Broken Vessels

By Tim Bentum  |  June 10th

The scene is August 28, 1963, a little over 60 years ago. At least 250,000 people had gathered on the tree-shaded Ellipse behind the White House near the Washington Monument. Television crews and reporters in large numbers were there to cover the much-anticipated ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’. In the late afternoon, following a series of civil rights speakers, 34-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. stepped to the microphone to give what would become the iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech. Words from this speech continue to reverberate into our day.

No doubt, you have heard at least parts of this now famous and influential address. Given the ongoing racial tensions that continue to simmer, one cannot help but get goosebumps hearing King imagine a different world for his children. Stephen B. Oates’s biography of King, Let the Trumpet Sound, is one of many terrific resources on King’s life available today and worth reading. From Oates’s biography, here are a few quotes from the ‘I Have a Dream Speech’ that still resonate decades later:

“So, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident-that all men are created equal’.”

“I have a dream that one day…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

“With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

From his masterful oratory ability and from the extraordinary courage that he consistently displayed in the social action initiatives that he led, King is undoubtedly one of the most consequential and important leaders in recent memory. It almost goes without saying that King was a leader worth learning from, particularly from a uniquely Christian perspective.

However, leaders like King create an immediate tension for Christian leaders in that his achievements, abilities, and global standing create an almost super-human picture. How could a ‘normal’ person ever hope to accomplish anything approximating what King was able to accomplish in his tragically brief life? King seems like anything but a ‘broken vessel’ as described in Psalm 31:12. From the outside, it seems more fitting to describe someone like him as a beautiful vase or perhaps a stunning basin.

It is worthwhile highlighting that for all King’s accomplishments, our reading of his story 60 years later is often a far less nuanced view of the real struggles that he dealt with throughout his life and leadership. King, like you and I, was a human being. We all make mistakes; we all have to deal with the mess of life, and we are all dependent on the grace of God to sustain us.

Delving more deeply into King’s life, even just briefly, reveals a man who did incredible things but who was also deeply human. For example, his social action projects in Montgomery and Birmingham are widely considered to be successes in terms of their impact for civil rights, but his leadership of similar movements in places like Albany and Chicago did not generate the same kind of momentum and were harshly criticized even by insiders to the movement. King’s civil rights organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), was frequently at odds with other like-minded organizations primarily for egotistical reasons. King dealt with staffing issues and infighting, spent a good deal of time fundraising to keep his organization fiscally solvent, often saw very little of his family, and dealt with constant accusations about his character including infidelity, leading to deep depressive states. Further, King was physically assaulted on several occasions, was jailed at least 29 times, stabbed, had his house partially destroyed by an explosion, was accused of tax fraud, dealt with ongoing FBI surveillance, and was ultimately assassinated at the age of 39. ‘Nuanced’ perhaps does not do justice to the complexity and struggle of King’s life.

So, what can we take away from the life and story of Martin Luther King Jr. as leaders of K-12 Christian schools? Naturally, many books could be written on this topic.

One thing that stands out among many, is that if you feel like a leadership imposter, if you feel like you are a failure or that your school is headed in the wrong direction and things seem out of control, just pause for a moment and consider a fuller picture of the life of Martin Luther King Jr.

There is no such thing as a leader who ‘has it all together’. Not every initiative that you pilot is going to work out. Your character is going to be questioned at times. You are going to deal with staffing issues and infighting. Your school may be short on funds. You may be under ongoing FBI surveillance…wait, I don’t actually have advice if you are under FBI surveillance. But you get the point.

Leaders are humans, we are broken vessels. Take solace in the fact that King and many other committed Christians before us have accomplished good things for the Kingdom, but that leadership challenges persist wherever you go. Because you and I are broken vessels, we must begin each day with a posture of dependence, something King was committed to throughout his life. It is often from your brokenness and inadequacy that Christ can begin to work through you to heal and transform your school and community.

Life is messy. People are messy. Leadership is especially messy.

Thankfully, God often does his best work through broken vessels.


Tim Bentum is the Director of Leadership and External Relations at Edvance