How to become an authentic Christian leader

What are five qualities that people expect from their leaders?

Reinder Bruinsma, Ph.D., is the retired president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the Netherlands, Huis ter Heide, Netherlands.

What you see is what you get.” Computer veterans know what that means. When you work on a keyboard and then print what you have written or developed, you will get on paper what you see on the screen. That sentence expresses succinctly what most people expect when they associate with others, especially their leaders: They want to get what they see—the real person, not some role-playing individual, who hides their true identity behind a consciously or subconsciously constructed mask.

People seek authenticity, but what does “being authentic” mean? The dictionary defines authentic as “real, trustworthy, pure, not phony, conforming to the original.” Young people have the uncanny ability to smell phoniness from a mile away. If you are not for real, forget it. They have no use for you.

Christians have not always had a good reputation when it comes to authenticity. For some people, the word Christian is virtually synonymous with hypocrisy. The church, they say, may look pretty good on the outside, but inside, it is not trustworthy. Something like the products one can buy from streetsmart vendors: expensive watches for very little money.

When things prove to not be genuine, this can be a serious matter. Producing and selling fake products may easily land people in court. But an even far more serious consequence than producing and selling fake products comes when those who profess to be Christians turn out to be fake. In my country, we have a saying: Shaking hands with a Christian is a risky business; count your fingers after you have done so! Tragically, many non-Christians associate the word church with deceit, power plays, politics, and, in particular, greed and money. The church always comes after more of your cash, they say. At best, some people will tell you that they find the church to be an utterly outdated, totally irrelevant institution.

As a committed Christian, I often ask myself whether the religion of people I see, meet, or hear about, is real. For instance, what are we to think about some of our politicians who emphasize, time and again, that they are born-again Christians while many of their actions do not demonstrate Christian values? Bringing it closer to home: many pastors and church leaders can tell you of instances where the most pious-appearing church members are the ones who hide many of their past acts. Older people, always criticizing the young for their behavior, conveniently forget their own far-from-perfect conduct. Judging others becomes a dangerous business. When we do so, as Christ reminded us, we are likely to be oblivious of a serious plank in our eye while worrying about tiny specks in the eyes of others (Matt. 7:3).

What do people expect?

When church members look at leaders, what do they expect to see? Not someone totally perfect, but someone they can respect. They do not expect that we never make mistakes, never have occasional lapses of good judgment, and never have personal failures. They do not expect to meet someone who knows everything or has an instant solution for every problem. They do not even expect to deal with those who never have any doubts and are always absolutely sure about everything they believe. But they do expect us to be real and authentic. If we want to be listened to, and hope to have our leadership role recognized; if we want to bring the gospel to a nonchurched audience, and if we seriously try to relate to secular people—inside and outside of our own congregations—we must be authentic. Otherwise, however hard we try, we will not connect.

What are the main ingredients for authenticity? No detailed, strategic plan exists that, if carefully executed, will transform us from someone who mostly plays a role and hides behinds a mask into a transparent, open, and genuinely authentic person. But here are several elements that can help us become real and authentic.

1. Honesty. If we want to be authentic, we must learn to be honest with ourselves and others, in particular about who we are and what happens in our own lives. Some of us are extremely clever in hiding who we are deep down, and often we have become quite skillful in running a constant public relations campaign for ourselves. The actuality of our life may, however, differ quite sharply from the image of ourselves that we seek to promote. Some of us may not be the caring husband or devoted wife we pretend to be. Some of us may not be as conscientious in all aspects of our pastoral or administrative duties as we would like people around us to believe. And, worse still, some of us may not have the deep-rooted, genuine spiritual life that we suggest we have when we talk with people or preach to them.

The truth may remain hidden for a long time. The sad reality remains that some people who faithfully attend church—even very active people—do not have a meaningful, personal spiritual life. Some may claim to be Christians but secretly cheat on their spouses. Some may be church elders but do not return a faithful tithe. Research shows that there are pastors who seldom read the Bible and pray outside of their professional engagements. But, sooner or later, it will show. And, whether we like it or not, there are people around us who have an uncanny ability to smell that something does not add up in the life of their pastor.

Be sure to pursue honesty. Take a personal inventory, and if you do not like what you see in your life, then pray and allow God to change your life. It may require a few confessions. It may require asking for forgiveness—from God as well as from fellow human beings. But being honest will eventually earn respect. Living a lie does not bring that respect—in the end it only brings disillusion.

2. Acknowledge doubts. Admitting that we, at times, have our doubts does not undermine our leadership role. Those who say they never have had any doubts either never do some hard thinking or are fooling themselves and others. Every Christian, including pastors, will at times have to deal with doubt. The question focuses not so much on whether we have doubts, but rather what we do with them. Do we cherish the doubts and claim that our doubts are the result of our superior intelligence? Or do we search for more depth? Do we struggle with our questions, one by one, and read, talk, and pray to find answers?

