Dr. Trace Haythorn: The Steve McNair Tragedy

When I served as a pastor in Nashville, I was a pretty passionate fan of the Tennessee Titans.  The miracle play that defeated Buffalo and kept Tennessee alive in the playoffs, the one foot gap between the ball and the touchdown against the Rams that would have won the Superbowl, the unbelievable noise level of the fans in the stadium in Nashville (so loud that opposing teams accused the Titans of pumping noise in, clearly forgetting that the home of country music is all about volume).  But most of all, I was a fan of Steve McNair, the remarkably gifted quarterback from Alcorn State (not exactly the first school that comes to mind when one thinks of powerhouse college football programs).  His underdog history, outstanding athletic prowess and consistent on-field leadership made him one of the best quarterbacks in the game.

News of his death this week came as a shock.  Then to learn that he was murdered made it even more astounding.  Then the context of his murder – with a woman with whom he had been having an affair – left me uttering that familiar groan.  I expect we all know that groan, the one we let loose when someone we once admired falls from grace, when that one we thought was so remarkable disappoints us in ways that keep our heads shaking for months, when that person in whom we had placed our trust as a role model and as a leader heads down roads we pray we never follow.

We know that groan in the church… Every denomination and independent association has been hit with painful revelations of sexual impropriety and of adultery.  The propensity of gifted leaders to lose their way seems to be a central temptation of such folks.  It leads me to pray for those we come to know as Fellows at the Fund for Theological Education.  These young people are some of the most gifted and passionate folks I’ve ever known.  I have no doubt many of them will be (or perhaps already are!) important leaders in their communities and in the denominations.  And while I pray that they will make good and faithful choices, I have no illusions that they are immune to possible failures of leadership. Pastoral leaders wrestle with the same human frailties that can fail churches, families, communities.

Part of what we hope to cultivate at FTE is a deeper sense of reverence.  I don’t mean some sort of artificial stoicism, but rather what Paul Woodruff describes as “the well-developed capacity to have feelings to have the feelings of awe, respect and shame when these are the right feelings to have” (from Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue by Paul Woodruff, p. 8).  In reference to leaders, Woodruff writes, “When leaders are reverent, they are reverent along with their followers, and their common reverence unites them in feelings that overcome personal interests, feelings such as mutual respect.  These feelings take the sting from the tools of leadership—from persuasion, from threats of punishment, from manipulation by means of reward.”  And, I would add, from self-interested temptations that nullify their role as a leader by breaching trust with their people, by undermining to integrity of the group, and by fundamentally disappointing those who placed so much hope in them.

I don’t know what happened with Steve McNair, but the picture is one of great disappointment.  Too many churches have been failed by such leaders who have succumbed to urges rather than holding their vows – and indeed, their people – in a place of reverence.  May the next generation of pastoral leaders for the church and for all of society heed the call to a the kind of reverence that receives everyone as members of the body of Christ, and in so doing, guides the leader in ways of integrity, honesty, and trustworthiness, lest the groans of despair and disappointment win the day.

[Used by permission from the FTE On Call blog, http://www.thefund.org/blog/]