Jean Vanier speaks with friends during a visit to Duke in November 2008. Photo courtesy of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School
A world ‘gone mad through bad leadership’ could learn much from the international community known as L’Arche, says founder Jean Vanier.
Editor’s note: In February 2020, L'Arche International announced the findings of an investigation into the role of founder Jean Vanier and the Rev. Thomas Philippe, who Vanier considered his “spiritual father.” Vanier died in 2019 and Philippe in 1993.
In a statement, the organization said, “The inquiry received credible and consistent testimonies from six adult women without disabilities, covering the period from 1970 to 2005. The women each report that Jean Vanier initiated sexual relations with them, usually in the context of spiritual accompaniment…. The relationships were found to be manipulative and emotionally abusive, and had a significant negative impact on their personal lives and subsequent relationships.
“The inquiry made no suggestion that Jean Vanier had inappropriate relationships with people with intellectual disabilities.”
Christian leadership is about helping others to grow and to develop their gifts, to experience life, love and God to the fullest, says Jean Vanier. The founder of L’Arche, an international organization of family-like homes where people with disabilities live in community with others, Vanier says that all real leaders must be ready to give their lives and to sacrifice their own ambitions for those whom they lead.
In a November 2008 interview with Faith & Leadership, Vanier discussed leadership in the world, the church and L’Arche, the importance of bonding and belonging and the pain that many leaders experience today. Vanier visited Duke University for Teaching Communities Week 2008, organized by the Duke Center for Reconciliation.
Q: Broadly speaking, what are the marks of Christian leadership?
Christian leadership is to trust people so much that they be deeply listened to, not to give them an ideology, not even a theology or ideology, but to experience, to help children to experience -- I’m talking about parenthood, but I’m talking about leadership -- that they find an experience of life, of love, of God. So it’s not putting stuff into people’s heads. It’s about giving them the occasion to live a deep experience where they discover who they are and the rising up of their personal consciousness. And discover who they are.
Now, is this different to any form of leadership? I don’t know.
It’s the helping those who are led to discover how precious they are and that must mean that they should be treated with preciosity, if that’s a word, with deep respect and deeply listened to.
So what is the information that they should receive? That means that for a Christian, they should be given a deep vision coming from the Word, the story of Jesus, the story of how he was close to the poor, because all leadership is to help people to become like Jesus.
The leader, well if you want to, the abbot of a Benedictine abbey, he shouldn’t be just a person who knows how to build abbeys. He should be a man deeply rooted in prayer. He is somewhere the model. Teachers shouldn’t teach ideas but they should be a model of what it is to be a disciple of Jesus. I mean they must become somewhat a sign of Jesus. But then Jesus goes on further and not only is the leader in communion with each one and what that means to be in communion, but is also leading them to a place of liberation and salvation.
Thirdly, he must reveal or she must reveal that they are ready to give their lives. Now what does that mean? It’s not necessary that you’re going to be crucified. Giving life is to show, well, you find it in the world of education or with educators: That they are living or present to delinquents -- not for their salary -- but because they love the people whom they teach. So they are giving. To give one’s life is to sacrifice certain personal ambitions. . . .
And you see we’re now talking about leaderships where the head of the bank has huge salaries instead of giving the salaries to everybody according to their gifts. That’s how it should be. So our world has gone mad through bad leadership. And it’s not just Christian leadership. It’s leadership. And I feel that frequently in our Christian vision, we’ve lost something about being human, about parenting, about leadership….
And I believe a lot in leadership. I believe in good shepherding but I believe it is a very human reality which we have to learn. So the question in itself carries a certain deviancy. But if you, all I’d say, is that grace should always perfect nature. The grace should help us become more human, not to make us, to take us away from our humanity.
Q: What can the world learn about leadership from L’Arche?
The strength of L’Arche is it is very clear what the goal is at all levels. The only goal is to help people to rise up, to grow up -- people with disabilities. But they can only grow up if assistants are truly entering into relationship with them. So it’s not just helping people with disabilities to rise up, but it’s also helping to create bonding. So everything is about helping to create bonding. But this is a bit counter-cultural. Even for assistants and leaders it’s not easy.
