January 6, 2021: An Unexpected Epiphany

“A leader is a person who must take special responsibility for what’s going on inside him- or herself, inside his or her consciousness, lest the act of leadership create more harm than good.”
–Parker Palmer

Yesterday morning we published a Beyond Words blog post highlighting the beginning of Epiphany—the season of the church year in which  we celebrate the showing forth of God’s presence in earthly form.  We went on to define epiphany in a more general sense as “a sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something….an intuitive grasp of reality.” We invited God to make this a season of revelation for us.

I am quite sure none of us expected the kind of revelation we got.

Hours later an angry mob, incited by the highest leader in our land, brought violence, destruction and death to our nation’s capital as our elected officials gathered to carry out their constitutional responsibilities.  On our own soil and brought on by our own fellow Americans we witnessed an assault on our democracy, a violent attack on public servants inside the historic place in which they serve, a human tragedy in which precious lives were lost, and a public shaming of our country on the world stage.

We also witnessed once again the aching disparity between how white people are treated and how Black people are treated when they gather publicly, when they protest, and even when they walk down the street! There were so many reasons to weep that my tears came and went all day.

A Sudden Manifestation

If that’s all that had happened yesterday, it would be bad enough. But for those who think deeply about leadership, the events of this day were also an unexpected epiphany—“a sudden manifestation” of the essential nature or meaning of leadership. Watching how that day began and how it unfolded, we were faced with the sudden manifestation of undeniable truth.

Leadership matters. Transforming leadership matters. Untransformed leadership is dangerous and destructive in the extreme.

What Lies Beneath

In every Transforming Community of leaders we guide and facilitate, we reflect on this quote from Parker Palmer: “A leader is a person who must take special responsibility for what’s going on inside him- or herself, inside his or her consciousness, lest the act of leadership create more harm than good.”

In the four hours of solitude that follow this teaching, we reflect on the fact that what lies beneath the surface of our lives as leaders really matters.  We allow ourselves to be challenged by the fact that the dark side of leadership—whatever it is in our human and psychological development that is left undealt with and unresolved—will find its way to the surface of our leadership no matter how hard we try to keep it outside our consciousness. And the most sobering truth is that others will probably see it before we do—if we’re able to see it at all.

Followership Matters

And let’s be clear about another sudden manifestation we saw yesterday, and that is that followership matters, too— who we choose to follow and why and how. Yesterday’s events reflected not only a tragic failure of leadership but also a tragic failure of followership—blind followership of a leader who is not worthy of being followed.  Thoughtless followership that relinquishes one’s own inner authority to discern what is right and wrong.  Self-serving followership motivated by political alignment and career aspirations.

Thank God we eventually saw leaders who were able to extricate themselves from all that and rise to a higher level— leadership and duty for the sake of others, leadership in service of what is morally, ethically, and constitutionally right.  It was right to certify this election no matter how one feels about it personally, no matter whether it benefits one politically. That is what leaders do.

The Highest Call of Leadership

So the quote above came back to me over and over through the afternoon and evening hours as I sat glued to the television.  It came to me as I wept and prayed that the highest leader in our land would take responsibility for what was going on inside himself, inside his consciousness, so his leadership could stop bringing harm but instead bring good.  It came to me over and over again as I wrestled with dark thoughts and emotions throughout the night.

Then this morning, while still grieving what we all witnessed yesterday, I thought about my own leadership and the leadership of all the earnest leaders who come through our ministry and I had another revelation. It came to me that all of us should be on our faces today begging God to help us see whatever it is in our own leadership that is dangerous or destructive. We need to beseech God to help us see what we can not see. We need to pray God will surround us with followers who are awake and alert and refuse to follow anything that is sinful or damaging or destructive in us.

In the face of this unexpected epiphany, let us embrace once again the truth that the best thing we bring to leadership is our own transforming selves—lest we, too, do more harm than good.  Let us see this self-responsibility as our highest call.  As we will read in this week’s lectionary Gospel (Mark 1:4-12), even Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit to wrestle with the most subtle and most dangerous temptations of leadership; and he overcame them by the grace of God and the force of his own character.  Surely, this is our calling as well.

©Ruth Haley Barton. 2021. Not to be reproduced without permission.

NOTE FROM OUR DIRECTOR OF COMMUNICATIONS: Thank you all for reading and responding to this blog post. We are closing comments for now because we feel the conversation may be taking a turn that is no longer edifying. Here in the Transforming Center we continue to pray for our president and all our governmental leaders at this time. 

