“Savior Complex” No. 8

Spiritual Leader Burnout reason number 8:
“Savior Complex” versus humility

One of the seductive pulls of being spiritual leaders is falling for people’s projections of them being their “savior sent by God”. Many people would like to be “saved”. They see themselves in the victim position and want to become dependent on somebody who would save them from themselves or from others. If spiritual leaders allow for those projections to take hold, people will see that savior figure in them. This can lead to burn out via “spiritual hybris”, which means that the leaders actually start to believe that they can “save people” from themselves, from circumstances or from their physical or mental ailments. One of the seductions for spiritual leaders is the secret belief that they might be Jesus (or at least Jesus’s “best disciple”) incarnate. Spiritual leaders often gain power by believing that God has sent exclusively them to save their neighbors, communities, and possibly the whole world. This kind of thinking and behaving leads to grandiosity, false perception of others and self and finally to burn out.  Victimized and needy people’s expectations of their spiritual leaders tend to grow every day. If those then try to match those expectations, try to stay ahead of them or catch up by matching those expectations at any cost, burn out is preprogrammed. Over working, over promising, over committing, over achieving become traits of a spiritual leader who buys into such “savior” syndrome. Typical consequences of such “myth of being sent as a savior for others” become the tendency to control others and their perception of the leaders. Also to surround one’s self with needy, vulnerable and dependent people, and the avoidance of self-reflection and self-awareness are also common occurrences. The obsession with one’s image and also image control take much of such spiritual leaders’ internal and external energies. In spiritual terms “pride” becomes an leading force and obsession.

Humility is the healing balm for such “hyper performing leaders” who fell for the seduction of prideful leadership. “Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.” C.S. Lewis. Humility is the absence of any feelings of being better than any others. It is the notion that we are learners no matter how long we have been leaders. It is the non-judgmental awareness of one’s own humanity, limits, brokenness and all. It is the awareness that God speaks through unlikely persons, like children, non-believers and the marginalized just as clearly as at times possibly through spiritual leaders. It is the freedom from pride and the freedom from people’s projections of power onto the spiritual leaders. Humility means to spiritually follow the Jesus who abdicated his Godly power versus buying into the myths of Jesus as a miracle worker.

As most books on humility are very conservative in nature, (and liberal theologians don’t seem to like the word “humility”), I want to recommend Pope Francis’s recent book: “Lead with Humility: 12 Leadership lessons from Pope Francis.”