The Missing Finger: An Analogy of Love
By Roland Hearn
When the church focuses primarily upon its own needs, it drifts from its God-given mandate.
Many years ago I worked in the morally questionable environment of the Australian used car industry of the early ‘80s. At that time only sales mattered. People were seen as “marks” to be separated from their money. Many car yards would open, operate, and close within 12 months to avoid having to respond to customer needs. In that world, lies to clients were nothing more than punch lines in jokes to be told in the lunchroom. To cheat someone with a plausible fabrication was highly lauded.
In one of the yards in which I worked I came across an individual that was quite remarkable. A man with integrity. He owned and operated that yard. I liked him. He spoke words of wisdom, encouragement, and affirmation. It seemed he liked me too. Enough that when he was forced to sell his yard and take on the role of sales manager of a much larger business, he invited me to go with him. Almost anytime I was with him I felt better about myself. He spoke to me with concern about the negative influences within the trade impacting me. He taught me how to sell a car honestly, and he gave me tasks of responsibility to perform. I enjoyed being with him. We laughed easily together, even though I was just out of my teen years. He spoke to me as if I was an adult, as if I was someone that mattered. I had no doubt that to Bill Muir I mattered, and it did not have anything to do with my performance. Whether I sold cars or not, he was the same. I was surprised by how much he seemed to value me.
As I worked with him, I developed a very peculiar habit. A long time before I had known him, he had lost the little finger from his right hand in an accident. He was a man that spoke using lots of hand gestures, and the missing digit was clearly apparent whenever he spoke. I found myself, without awareness, copying his many gestures. As I did, I rolled my little finger into the palm of my hand when I spoke so that it was not visible. I was talking to a customer one day and I happened to notice my hand as it waved in the air. It was the first time I was aware of how much I was imitating my employer. To my surprise I saw the little finger of my right hand tucked discretely away and I knew instantly that act was a representation of how much he meant to me because of how much I meant to him.
In scripture we are called to be “imitators of Christ” (Eph. 5:1). We are charged to “act justly and to love mercy” (Micah 6:8). This is what God requires of us. Ultimately, we are to be ambassadors in the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19-20), reflecting those clarion words of Christ: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). These statements, and many others, blend together to create our understanding of what it is to “serve God.” Captured within them are hints on how to evaluate our performance in each of these areas. When we evaluate our performance, we can determine if we are fulfilling those charges given to us. So, as a result, we can consider the number of disciples we have made, the number of times we speak forth “the word”—be it in a sermon or in a “witnessing” event. We can evaluate our influence on the laws of the church, and, dare we believe, the laws of the nation. We can ultimately determine if we are truly “being the church,” “being faithful,” “committed,” and “honoring the sacrifice of Christ.”
The whole of our faith journey, as a result of these perceptions, can, in one way or another, be understood in terms of things we do and the methods we use to evaluate those activities. This is often a subtle process because it is the opposite of how we construct our understanding of faith and grace. But the evidence of that reality is that we discover our freedom is gone, the burden becomes heavy, and the church takes on the role of an institution with institutional demands. In this reality, leaders—pastors and lay people—move ever more toward feelings of inadequacy and isolation, and ultimately, for many, the result is burnout.
This shift from a focus on the centrality of grace to an overwhelming burden of performance reveals the truth that among the things we need is a transformation in the way we perceive leadership. That is evidenced by our apparent obsession with results. Be it the local church pastor, lay leaders, ministry coordinators, and denominational leaders, the way we talk and think about the church effectively being the church, reveals something to us. It is almost always expressed in terms of results that can be measured numerically. We become results focused because we have trained ourselves to believe that reaching certain goals is akin to advancing the Kingdom of God. Those goals are usually framed with regards to membership, attendance, finances, or education. None of those things are inherently bad and measuring them does make sense. But a shift occurs in our understanding of the role of the church in the world when these measures become measures of our personal worth or acceptability.
Two significant representations point to this shift. Firstly, the leader begins to connect her or his sense of worth, and therefore identity, with the achievement of those goals. Secondly, the leader creates an environment that increases the sense of inadequacy for those they are leading by linking the worth of those being led to the leader’s expectation. That is, because of the first issue—an environment where a leader’s sense of worth relates to results—a dominating awareness exists that participants in any project believe they must achieve certain expectations, communicated by the leader, to validate their own sense of worth. They are subsequently uncertain that they can achieve the perceived expectations in a way that will remotely positively impact their own sense of worth. An overwhelming sense of shame over their sense of inadequacy can quickly follow. Simply put, individuals don’t feel “good enough” to adequately achieve the results required. Even when expectations are reached there can be a constant sense that new expectations will quickly emerge that will negate the achievement of the existing ones.
Worth and identity are profoundly and inextricably linked. A leader that is results focused can believe that they are wisely balancing capacities and resources, when first and foremost they are fulfilling a vital role in identity formation—or at least they should be. The delusion is played out in a thousand contexts where a leader is pushing people to achieve certain ends. On the achievement of those results they may then be found patting themselves, and even their team, on the back for achieving such results, blissfully unaware that resentments or dysfunctional relational dynamics may eventually develop. The ultimate failure of the organization or the team is already being established without their knowledge, even while they are applauded for reaching certain targets. This reality exists as much in the church as it does in secular contexts. It is the dominance of a results focus, and the subsequent inevitable sense of shame, that is crippling the church in its desire to represent the grace of God to a hurting world.
That is not the representation of grace in scripture. We find in scripture a genuine confidence that transformation of an individual’s life empowers a lifestyle of transformation. That transformation will, in and of itself, produce the Kingdom of God. The focus is love changing lives. The transformation is an inevitable consequence of the reception of grace as love. Like my finger inevitably curling under as I spent increasingly more time with an individual that valued me, our lives take on the imitation of Christ. This is the result of becoming vulnerable to grace, love, and the subsequent identity and worth that flows in relationship to Christ. This imitation is not an activity, but a reality of relationship. The “result” for which we aim is becoming like Christ in love with the absolute confidence that such a reality reproduces the values of the Kingdom of God. The primary value of the Kingdom of God is love transforming humanity into the likeness (love) of God.
There is a certain self-obsession with the idea of achieving expectations in terms of results and goals. On the other hand, it is love-obsession that focuses on transformation. However, such a love focus reduces a leaders’ capacity to control and push in the direction of numerical results. This then can be perceived as “failing to lead adequately.” It is a brave and transformed leader that has confidence in love alone and allows the people for whom she is responsible the freedom to explore what it means to be transformed in love. Numbers do matter, but they are the consequence of grace not the focus of effort.
Roland Hearn has been married to his wonderful wife, Emmy, for more than 30 years. They have been in ministry together for most of that time. He currently serves as the Chairman of the board of trustees for Nazarene Theological College, the primary coordinator for ministry within the Church of the Nazarene in Australia and New Zealand and the district superintendent of the Australia North and West district of the church of the Nazarene. His research passion is the healing and transforming power of divine love.
To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.