The Only Thing That Matters for Spiritual Influence is Integrity: Build it, says Mel Lawrenz
“The highest currency leaders trade on is trust.”
How’s that for a Monday morning reminder! And what a reminder it is, especially at the start of a week that will tempt us in any number of ways to violate that trust, that will coax us into sacrificing our integrity at the altar of selfish ambition, desire, pleasure, you name it.
This powerful reminder to us ministry leaders comes from Mel Lawrenz’s new book Spiritual Influence: The Hidden Power Behind Leadership. Our highest currency as ministry leaders is the trust we cultivate and maintain between us and our people. In other words, the only thing that matters for spiritual influence is integrity. As I wrote last month, one of the main reasons we believe God has called us to ministry is to influence people. We got into this business, paid or volunteer, in order to influence people to give their life and lifestyle to King Jesus. And the trust it takes to have that privileged influence must be cultivated and maintained.
While flipping through Lawrenz’s book, I was reminded about my weighty responsibility to steward one of my greatest assets as a leader, a life of integrity. He reminded me that integrity carries with it the heavy burden of being whole, intact, connected. And that burden has everything to do with pursuing a whole, intact, connected public and private life. Here are some potent words for us this Monday:
The pursuit of integrity includes a growing coherence between public and private life. An influencer who is one person in public and a completely different person in private is leading a disjointed life. If public persona contradicts private personhood, then there is a danger, in a worst-case scenario, that private corruption is being masked by the image of public life. It is almost too painful to recount how many times across the ages leaders have ridden the wave of public ascendancy and influence, all the while hiding a complete lack of character. Sometimes the farce is exposed, and often times not. (60)
It seems easier more than ever to hide such a disconnect. Now one can craft the perfect digital persona through their Facebook or Twitter avatar, all the while living a life elsewhere online, or offline, that’s despicable—that’s everything but whole, intact, and connected.
What’s a leader to do, then, in order be a whole, integrated person? In order to be consistent between their public self and the private self?
Something I have tried to do in my own ministry is be as authentic and real as I can about my own personal life. I know the prevailing text-book wisdom has been for people in ministry to not be vulnerable and open and authentic about their own struggles, but I have found this to be a helpful posture in which to teach and minister. In fact, I think our world craves such a posture from their leaders, especially spiritual ones. From Nixon to Clinton to now Petraeus, every generation has witnessed the failings of leaders, Christian or not, who portrayed one thing and did something else. People are craving the real deal. Lawrenz reminds us that young people especially ”expect spiritual influencers who are congruent in their public and private lives.” (64) And one way we spiritual influencers can give them this is by being open and honest about our own lives.
In one of my first sermons at my current church, I shared about a six-month stretch of career firings. In July 2006 I was fired from ministry for some on-going character problems. Then four months later I was fired from an upscale department store for improperly reporting my returns, a.k.a. commission fraud. It was a painful and embarrassing time in the life of Jeremy Bouma, but I decided to take a risk in order to build trust. I also wanted to risk in order to continue a pattern of authenticity in order to keep me honest to my own self. Yes, we should take care in what we share—we should never share struggles that would compromise another person, for instance. But there’s something about leaning into a pattern of self-exposure in ministry that helps guard against rampant disconnect between our personal and private lives and actually build and maintain integrity.
Lawrenz makes a good point that often leaders think integrity is merely about avoidance. But he insists, and I agree, that integrity is both “a quality of life and process of living.” (59) In other words, yes it’s about living well, but it’s also about cultivating well. “It is a committment to a whole-life process of constructing and reconstructing character…Integrity is a process that is never finished.” (59-60) To be a whole, integrated person we must work at it.
If that’s true, what can you do—this week, this day—to construct, reconstruct and maintain your character? Now do it. Build your integrity with cultivating care.
Let us end with a simple prayer from the Psalmist: “May integrity and uprightness protect me, because my hope, Lord, is in you.” (Ps. 25:21) Amen.
Jeremy Bouma has spent a decade ministering among our postmodern culture, first in Washington D.C. and most recently as a pastor in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA—a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith—holds the Master of Divinity and Master of Theology from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and writes at www.novuslumen.net.