Cynthia Weems: Leadership and betrayal

We cannot let those we lead override what needs doing. But we can give them voice so enough that they won’t feel betrayed.

This month I took our 4-year-old daughter for her annual checkup. She was scheduled to get two shots that day. I came prepared. My purse was stuffed with lollipops, magic tricks and a whole host of distractions.

The visit went well. At first. The doctor applauded her efforts to write her name and jump on one foot. She pronounced her a healthy, vibrant little girl. I was pleased.

Then came the nurse, quick on her feet. Before I could unwrap the lollipop that first shot was in her arm. A loud shriek resounded from every wall in that office. Then came the next shot. I wrapped my daughter in a hug and assured her it would be ok. But when our eyes met, I could see that “ok” was not what she was thinking. Refusing the lollipop (at first), she looked at me with eyes that said, “How could you?” It was the look of betrayal.

When pain is expected, it is hard enough. But when pain is unexpected, as in betrayal, it is worse. Even a strawberry lollipop cannot mend what has been torn.

Once, while serving a congregation with limited space for a growing ministry, I had the bright idea to swap furniture in one room in order to free up space for another. This would impact a couple of regular Sunday School classes, but it seemed perfect to me. I could think of a number of reasons why the class I was “taking from” would be better off for it. Another staff member and I made the changes to the rooms and we were quite pleased with ourselves when the project was over. Everything looked just as we had planned. I knew the classes would love it.

But when I arrived at church the following Sunday, I didn’t “feel the love.” There was that look again, betrayal. Change is more painful when it is unexpected.

I have learned as a parent and as a pastor that surprises are rarely fun for those being surprised, especially when the surprise does not involve a birthday cake and candles. My bright ideas do not feel so bright when I’ve acted without consultation.

Most of you reading this probably knew exactly where this train was headed the minute you began reading. Doesn’t every pastor know never to move furniture without the approval of a committee (or two)? It may seem silly to us, but not to those affected.

Many in our congregations are coming head-to-head with betrayal every day. They feel betrayed by an employer who lays them off after years of service. They feel betrayed by children who are hurting their families. They feel betrayed by a city that has not done enough to stop crime and reduce poverty. They feel betrayed by a church that doesn’t look, sound or feel like it used to. Most of these things are far beyond our control as pastors. But they are very much a part of the stories of our parishioners.

As leaders, it is important to examine the potential for our adding to this sense of betrayal before we act. Some pain is inevitable in our lives and in our organizations. How can we create systems that allow people to have a voice in the changes that affect them? “Voice” may not mean approval or permission. Just like a vaccination at four, some things are required of our churches in order to grow. “Voice” may simply be the conversation held in advance that warns something painful is on the way. Like the one I will to have at next year’s annual checkup.

When Jesus spoke of his impending death, he did not ask the disciples how they felt about it. He certainly didn’t take a vote. He did, however, share with them over and over again where his ministry was leading. He invited their constant participation as the journey to the cross advanced. They didn’t understand his words. Yet he continued to offer them metaphors, parables and stories. It was only after the stinging pain of death that his words became clear to them.

And, ultimately, the disciples did not experience Jesus’ death as betrayal but as a promise fulfilled.

Cynthia Weems is senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Miami, Florida.