As Jesus taught us so we pray:

                ON EARTH AS IN HEAVEN.
        ARE YOURS
                  NOW AND FOR EVER.

Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is Founder and Chief Essence Officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest (Oct 2022).
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Daniel (in Daniel 9) linked arms with his countrymen petitioning the Lord to hear them, remember them, and deliver them. He didn’t name names, point an accusing finger or even hold himself up as an example to follow (though he very well could have). Rather he saw himself as part of the problem and from that attitude of humility fasted and prayed to his God, our God. And God, God heard his prayer. It is safe to say that whether one aligns themselves as a Democrat, Republican, Independent, Never Trumper, ANTIFA, BLM, and etc poor leadership abounds. Rather then point fingers, let us follow Daniel’s example, and freely admit to our own shortcomings and failings as a leader alongside and with each other. In this spirit of humility and unity may we pray earnestly for and encourage each other while today is still called today. May God hear our prayers.

Thank you for your leadership, for your thoughtfulness and for turning us to our calling. Love to you!

Thank you for having the courage to put this out there today. On a day where the temptation is either to dismiss these events or distance ourselves from it’s perpetrators, it would have been easier to remain silent. I’m so grateful you are not silent.

As a younger leader, I too am looking for those further in the journey to speak into what we are experiencing and show us what it looks like to be in God for the world. We are continually bearing witness to tragic events, which reveal deeper and darker realities, that can not continue to be ignored. The transformational journey requires self-knowledge, self-examination and confession and your words here are yet another invitation for us individually and communally.

Thank you for your heart, for your wisdom and for your spiritual leadership. To speak up during these times is not without cost but as I said to a friend just this morning, “if it doesn’t cost us anything, we aren’t doing it right.”

Last edited 3 years ago by Charity McClure

Charity, Thank you for naming the fact that, yes, it would be easier to remain silent. And yet, God’s spirit continues to witness with my spirit about things that are true and must be spoken. I am so grateful the Transforming Center is a place where we can walk together across the generations to fully discover what it means to be in God for the world–even and especially in times like this. Thank you for your companionship, your encouragement and your challenge along the way. We will not shy away from the cost!

Thank you, Ruth. Your words remind me that cruciform love is not silent when words of truth and acts of love are so desperately needed. My prayer is that we will open our own shadow-selves to the examination of the Spirit with a willingness to abandon all coveted self-deception for the sake of others and the roles to which we are called.

I am so very grateful for these words and your leadership. I am looking to the generation ahead of me to speak up, to call out what needs to be said without mincing words and to help me find where we go from here. Unfortunately I don’t see a lot of leaders willing to speak uncomfortable truths and so these words are a balm to my very weary soul today. So much gratitude and respect to you, Ruth.

Thank you, Colleen. I have such a desire that what my generation says and does, and the choices we make, would provide a path for the next generation to walk on so you can go farther than we could ever dream of going. You are such a bright light and you have no idea what your encouragement means.

There is one reason why these white protestors were treated differently than other protestors who happened to be black, though the comparison would have to be chosen carefully: the Mayor of DC did not requested help from the Maryland State Police, other municipalities or the National Guard to quell the protestors. There were too few police compared to the protestors to stop them.

Dustin Hibbard eloquently redirected the comments below. Lets us stay on topic. This post is about leadership.

“…brought violence, destruction and death to our nation’s capital as our elected officials gathered to carry out their constitutional responsibilities.”

This statement strikes me as very significant. It describes the facts that no one can deny. Violence was absolutely what ensued. Destruction of property and more occurred. Death, the final breath of 5 people, resulted from all the chaos. Many people will suffer further consequences of yesterday’s horrific events. We all are impacted in one way or another. My 10, 12, and 14 year old children are forever changed by the images they witnessed on television at the Capital of our nation. We live 2 hrs drive from where this happened. Will my children be able to visit that place in the future without fear? Will I?

Regardless of what anyone believes about Trump, Democrats, Republicans or the issues swirling among us, leaders hold responsibility. This fundamental principal is recognized at every level of our society. If my sphere of influence ends in violence, destruction, or death someone is going to ask how or what Dustin did that led to these outcomes. So why would it be any different for Trump who’s sphere of influence directly oversees and impacts the people, property and work in our nation’s Capital? What would he do if Mar-a-Lago was mobbed? He would tell his staff who oversee the place: ”You’re fired!” So, why wouldn’t we expect anything different for him? Friends, Trump holds responsibility at the highest level for what happened yesterday.

