Some time ago, I wrote an essay about the abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. It got published and circulated around, and made its way back to Danville, to the Catholic Church where I had been raised. I knew that was likely to happen and had girded my loins, as the Bible says. Truth be told, I had been in trouble with the Quakers for so long, I was looking forward to being in trouble with a new group of folks. Mix things up a bit.

Sure enough, I began to hear rumors that certain Catholics were upset and wanted to meet with me. A few of them saw me around town and said they wanted to take me to lunch, but I know how that goes. Someone thinks if they buy you a gristly, stringy chicken sandwich they have the right to chew on you for an hour. So I said, “No thank you, I’ll buy my own lunch.”

But then I let down my guard and one of them caught me at CVS. I was checking out and heard a man say, “I’ve been looking for you,” and I turned around and it was my old catechism teacher from when I was a kid. Now he was a bubble off center back then, and time had not improved his condition.

He said, “You should be ashamed of yourself. No Catholic priest ever molested a child. That’s a lie.”

I reminded him that the past three Popes had admitted the abuses, but that didn’t matter. In his mind, the Catholic church was blameless and pure.

I have witnessed this inability to admit to or acknowledge error or wrongdoing in other religions, and not just religions. I have seen this pattern in relationships, in political parties, in nations, in every human institution. I have a great affection for Quakerism. I became, and remain, a Quaker because I think at critical moments in our history, we have acted nobly. But because I have been quick to point out and celebrate our finer moments, it is only fitting I acknowledge our shadow side, our less admirable decisions and moments. I do this because I believe every relationship, every institution, and certainly every religion is made better by honest scrutiny, when not only its blessings and benefits are acknowledged, but also its missteps and malignancies.

Often, our weaknesses are born of our strengths. What were intended to be correctives over time became liabilities, which is certainly true of our topic today. I am calling this series What In The World Were We Thinking? and want to begin by observing that the Quaker’s historical suspicion of clerical authority and abuse, a reasonable distrust in 1649 when kings and clerics ruled with impunity. Unfortunately, our fear of abusive leadership caused us to fear all leadership.

When I was starting out as a Quaker pastor, I attended a Quaker conference out east. I was eating lunch and a woman sat beside me, introduced herself, and asked me what I did. When I told her I was a Quaker pastor, she said, “I don’t believe in Quaker pastors,” like I was a unicorn or something.

What do you say to that? I just said, “And yet, here I sit.”

She picked up her tray and went and sat at another table.

Any institution, whether it is a denomination or a government or a business, that does not cultivate a healthy understanding of leadership will attract unhealthy leaders. At that same conference, an evangelical Quaker superintendent in California, drunk on power and privilege, insisted other Friends share his narrow theology or his yearly meeting would take their ball and go home, which they ultimately did. Today, Indiana Yearly Meeting, our Quaker cousins to the east, believing we are not Christian enough, so are leaving our wider Friends organization. At the heart of both departures were unhealthy leaders, their heads turned by power and privilege. Any organization that does not cultivate a healthy understanding of leadership will attract unhealthy leaders.

This isn’t limited to religion. We bemoan the poor quality of our national and state leaders, without acknowledging our own complicity, which is the reluctance of bright and capable people to seek positions of leadership. We have neglected our duty to identify and encourage the finest among us to govern. Having discouraged the best and brightest, we are at risk of having the dullest and most dangerous govern us. Any organization that does not cultivate a healthy understanding of leadership will attract unhealthy leaders.

I was talking about our presidential election this week with a friend and heard myself saying, “I don’t trust anyone who wants to be president. Only an egomaniac would want that job.”

My friend said, “Or someone who loves their country and believes governance is a noble profession.”

Oh, that too, I suppose. But look how naturally, how easily, I condemned someone who might feel called to leadership.

We Friends face a crisis in leadership. Our Quaker seminaries graduate fewer students each year who are willing to serve in leadership among Friends. Just last month I was invited to apply as a minister at a large Quaker meeting in North Carolina. Thirty years ago, a stream of capable candidates would have applied. Today, that meeting is begging for applicants. When they’re asking me to apply, that’s a sure sign of desperation. This drought of leadership is due in some part to changing demographics. Fewer people are participating in religious life. But I also can’t help but wonder if we Friends have created a culture injurious to leadership. And that maybe the problem isn’t just a Quaker problem, but a national, and perhaps even a global problem, as fewer and fewer people are willing to assume the difficult work of leadership.

Early Friends looked askance at religious leaders because they didn’t want to be religious followers. But good leaders don’t want followers. Only a poor leader wants followers. A poor leader, an unhealthy leader says, “I alone can fix it.” He or she wants followers and sycophants, someone who will offer mindless and compliant obedience.

But good leaders, healthy leaders, don’t want followers. Good leaders want partners, they want collaborators.

A poor leader says, “You must be loyal to me.”

A healthy leader says, “Our challenges are profound, so our solutions and respect must be mutual.”

In our Quaker community, we must resist two equally dangerous tendencies—the tendency to demand unthinking compliance, and the tendency to resist all leadership, which at its heart is a rejection of partnership. Our model is akin to a healthy marriage—sometimes giving, sometimes taking, sometimes leading, sometimes following, dancing together in mutual and loving purpose.