The similarities between Clinton and Driscoll’s trajectories to leadership should disturb us, for they reveal something troubling about the nature of “successful” church leadership in American evangelical circles. The common denominator is an ability to communicate effectively, connecting with the people through dynamic speaking and charismatic leadership. Such skills cover a multitude of sins in both the political and ecclesiastical realms. And, while we should expect it in the former, things ought to be different in the latter. Sadly, in order to elevate such leaders, we often sell our birthright for a mess of pottage….
Two men, born twenty-six years apart and moving within different circles, followed remarkably similar and typically American paths to the pinnacle of fame and leadership.
The first came from humble origins and endured a challenging childhood. His father died in a car wreck while his mother was pregnant, leaving her as a single mom. At the time of his birth, that situation meant social stigma and the stresses of providing for a family as a single parent. In order to do so, she left him with her parents–with whom she did now always see eye-to-eye–in order to obtain vocational training in a city over a day’s travel away. Soon, his mother remarried, but rather than bringing increased stability to the family, his stepfather brought further chaos as alcohol-fueled arguments and domestic abuse often defined his home life. Turmoil characterized his formative years.
In spite of these challenges, during his high school years the young man excelled academically, served in student government, and became an accomplished musician. In college, he earned a prestigious Rhodes scholarship before returning to the United States to earn a law degree from an Ivy League school. Along the way, he emerged as a gifted communicator and a charismatic young star in a political party populated with older men.
Decades later, the second young man followed a similar path. Born into a family where the men were alcoholics and wife-beaters, he grew up in a tough neighborhood full of all sorts of illicit activity. In high school, he excelled academically, served in student government, and became an accomplished athlete. His senior year, he was student body president and was voted “most likely to succeed.” He also worked in politics. In college, he underwent an evangelical conversion experience, going on to complete several degrees. Along the way, he emerged as a gifted communicator and a charismatic young star in a religious tradition populated with older men.
Both men excelled due to their charisma and ability to connect with “the people.” The first, Bill Clinton, emerged as one of the greatest political communicators in generations. Without a doubt, he surpassed all his opponents–both Democrat and Republican–in appealing and connecting to the populace. The second, Mark Driscoll, emerged as a gifted preacher who actually exposited the Scripture, connecting with his multiple audiences in a way that his competitors–mostly those who talked about exposition rather than actually doing it–did not. He was willing to tackle difficult issues and proclaim grace, not mere moralism, with reckless abandon.