The Grieving Leader

Daily Reflection / Produced by The High Calling
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You, human one, groan in their sight; groan bitterly with trembling knees. (CEB)

Ezekiel 21:

When I was a young pastor, I heard a mature, highly regarded pastor say something in a sermon that disturbed me. He shared with his congregation a time when he was literally on his face weeping before the Lord in prayer. He felt deep sadness about the spiritual state of his own congregation and about the lostness of those they had been sent to reach with the Gospel.

I felt uncomfortable with what I heard this preacher share. To be sure, some of my discomfort had to do with my own emotional reticence. But I had never heard a preacher share his grief so openly, except for some television evangelists for whom I had little respect. I wondered if the preacher I heard that day was doing the right thing. Aren’t leaders supposed to be upbeat? Wouldn’t it be better if he kept his grief to himself?

To be sure, some leaders, Christian and otherwise, can use displays of emotion to manipulate people. And certain kinds of emotional displays might not be appropriate in public. But Scripture suggests that there is a time when a leader not only may grieve, but should grieve.

In the first five verses of Ezekiel 21, the Lord announces his sword-like judgment upon his people, calling Ezekiel to deliver this distressing message. Then the Lord adds: “You, human one, groan in their sight; groan bitterly with trembling knees” (21:6). The Hebrew of this verse accentuates the extremity of the prophet’s pain as well as the public nature of his groaning. If the people ask why he is making such a public display of his sorrow, Ezekiel is to explain that he is reacting to the horror of the news of pending judgment.

The example of Ezekiel would suggest, not only that it is at times okay for a leader to speak of his or her grief, but also to share that grief openly. Notice, though, that Ezekiel is not sad for himself. Rather, as a leader of God’s people, he shares his heart for them and his sorrow over the pain they are about to endure. Because his groaning is authentic and empathic, it is not self-serving or manipulative.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Have you ever experienced anything like we find in Ezekiel 21:6, either in your own leadership or in that of others? Generally, we think of leaders as being positive and upbeat. So when might grief be an appropriate public expression? Would this ever work in secular leadership? Or is it only possible in explicitly Christian contexts?

PRAYER: Gracious God, as you know, I would not be pleased were I to receive an instruction like the one you gave to Ezekiel in this passage. Not only am I uncomfortable sharing my own sadness in public, but I’m also wary of emotional manipulation by leaders, especially preachers.

Still, I recognize that there may be a time when it would be right for me to do as you commanded Ezekiel. So I ask that you help me to discern how best to exercise the leadership you have entrusted to me. Help me to be authentic and wise in my work, as a parent, in my writing, and as a preacher. May I be open to you at all times and all ways, even when you call me to something that stretches me beyond my comfort zone. Amen.