3. Face vulnerability. To always talk about ourselves would be wrong. After all, what we have to say in our role as a Christian leader is not just about us. Yet, we should be open about ourselves and make no secret not only of the things that have gone well in our lives, but also of the things that did not go so well or of moments when we failed. It took me some time to learn this, but I have discovered that many people are more inclined to hear me when they sense that they are connecting with someone who knows from his own experience what he is talking about. This builds their willingness to communicate with me when they sense that I am no stranger to many of the things with which they are currently struggling.

One of the great disappointments for many church workers happens because their own children have not made the choices that they had hoped they would make. Many children from pastors’ families have not joined the church. Some have not even retained the basic Christian values their parents sought to instill in them. I have two adult children. I am proud of them. They lead positive lives, and they enjoy a good relationship with their parents. But they have not chosen to join the church that I have worked for so hard during the past 40-plus years. For many years, I used to remain rather vague when church members asked me whether my children had joined the church. Some time ago, however, I decided that I would be more open about this, even if that might harm my prestige as a church leader. Somewhat to my surprise, however, I have found that most church members who hear that my children are not church members are not judgmental and do not (at least not publicly) wonder what went wrong in our family. Many of them have the same experience and talk to me about it more willingly now that I have told them of my disappointment. They know that I can understand their plight because I have (yes, with difficulty) made myself vulnerable in this respect.

4. Listen to the stories of others. At times I find it hard to take time to listen to the stories of others. Yet, I realize that people today are looking for someone to listen. Television viewers want to see the people behind the news; they want to know more about famous people and royalty. Newspapers and journals abound with interviews and news about people. Often the method of gathering this information goes far beyond what we consider acceptable, but this is what sells.

People want to see a picture of the real us, and—within limits—they have a right to have this. But never forget that people are just as eager to tell their own story to you. People today may reject grand stories (the so-called meganarrative), but they embrace small, local personal stories. Real relationships do not come about until personal stories are told about who you really are and who the people you connect with really are.

5. Act authentically. Most church members want pastors who, in their theological views, do not deviate too much from middle-of-the-road Adventism, but neither Adventists nor non-Adventists will be impressed by our theological orthodoxy if the choices we make in our lives do not reflect basic Christian ethics and values. Far more people are interested in knowing that we are quality individuals—pastors who have a genuine interest in who they are and what they feel, rather than in hearing our views on all kinds of theological minutiae. Most people consider it far more important that we are honest people who live up to the promises we make than to be assured that we understand all doctrinal interpretations. This does not say that doctrinal beliefs are unimportant, but we cannot overemphasize the enormous shift that has taken place in the minds of many church members and nonchurched people alike. Before they will listen to us, they must be convinced that we are real.

The ultimate litmus test in today’s world is not whether the things I preach are biblically true and defendable, but whether the people I work for and with whom I associate see that the things I proclaim and promote have become a concrete reality in my own life. Has my faith clearly changed the priorities in my daily life? That is what people want to see. Has my belief in the second coming of Christ influenced the values by which I live? Has my conviction about the seventh-day Sabbath really provided me with a weekly time slot that remains different from the rest of the week, and has this clearly become a focal point for my spiritual nurture? Has my belief in the life hereafter not only helped me find the subject matter for funeral sermons but also given me the inner peace that shines through on the outside?

Do people see that my life is real, that it matters? A few months ago, I was asked to preach at the funeral of a good friend. Although he had a Christian background, I never knew in any detail what he believed—that was a domain in his life where no one could enter, not even his wife. But he was a great person to be with and a loyal friend. For my talk at his funeral, I took my cue from a sentence the family had included in the obituary they had placed in the papers: His story was not finished! These words expressed their conviction that he had really lived. There was a story, albeit unfinished, that was worth listening to.

When people around us look at us, what do they see? Someone who leads a real life and leaves a trail worth following and a story worth listening to? Do they see a faithful steward who always acts with integrity? A genuine disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ? A person who always attempts to relate to others in a truly Christian way? Someone who is transparent and can be trusted in every respect? Not just occasionally, when we have a good day, but 24/7?

Christ: The ultimate Example of authenticity

Becoming authentic is a process that we can never complete—it will always remain a work in progress. We find complete authenticity only in Jesus Christ. He was who He was and is who He is. The process towards becoming authentic is, therefore, one of becoming more like Him. Paul urges us: “Your attitude should be the same that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God. He made himself nothing; he took the humble position of a slave and appeared in human form” (Phil. 2:5–7, NLT).

What applies to us individually also applies to us as a faith community. The question is not limited to, Am I an authentic person? The question has a sequel: Is my church a community that radiates authenticity? Is it an open community that attracts people, because it clearly cares for people and lives up to what it pretends to be? The church we serve does not become a truly authentic community simply by talking about or writing about it. Slogans by themselves are not sufficient.

Becoming authentic, individually and collectively, calls for a positive response to God’s invitation. But if we are not authentic, no hope exists of genuinely connecting with the people we seek to serve. Our authenticity is an invitation for others to respond to God’s call.

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Reinder Bruinsma, Ph.D., is the retired president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the Netherlands, Huis ter Heide, Netherlands.

July 2009

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