Yet even more important is what Ruth has said here. I must wake up and look at myself. To walk into the light and let my thoughts and the unseen chambers of my heart not be hidden from God or those who look to me for leadership. I have to consider the potential outcome of my words and actions. How will my children live through their time after watching me live out mine? May God help me live in love! May he “save me from the time of trial.”

If only Mr. Trump and those who have watched, listened and believed his leadership would have done this inner work.

Dustin, I agree that, as leaders, if it happens on our watch it is our responsibility. Especially in this case, for all sort of reasons I choose not litigate any further here. Thanks for drawing attention to the tender human elements of what this display of violence has imprinted on our own and children’s psyches. Another moment that was significant to me was when Mitt Romney spoke of his 25 grandchildren glued to the TV wondering if their grandpa was ok. At that moment there were no Republicans and Democrats–just humans with families hoping they would make it home safely. Thank you for your heart.

It is a good thing to examine our own leadership (and followership), however I find your blog very biased, using inflammatory language, basically attributing the wrong done yesterday to President Trump. Words like “incited by the highest leader in our land” and a leader not worthy of being followed, “so his leadership…stop bringing harm” are definitely slanted, more than implying that President Trump is responsible for this horrific act against our nation. A Christian leader should not be sending such a slanted (defamatory and inflammatory) message. You could have used different language about these events, words which were not aimed to despise our President.

Hi Brenda!
I respectfully disagree. Our president rallied these people to himself, spoke to them and riled them up, then directed them to the Capitol. I would call that “inciting” at the very least. I receive his campaign’s e-mails, and they use the strongest possible terms to describe those who do not agree with them. After months of hearing these words used towards others, and feeling like they’ve been cheated, his leadership choices on Wednesday towards that crowd made him at least partially culpable in the riots that followed.

I appreciate your words and agree with many of them. I disagree that this is a “sudden manifestation”. Rather horribly poor leadership has been manifested for the past 4 years and racial and systemic injustice for 400 years prior. It is sad that it takes a breach of this magnitude for many of us, Christians, to take stock of our blind followership of a political ideology and cultural Christianity and even sadder that some continue to defend our current President.

I appreciate your words and agree with many of them. I disagree that this is a “sudden manifestation” – rather horribly poor leadership has been manifested for the past 4 years and racial and systemic injustice for 400 years prior. It is sad that it takes a breach of this magnitude for many of us, Christians, to take stock of our blind followership of a political ideology and cultural Christianity and even sadder that some continue to defend our current President.

Thank you. You are right on target. May the Lord open outmr eyes to see us as we are.

Thank you, Ruth, for your leadership in a dark time in our history.

How are you sure that the President incited this terrible violence? I have read credible evidence that Antifa was responsible for storming the Capitol.

I simply watched–in real time–the rally Trump held in the morning in DC and everything that emerged from that. I watched in real time all day–switching from Fox to CNN and everything in between. Til 10:30 at night when the election was finally certified. There is more bipartisan agreement on what actually happened on Jan. 6 than anything we’ve seen in years.

How often do we hear someone say, “I can’t believe they did that!” or “I can’t believe I did that!” Why can’t we believe it? It is innate in every human soul to run off the rails if unchecked by ourselves or others. Thank you for the reminder to do some deep introspection and evaluation about my own soul and my own leadership. Unchecked I am perfectly capable of the worst possible. Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Ps.139:23-24)


Thank you, Ruth. You have indeed named what all of us must face.

Thank you for these timely words Ruth

Ruth, you are one of the few voices I listen to in times of crisis. Thank you for sharing honestly and openly about your process before God, not shying away from speaking truth, and gently but firmly leading us back to our own personal responsibility before God and others. It is so easy to point the finger elsewhere and miss seeing the log in our own eyes.

Ruth as I read this and resonated with each word, I thought of Eccles 12:10 (in The Voice): “The teacher also searched for just the right words to bring hope and encouragement, and he [she] wrote honestly about truth and the realities of life.” Thank you for calling us to ongoing surrender in our leadership and followership.

Margo, Thank you for this encouraging word from Scripture. I pray it is true of this piece. It is not easy to address in writing moments like what we are in the midst of. I always wish I didn’t have to. Your offering of this Scripture buoys me up today.

Amen. Thanks for sharing, Ruth. These are words that we all need to hear.

