and tends to his flock. This image of power entails a form of servanthood—caring and tending—and it is the image most aptly associated with leadership in the church.

But Christians in positions of authority must struggle to understand this seemingly simple image if they are to represent it in their ministry. Failure to struggle with this christological vision of leadership results in one of two dangerous positions. If leaders embrace a worldly form of power, their ministry will likely be just that: their ministry, rather than Christ’s. The parish becomes a cult of personality wherein parishioners rely on their leader’s successes rather Christ. A sense of pride attaches to belonging to this pastor rather than that pastor, and the one Shepherd who leads the one flock becomes largely irrelevant.

On the other hand, the servant who leads without acknowledging power is too often tempted toward forms of manipulation that turn Christ’s flock into a bleating mass of codependency. The lack of acknowledged power on the part of the pastor is dispersed to the fold, and the sheep wander aimlessly in search of some concrete guidance. In this instance, the people never learn to care for and tend to their own—not to mention others—as their power has been undermined by the pastor’s aversion to power. In both of these cases, the fine balance between power and serving has not been struck, and both the community and the good news of the gospel suffer.

By contrast, when the christological vision of the Good Shepherd laying down his life for his sheep is manifest through the offices of power in the church, the church makes visible a form of leadership that uncovers the fears that drive worldly forms of manipulation and replaces them with gestures of trust that come from living truthfully with Christ and one another. Such trust is always tested by our speech. For part of what it means to live truthfully is learning to speak truthfully—and expecting our leaders to do so even when the truth doesn’t go down easy. If we resist hearing the truth, our leaders will be tempted to tell us lies, and our abiding together becomes farcical.

Truthful speech is at the heart of the matter, for it is through talking to one another that the church discovers what goods we have in common. Those who occupy the ministerial and priestly offices of the church have a particular responsibility for helping the church become articulate, and this is done not through how-to lessons but through witness and practice. As our leaders practice an articulate faith in Jesus Christ, through speech and service, we