What We Expect in our Leaders

I am reading a book by Nadia Bolz-Weber, a “tattooed, angry and profane…former standup comic turned pastors (who) stubbornly, sometimes hilariously, resists the God she feels called to serve.” The title of the book is wonderful: Accidental Saints: Finding God in all the Wrong People. Bolz-Weber reminds me of Anne Lamont in her sassy-pants and often crude way of telling her stories. Love it.

Yesterday I read a story of her experience reaching out to a bishop of her denomination who was dealing with the cancer and imminent death of his wife. “Who pastors the bishops?” she asked him? His answer: “No one.” Then she tells how she kept contact with him and listened to his sadness and anger and regret. In other words, she allowed this man of authority to be human.

What caught me is her reflection on her encounter with him. She talked about how we as parishioners, citizens, or fans tend to hold our leaders up to a standard higher than we would hold for ourselves. We expect them to “have it all together” all the time and in all places. They aren’t permitted to make mistakes and then learn from them as the rest of us do. When they fall, they are not permitted to get back up.

I found this fitting today as we come into this last week before the election. Right now we have two candidates that are clearly fallible but the citizens have to get honest about what we do to people who rise to leadership. Voters not only have no tolerance for the sins and failings of the opponent, but there is this denial of the failings of their own candidate. People twist and distort information to make it come out the way they want to see it. What we are doing to the candidates is the same thing we do to priests and sports figures and celebrities of all kinds. I think Bolz-Weber is saying that we have to realize that those who lead us are just like us.

This election is pretty extreme. There is a lot at stake. We live in a dangerous world. But I think we as citizens have to take responsibility for the way our elections go. When we demand saintly perfection, we force candidates to deny their humanness. They are not allowed to say, “I used to believe that but now, with more information, I have come to believe something else.” “I know that what I did in the past was harmful to others. I am so sorry for that and am trying to do things differently.” And God forbid, “I still have a lot to learn.” So they must hide, deny, and put on a false front in order to be acceptable. In doing so, they become exactly what we don’t want our leaders to be.