Thank you . I am writing from England. Your comments about leaders and their followers are very important. I was in a church for 30 years under a pastor very much like Trump. Whenever I heard him speak I was reminded of him. These leaders come in all sort of guises with varying degrees: the home, the workplace, the church, governments. They all have several things in common: they sound good; they sound like they are defending the truth; they are bullies, they are pharisaical; they are always right; they don’t listen to anyone else; they have no compassion and no love except for themselves; they ruin lives; they take people’s money; they lie; they rule by fear and they love power and control. They can be men or women and of any race. Also, when their time comes they will never admit defeat. People find it very hard to stand up to them but they must be confronted.

As to their followers: they are beguiled because the leader appeals to some sort of need in them that is met or partially met; they like the values or ideas expressed and they become blinded to obvious faults; they become mesmerised; they will defend the leader at all costs; they won’t think they are wrong; even when they see a wrong they brush over it because of what they see is the greater good. I know because I was one of these followers. My family suffered untold harm. People tried to tell me, but I wouldn’t listen! It took revelation from God and prayers for me and loads of others to be set free. Of course I am ashamed of ever following such a man.

The question are: how do these people ever get power in the first place and why won’t people who can see, stand up to them?

Jean, I feel the pain and the pathos in what you have written and I am sorry this happened to you. In answer to your question (which is an important one) I think leaders like this get into power and are not challenged effectively once in power because there may be something psychological in their followers that needs that kind of leader, that needs to be in the orbit of such a leader, sharing the limelight, or there is some way in which they benefit from remaining loyal to this kind of leader, as you describe above. All of this is unconscious, of course, until by God’s grace it becomes conscious. May God continue to meet you with his healing presence on your healing journey.

Thank you. I believe the Holy Spirit led you to speak/write for such a time as this.

I trust so.

This is gold to those of us wrestling with leading well in these strange and troubling times. I’m very thankful for your voice. Praying for you, that God continues to speak through you to bring life and clear vision.

Ruth, reading this is a gift to my soul.
Every single word you have written resonates deeply within me. Thank you once again for your God-honoring, insightful wisdom and leadership. And may we all take time to do what you suggested-reflect on and be willing to do the work necessary in our own hearts.

Thank you for this. For me your reflection is spot on.
Humbly on my knees, face down,

Thank you, Ruth. My heart cries out for soul transformation throughout our country and throughout the church. Thank you for your leadership and the impact you make in leaders like me. I am forever grateful!

Thank you, Ruth. My heart cries out for soul transformation throughout our country and throughout the church. It is shocking to see the division and hatred! Thank you for your leadership and the impact you make in leaders like me. I am forever grateful!

Oh Ruth! Thank you. Yes this is a monumental truth to absorb. I believe you and people like you will be responsible for so transparently following Jesus that the church will follow you back to its pure and selfless beginnings.

Over the past 30 hours, I’ve struggled mightily with a personal response to what we witnessed yesterday that is healthy, both emotionally and spiritually.

I know my calling is to forgive, but to be candid, I haven’t been able to get there yet. I know my response, as taught and modeled by Jesus, is to love. But I haven’t been able to get there yet. I know I have to. I believe, by the grace of God, I will.

But my outrage at what I witnessed keeps bubbling up. I’ve been asking God for things out of a clouded, fallen, angry heart.

This gives me a positive, emotionally and spiritually healthy way to process. Introspection. What are the areas in my heart and soul that are proving, in this moment, to be most needful of transformation?

That’s it. That’s what I needed. Thank you for listening Ruth. Not to me. To Him.

It means a lot to me, Rick, that this piece helped you find a healthy (and might I say transforming?) way forward within your own heart. Thank you for this tender sharing.

Thank you for speaking out on this, Ruth. You have put to words some of my own thoughts.

Thank you, Ruth. Yes. Thank you for calling us to our knees.

Thank you for these words. I needed to be reminded of these truths.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy.

This was not an unexpected epiphany. What happened was expected and is not the first time in this country that people with privilege have bullied and intimidated their way through. This time they went beyond what people can be accepted.

I think the unexpected epiphany was about seeing whatever it is in our own leadership that is dangerous or destructive. I agree that what happened though shocking is not unsurprising. Thank you for reminding us of the truth you stated.

Yes, Michelle, I agree that what happened was NOT unexpected. What happened was a shocking but predictable outcome of the leadership that is in place in our country right no. For me the epiphany had to do with seeing such a clear example of untransformed leadership and its destructive effect on so many. And as Jeff says so well, it invites us to our personal epiphanies about where transformation is needed in our own leadership. I agree with you that what happened at our nation’s capitol was an unbridled display of white privilege and white supremacy; it hurts (an understatement) and I am sorry. Thank you for sharing your response.

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