As an Industrial / Organizational Psychologist, I have spent almost 30 years studying leaders. Not so much leadership theories but leaders themselves. How do they think about being a leader? What motivates them? How do they make sense about being in this role, and how much of their identity is wrapped up in being a leader? I am especially interested in leaders who are derailed from a job that was once important to them, either because they have been forced out, or by their own volition because they can no longer function authentically within its strictures. Even in the midst of this loss, I have been fascinated by derailed leaders who have a second act to their career where they come back as more resilient people and even better leaders. But to do so, such leaders often go through the hard work of grieving, sense making and rebuilding their identity of what it means to be a leader. They lament.

Reading Jeremiah and Lamentations, I see parallels between the lament of these second-act leaders and the Israelites, who are in Babylon because they too have derailed, and the Prophet Jeremiah is calling them back to God, but by a different route. Having lost the physical and social markers of their identity, they must make sense of their captivity, their new lives, and what it means to believe in a God who is still sovereign in the midst of their suffering. For Christians who have been derailed in their leadership, lament offers a compelling set of practices to rebuild personal resilience and authentic community.

Lament is so much more than plaintive cries of hopeless despair. It is a liturgical practice of making sense of God and ourselves, both individually and communally, in broken times. As Kathleen O’Connor writes, in her commentary on Lamentations, there is chaos in the suffering but in the biblical writings of lament, which include the book of Job, one-third of the Psalms, and the book of Lamentations, there is an ordered approach to move from despondency and supplication, to confident hope and restoration; building a new identity out of the ashes of the old.

Jeremiah is brutally honest in his grief as he calls the Israelites to repent, but there is something else here. In no uncertain terms, Jerimiah tells the Israelites that their past no longer exists and that they must forge a new identity that is more righteous and culturally just if they are to find their way back to God. In psychology, we refer to the process of adapting in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress as “resilience.” It is not too far afield to see that God, through his prophet Jeremiah, is teaching the Israelites what it means to be resilient. Soong-Chan Rah, in Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, identifies multiple aspects of the liturgy of lament that align with what we know about practices of resiliency; acknowledgement of suffering, anger at a sovereign God, recognition of one’s own inadequacies and a plea to God for relief, communal lament, comfort in hope, and restoration with a renewed understanding of God. Let’s look at the parallels.

LAM 1:1 How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she who was great among the nations! She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave.

Lamentations starts with a funeral dirge. There is no hedging on the intolerance of the situation. It starts with naked truth-telling of deep grief. O’Connor writes that exile has shredded the Israelites’ own narrative. In their derailment, leaders must come to grips with what this life change means for their own narratives and the emotions that go along with it. If they do not identify and mourn what they have lost, they will simply bring their old selves with added burdens to their next addresses.

LAM 2:17-18 The Lord has done what he purposed; he has carried out his word, which he commanded long ago; he has thrown down without pity; he has made the enemy rejoice over you and exalted the might of your foes. Their heart cried to the Lord. O wall of the daughter of Zion, let tears stream down like a torrent day and night! Give yourself no rest, your eyes no respite!

While most of chapters 1-2 chronicles the Israelite’s despair, Jeremiah is clear that an immutable God keeps his promises, even when those promises pertain to his wrath. Lament, after all, is a cry to God when our understanding of Him does not align with what we are experiencing. Mark Vroegop, in his book Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, writes that “lament is the language of people who believe in God’s sovereignty but live in a world of tragedy.” Anger might be the predominant emotion, but it takes humility to sit with the tension of two seemingly disparate beliefs. Humility is not a characteristic that tends to be valued as a leadership trait. Yet there is a good deal of management scholarship in the past decade showing its importance for building trust with others. Lament at its heart is a raw conversation with God. Stripped of an important role and its attendant accolades ought to compel derailed Christian leaders to face what it means to trust a sovereign God in a world that no longer makes sense.

LAM 3:19-23 Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope; The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

Chapter 3 pivots from sorrow to hope, which is central to both lament and resilience. We can think about the nature of hope in two ways. First that it is about something already defined that will likely come to pass. But then there is hope in a future that can only be seen, if at all, through a glass darkly. Philosopher Jonathan Lear describes that type of hope so well in his book Radical Hope, when he writes “What makes this hope radical is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is. Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it.” The impassibility of God provides a profound lifeline to practice radical hope in times of disequilibrium.

LAM 3:40-42 Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord! Let us lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven:We have transgressed and rebelled, and you have not forgiven.

The Israelites are both individually and communally sustained by God. Throughout Chapter 3 there is a back and forth between “I” and “we.” God’s love and wrath are addressed to individuals and the community, and it is the community that seeks God’s forgiveness. Second-act leaders do not go it alone as any new identity is forged in the context of others. In a study conducted by my doctoral student Melissa Kennedy, all second-act people had someone who helped them shape a new and healthier vision of themselves. The Body of Christ reflecting the imago Dei back to the broken among us is central to communal as well as individual restoration.

LAM 6:21-22 Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old— unless you have utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us.

At some point in the process of lament leaders will have built a new identity and are ready to move on. They are restored but in a qualitatively different way because suffering is now part of their new identity. Lamentations does not end in personal triumph as there is a new understanding that God’s sovereignty is not to be claimed simplistically, nor can it be manipulated. It is this suffering along with profound meaning-making that allows leaders to be different, more resilient and open to take on a new vocation. Second-act Christian leaders are better prepared to pour into others, because like Jesus, they know what it means to empty themselves.

Lamentations gives us a roadmap to move from brokenness to restoration. Lament for the Israelites was a literal journey that occurred in community. While the journey of derailed leaders may be figurative, they have the liturgy of lament to guide them. Our sovereign God is ready to lead them home by a different route.

For more about lament in CSR see:  https://christianscholars.com/prophetic-lament-a-call-for-justice-in-troubled-times/

Margaret Diddams

Dr. Diddams recently retired from her post as the Provost or Chief Academic Officer of Wheaton College (IL) and now serves as Editor for Christian Scholar's Review.

4 Comments

  • David M Johnstone says:

    The current state of our nation and higher education with concerns about racial reconciliation, economics and health, leave many places for grieving. Many of our roles and identities are changing or have changed leaving lots of space for lament and confusion. I appreciate the way Dr. Diddams has framed and implied that this is an evolving process. A “get over it” approach is not a particularly helpful attitude. Lamenting and grieving help retool, reassess, and rebuild an understanding of who we are in the eyes of God. I would consider Dr. Rah’s book on Lamentations one the top books of the decade, but slightly under our Western Christian culture’s radar. Recognizing that grieving and lament are part of these times is especially important during this season. Dr. Diddams, thank you for framing these observations the way you did.

    • Margaret Diddams says:

      Thank you for your thoughts. I truly believe that lament can be a gift in such disorienting times. It takes courage (or desperation) to be willing open oneself up to a process that will bring pain before a resolution that will likely be unexpected. I really liked how Rah’s book stressed the communal and justice aspects of lament. I wished I had more than 1,500 words to stress that aspect of lament.

  • Henry Voss says:

    Thanks for this article. I see significant overlap between your observations on “second acts” and Robert Clinton’s leadership theory (e.g. Making of a Leader). I am curious if you have engaged with his work or the school of practitioners and researchers working on it?