Our big difference is bringing the administrative and shepherding together. And each one, some people are more at ease with the administration because they like to add up figures and 2 + 2 make 4, but they’re maybe not so at ease in accompanying assistants and walking with people with disabilities. But it’s not anybody who can become a leader. You’ve got to have formation. Some are more administrative-minded and others are more community-minded. And you can have fathers who more turn to making money and making the house run and you can have other fathers who are closer to the kids and on their hands and knees. So there is the question of characteristics of the person so it’s . . . What we have to do is continually talk about these two domains. We have to have sessions for the directors in our community but also they know that they have to be competent.
Q: You have written before that it all comes down to belonging. What role does belonging play in leadership?
In L’Arche, there is this sense that we belong to each other, that we’ve been bonded together. It’s a whole vision of church. And some forces that pose parts of the body which are the least presentable and which are the weakest are essential, indispensable to church. So belonging is to realize that those people with disabilities that are in my community, they are precious. We belong to each other. I’m not better than you. We’re not just members together. The same thing about belonging, which is a sense that we have been called to be One and to witness to Oneness, to the whole vision of Jesus, “that they may be One,” so that the church and the world believe. And God is One, the Trinity is One. And we are called to be people of the Trinity, and it’s a long road to die to one’s need to prove that I’m better than you and to come to the point where I have my gift and you have your gift and the leader is there to be guarantee and the one who enhances or strengthens or encourages unity.
Leadership in a country is to bring people together. Not creating places of division. Not creating situations of racism, and I say racism in a very large sense of you know, “the goodies and the baddies,” there’s the rich and the poor, those with lots of diplomas and those . . . It’s about bringing people together and everybody finding their place. But in church it’s about how to create, like in the Catholic Church, my “upsetness” sometimes is people go to church, they receive the homily, they receive the sacrament, they go to Mass, but they don’t meet. And so the pastor should be there, or the priest should be encouraging people after Mass to meet, to share, and not just amongst their few friends. So everything is about the whole of the message of Christianity is to become One.
Now there are a lot of things within me where I don’t want to become One. I want to prove that I’m the best. But these are things that I have to become conscious of. My need for power, my need for this, and I have to work at it, but I need help. I need good accompaniment.
Q: In a recent sermon, you asked “What are people waiting for?” What do you think leaders are waiting for?
Many leaders are waiting for somebody to confirm them. Because they are doing their own things. I mean this came out very clearly in an inquiry we did with all the leaders of L’Arche in France. But they all suffered because people were being very demanding on them. But nobody was saying “You’re doing a good job. And don’t worry. It’s okay.”
So what leaders are waiting for is encouragement -- but also encouragement to go a little bit further. If leaders are calling people to change they must be the first ones to change and to want to change. So that means that leaders should be conscious of where they need to grow. Because if you’re teaching your children to grow well, how are you growing?
I mean these are very fundamental. . . And is this only Christian or is this just leadership? I don’t know. All I know is that the Christian vision should enhance and give strength through the Spirit so that people find it easier to accept their brokenness, to talk about their brokenness, whatever it is.
Q: In that same sermon, you also asked “What is your pain?” What is the pain of leadership?
To feel that they don’t quite know what to do, that they’re not succeeding, that they’re seeking their own glory and they don’t know how to get out of it. It can also be the conflicts. People that are against them and they don’t know what to do. So I mean, leadership is necessarily crucifying because you want people to grow. I want myself to grow. But we’re confronted continually by forces of egoism, forces of evil, forces of conflict, forces of jealousy, I mean all this mess which is the human mess. It is there. And so, leaders who are sensitive to growth, the growth of the group, the change in a group, what is particular in L’Arche is change. And how for the leader to be in harmony with change. So people are protecting. Leadership can become a protection. You hide away and then, pfft, give out orders because you’re scared stiff of conflict. So, one of the dangers of leadership is that scaredness of conflict, that they might be attacked or criticized. And so they send down laws like that, and bishops will, they don’t know how to, they haven’t been taught how to. You become a bishop. It’s like parenting.
Leadership, to be a good leader, you have to be integrated into one’s self -- unity inside of self -- in order to foster unity outside of self. It’s a long road to discovering what human maturity is. We don’t talk much about human maturity. We talk about diplomas and getting and passing exams. And once you got the exam, you think you can do it, but you can’t. I mean there are so many leaders who are terribly immature. They don’t know anything about relationships. They don’t know about helping the people to stand up. They are scared stiff of relationship because they may be scared stiff, you know, they don’t know how to do it, relationships.