Let Them See Your Scars: How I Learned to Lead Out of Healing
We recently shared a blog from Wendell Moss about the unspoken assumptions he often encounters as an African-American man in small groups—including those he holds over himself. Here, Wendell traces some of those internalized messages back to his own story, where he learned at a young age that to be a compelling and effective leader means not letting anyone see your scars. As Wendell reflects on a more vulnerable, authentic form of strength—scars and all—he invites us to challenge the cultural assumptions about masculinity and power that can be so harmful—including in the Church.
Growing up in an African-American church, I recall always being caught by the powerful and strong voice in which my pastor spoke. That power in his voice often had the ability to halt my normally divided attention. I found myself fascinated by his boldness, by his strength, and by how much he held the sanctuary in attention. This was common at several of the churches (even of different ethnicities) that I attended growing up. It didn’t necessarily matter what the pastor was saying; it was the way he would say it that mesmerized.
I remember hoping that someday I could be strong and powerful like those pastors. I noticed that they were always offered the utmost respect. My young body felt both intimidated and caught by them, and I never imagined that I could or would ever cross them. I didn’t have the word “masculinity” in my head, but it’s clear to me that that was a category being formed in me. And the cultural messages I was receiving about masculinity—that it meant strength, respect, and power—were just as present inside the church as outside.
In my second year as a college student, I became a believer. During that time (and over the next couple of years), I struggled with shame quite a bit. My shame was due to struggles with pornography and other parts of my story that I wasn’t ready to engage. I frequently wondered what people would do if they really knew me. Would they see me as strong, as a good or respectable man? These were the very things I struggled with internally. At this point, I’d not known many pastors or leaders who shared about wrestling through these issues, or who dared to show their scars. I had only known leaders to be strong, powerful, and bold.
My initial solution was to cover my brokenness by portraying myself as a man who always possessed the strength that I had seen modeled. In the mid-‘90s I went into ministry, where I learned early on how to hide my brokenness masterfully, to lead while covering up every scar I had. I was capable of inviting others to engage in issues that I wouldn’t dare engage in my own heart.
Hiding my scars set me up to lead out of a place of self-righteousness that would only allow me to give advice, without always attuning to the deep needs of those I served. There were many moments where it seemed more important to look respectable and knowledgeable. If I felt questioned or doubted, I’d ramp up and work hard to prove I was credible—even if it meant minimizing someone and their story.
Hiding my scars set me up to lead out of a place of self-righteousness.
At a particular conference, I was invited to give a talk on forgiveness. I felt both excited and scared to give this talk. One of my mentors was in the room. I remember speaking with strength and boldness, and feeling really powerful as I spoke. At one point, I remember saying, with my voice loud and my fist balled, “You have to forgive! Who are you to not forgive someone? You can’t do that!” Next, I perused the audience only to notice blank stares. I wanted to believe they were internally convicted, but somehow I knew that my words didn’t hit them well.
Later, I looked back on that moment with shame, anger, and embarrassment. I was aware that I had tried to be strong and bold, without being concerned about being authentic. I wanted that room to respect me and see me as a powerful and confident man. A masculine one. Because of that unacknowledged need, I’ve wondered if my words at that seminar did more harm than good (I say this with no shame, but honesty).
When I reflect back on that talk, I’m aware of how much I’d been attempting to live up to a standard of masculinity—sometimes shifting to the hyper-masculine—that wouldn’t let me rest or heart search. It required my pride to be at the top, never letting me tell the truth. It would never allow me to let others know my scars, and would perhaps even shame them for their scars. To live out that standard, I had to be more committed to covering my own shame than to helping others engage theirs, more committed to them being impressed by me rather than experiencing a humility that actually empowered them.
I believe that living out masculinity in this way has contributed to much of the spiritual abuse that we’ve come to know so deeply in the church. Today, I encounter many leaders who feel bound to a masculinity that turns out to be toxic not only to those they serve, but to their own hearts as well. Giving up these structures requires a willingness to investigate our own stories of harm, and to let others join us. I believe this paves the way towards portraying a healthy masculinity, one that doesn’t require hyper-masculinity or emasculation.
As I reflect on this, I’m reminded how much I love the name of Dan Allender’s book Leading with a Limp. The title holds words that speak to what I believe healthy masculinity requires. My story holds that, as a man, I’ve been wounded. The story of Jesus has made it so that, as a man, I can lead out of my brokenness—limping boldly, with confidence, tenderness, and strength. The men I’ve come to trust the most are often like the strong, confident men I described in the beginning. However, they also have a limp to them. And what’s even better is that they don’t mind me having one as well.