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Compulsive Leadership and a Transparent Self

Soldier holding a gun.

The sermon delivered by General Conference President Ted Wilson at the October 7 Annual Council meeting was titled, "Chosen for Mission." It was certainly not just a discourse on mission but rather an explicit ideological manifesto of what Adventism should be. Even more importantly, Wilson implicitly framed what contemporary societies—which serve as context to Adventism—represent for him. This was not a classic sermon, with typical and appropriate spiritual edification emphases, but neither was it a penetrating and differentiated theological/cultural analysis. His message was a sincere and respectable testimony, but also filled with clichés, slogans, and downward labels which spoke more to the belly than the minds or hearts of Adventists.

This sermon embodies a typical militant reaction to situations and problems. President Wilson is a true militant of a radical Adventism. He believes in it and wants that kind of church to convince the world of the benefits in being Adventist. I don't think he will succeed in the long run with this reactive and reductive formula of reality and faith. He will, however, be affirmed by the euphoric and uncritical adherence of those who support his vision. And, in a time of uncertainty, this is a high percentage of the church. Unfortunately, being reactive, impulsive, and compulsive—even if the ideals defended are true and important—creates only an appearance of success. Behind an overbearing and even reckless militancy, there often lies a chronic inability to confront the complexities of faith and life.

For the compulsive leader, everything that does not lead to immediate and direct decisions is tainted by indifference and infidelity. The problem is that indifference and spiritual neglect cannot be corrected by, or fought with, impatient militancy. If a leader proceeds this way, one problem is replaced with its opposite. Adventism cannot afford to be reactive, much less its leadership. We must, even if with difficulty, learn to be proactive. The essential difference, on a psychological or social level, lies in the ability and wisdom to create an intermediate space. This “third space” between the stimulus and the response allows the response to be slowed down. By halting an instinctive reaction generated by a provocative and aggressive stimulus, an intermediate space can enhance a given response, even as it slows it down.

This beneficial slowdown mechanism is readily discernible in human relationships. But unfortunately, Adventism doesn’t recognize it as necessary, whether at the theological, hermeneutical, missional, or even community management levels. Today’s church is not, paradoxically, proactive. It does engage in a great deal of activity, relentlessly offering a multiplicity of complex missionary initiatives. But Adventism has also become a typical reactive church. Adventist pragmatism, which is now an operational compulsion, carries out a lot of mission, but it doesn’t seem to understand what mission means. And, in not understanding, the church is forced to increase it quantitatively, in a typical compensatory move.

Ours has become a compulsive mission that also implies and presupposes a compulsive eschatology. We are making ourselves incapable, through our own efforts, of bringing empathy, refreshment, and good news to the world in which we live. Indeed, the news has become bad, even for those who are within the “fold.” The complexity of end times, the paradoxes and short-circuits of our scenarios, and the ambivalence of the message and paths of faith have become near-incomprehensible impediments for us. The End, for the compulsive militancy of an Adventist certainty, must always be linear, clear, and unambiguous. Adventism was born in the mid-1800s with a semi-Pelagian soul and, after almost two centuries, we have not yet come to our senses. We try to become complete Pelagians not only on the moral level, but especially on the eschatological one. Thus militancy, expressed now with intense candor by our leadership, needs to be tempered by the wisdom of the Spirit and an urgent reconnection with the "reality principle," valid not only individually but also at the collective level.

But militant imbalance doesn’t just occur with praxis and behavior. There is also an imbalance in understanding Truth. The militant conceives truth only as consistency, defending a narrow “coherentist” understanding. They seek an alignment of action and belief via a closed system that refers only to the individual or his/her community. The notion of "truth as correspondence"—the always necessary connection between what one believes and external reality—is completely foreign. Militants are disconnected from external reality and live in a parallel alternative, created only for themselves and their community. Confrontation with the "reality principle" (correspondence with reality) is for the militant a waste of time and a threat to the purity of his or her “little truth.” Indeed, militants are convinced that reality itself constitutes a serious danger and try, by all means, to escape from this confrontation. Here, the map (one’s personal truth) has replaced the actual territory (reality). It should, of course, be the other way around. Any map is valid only if it corresponds to what the territory shows.

But the temptation of impulsiveness has always been present for prophets and kings. Consider the example of David, the king chosen by God to rule Israel. He asked, “Shall I go?” thus resisting the temptation of immediate militancy (1 Samuel 23:2). He asked this question without uncertainty and precisely when he knew how to go, because he was a shrewd and intelligent warrior. David was a proactive, not reactive king. With the help of God and his experience, David created an in-between space between belief and action that slowed his immediate reaction, thus correcting and improving it.

But biblical characters—like all people who lived in pre-modern cultures and communities—had, according to Charles Taylor[1], three mechanisms that limited and tempered their impulsiveness and compulsion. They were "Porous Selves," people who willingly accepted the balances of 1) God (they were believers); 2) nature (they lived according to natural cycles); and 3) the group (they were socially integrated people).

Today, as Taylor states, we all tend to be "Buffered Selves," people walled in and living secularized, anthropocentric, and individualistic lives. We become detached from reality by remaining connected only to our own small, anthropocentric version of it. Therefore, the risk of anthropological compulsion today is stronger than in other eras. This is why Christopher Bollas[2] , a psychiatrist and careful analyst of contemporaneity, describes Western culture (secular or religious) as tending to be "manic," that is, both impulsive and compulsive.

Compulsive operativeness, coupled with a manic eschatology of militancy, has become even more dangerous in Adventism today. There are elements that, by embodying reality, could act as balancing and slowing mechanisms. But too often, we reject such elements. Confrontation with society, culture, or other churches is lacking. This closure within ourselves has become even worse because Adventism has now entered—theologically and administratively—into a dangerous process of homogenization and compression. Little by little, the church is erasing healthy alternatives within its structure, because it considers them obstacles for its linear and compact mission.

In another historical context (World War I), Max Weber, one of the fathers of modern sociology, described an ideal profile of shrewd and wise leadership. In his famous essay "Politics as a Vocation,"[3] he says that necessary militancy—which brings with it passion, conviction, and charisma—cannot become the sole criterion of political leadership. It must be joined with responsibility and foresight.

This is why Wendy Brown[4], a noted philosopher and political scientist at University of California, Berkeley, reminds us that Weber's century-old lesson is more relevant today than ever. We are living in a nihilistic and disoriented time. Thus, it is very easy to fall into the opposite danger of decisionism. Militancy, if it is to remain constructive, must connect with reality through the other two important characteristics of a true leader: responsibility and foresight. Without these, Adventist leadership risks becoming not only compulsive but also eschatologically manic. To be slowed down by the complexity of history, our spiritual journey, or family and community is not a curse. We can instead consider it an opportunity for faith-flourishing, one that Adventism shouldn’t overlook due to the misleading fascination of linear militancy.


Notes and References:

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), pp. 35-43.

[2] Christopher Bollas, Meaning and Melancholia. Life in the Age of Bewilderment, (London: Routledge, 2018), pp. 7-22.

[3] Max Weber, The Vocation Lectures. "Science as a Vocation," "Politics as a Vocation," (Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing Company, 2004), pp. 145-165.

[4] Wendy Brown, Nihilistic Times. Thinking with Max Weber, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2023), pp. 5-23.


Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of Villa Aurora and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found by clicking here.

Title image: Sander Sammy on Unsplash

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