Will someone tell when I'm being awful? Why we all need challenging friends

I'm slightly squirming as I write these opening sentences. Such is the awkwardness that I feel, and I think many of us feel, when we see something and we are just not sure what we should do with it.

We've all been there. It could be someone emerging from a bathroom with something not fastened, or tucked in where it shouldn't be. It could be a piece of vegetative matter protruding from a front tooth, it could be witnessing a repeated misnaming of someone, or that excruciating moment where you watch someone jump with both feet into a wholly inappropriate conversation.

Accountability is good for us.

These may be 'Very British Problems', but they give us an insight into a worldwide problem.

Again and again in the last few years we have seen situations come to light where influential people, in politics, the arts and the church, have behaved badly. They have violated boundaries, they have violated the bodies of the unwilling and the unwitting and they have, in many ways, failed to live up to their own ethical pronouncements.

And, in many of these cases, it is asked, 'Well why didn't anyone say anything?'

Two caveats before I move on. That question has frequently been aimed at the survivors, who often have tried to move out of their trauma to say something. They have not been listened to, and for some the trauma has remained too great for them to be able to speak. This is not about them. Neither is this about those who display such psychopathy that they are well able to manipulate everyone around them.

This is about the situation surrounding those people who have ended up causing harm while surrounded by people they may have counted as friends. It is about the people who have behaved 'unwisely' or 'without realising what they were communicating'. These are people who have ended up betraying intimate relationships, and their church communities, seemingly without anyone seeing it coming.

I began to ponder this during Holy Week. In my tradition we take some time to look at the events leading up to Jesus' death during the week before Easter. On Maundy Thursday we read about a conversation between Jesus and his closest friends. As John records it (chapter 13), Jesus tells two of them that they are going to let him down. This isn't the first time Jesus has been brutally honest with his friends. He confronts James' and John's ambition (Mark 10), he rebukes Peter (Mark 8), he asks the disciples about their fear (Mark 5).

I wish I could say that it had an impact straight away: Judas simply left the meal to betray Jesus, Peter still denied him. However, when we encounter Peter in the post-Ascension narratives in Acts, he is a changed man. Neither should we miss Peter's challenge to Jesus: 'Get Behind me, Satan' was a response to Peter challenging what he seems to have perceived as pessimism on Jesus' part. Jesus, facing his biggest challenge in the garden, needed his friends with him as he sought to follow God.

Away from the Gospels we can point to King David. Nathan's rebuke (2 Samuel 12) led David to personal repentance (even though the implications of David's adultery would echo through the generations).

My point is this: the challenge of friends is important – and I think it becomes even more important for those of us given positions of authority over others. It's said that when Stalin died no-one went into his room for several days as they so greatly feared his reaction if he were interrupted. That is a tragedy. But I suspect that many of us who lead can feel a certain empathy with that situation. We find ourselves in roles where increasingly people assume we are OK and that we have the right answer. Talk to leaders and they will often talk about isolation. I'm not sure that most leaders set out to cut themselves off, but by small steps we find ourselves asked more about our vision and programmes than about the state of our relationships and souls.

I'm sure that there are people in our churches who can see all too clearly what is going on with us, but they have neither the access, the articulacy or the confidence to speak it out. That's why we need friends. We all need people who are our equals, who will tell us about our bad behaviour. John Wesley (who we need to remember was not without relational issues) understood this and set up 'bands'. These were revolutionary in their day – small groups of people meeting weekly to ask questions one of another. They had a set list of questions to be asked by and to everyone: number six reads, 'Do you desire to be told of your faults?'

That question may send chills down us – but perhaps our answer should be yes. Yes, there are plenty of people who will bemoan us on social media or in the back pew. There will always be people who find fault out of their own fear, or who see only in part and project fault our way. This kind of fault-finding can serve to build layers of defence that make it harder to receive just criticism and rebuke.

We are all well aware of silo thinking, where we can surround ourselves with those who will simply affirm and validate our beliefs. I think the same can happen in building peer groups that affirm and replicate our bad behaviours.

But if we want to lead the church into a place where it is a safe community where everyone can flourish in their relationship with God as we move forward together to see the Kingdom emerge, then we all need to take off our armour and let our friends speak to us.

Leaders, we may need to re-engage with challenge, resisting the temptation to defend or deflect. We may need to reconnect with friendship, with those who are willing to challenge rather than simply affirm. It may start with a group: in recent years 'bands' have re-emerged and there are plenty of other examples. Or it could simply be intentionally taking the time to be with people who knew you before you had a role, who are able to say, 'What you did there was not good.' Like Jesus in the garden, can we own our vulnerability and invite others close enough to see us at our weakest as well as in strength?

And friends – we may need to gird our loins, grit our teeth and be ready to say to our friends with influence that they have faults. It will be messy, they may not listen, but we may get to be part of a transformation that, like Peter's, changes the world.

Rev Jude Smith is the team rector of Moor Allerton and Shadwell in North Leeds. Follow her on Twitter @gingervicar 

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