A guide for healthy ministry that will help you to remain real and stay accountable
My heart broke recently as I watched Pastor Ron Carpenter pour out his heart in his weekend message to his congregation. It was a gut-wrenching experience to hear him share with his church the devastating pain his family has endured during the past 10 years and the incredibly difficult future they now face.
I have never met Ron, but my heart and prayers go out to him. I can’t imagine the anguish of sharing the most awful parts of your private life with hundreds of friends and thousands of strangers. This is a time when we put aside theological differences and preconceptions and pray for a man and a family wrecked by the effects of evil.
Seeing Ron expose his heart and soul to his congregation reminded me of several hard-earned lessons from a lifetime of ministry. These lessons are not about Ron Carpenter or Redemption World Outreach Center. I don’t know anything about Ron, his leadership or the structure of his church. Rather, these are lessons learned from 31 years of vocational ministry, from growing up a third-generation pastor’s kid, from watching 30 members of my extended family in active ministry, and from interacting with hundreds of pastors and leaders across the country.
1. Integrity: Am I real? “Integrity” means “being complete or undivided.” Though all pastors stress the importance of integrity, there is a temptation in ministry for a leader to create an onstage image that is different from who he really is. Very few set out to be two different people; it just happens. This is an incredibly dangerous road to go down.
I’ve seen a couple of iterations of this tendency to project an idealized leader for public consumption. In one version, the leader creates a more polished image of himself. He is incredibly happy, has a well-adjusted family and lives a super-desirable lifestyle. He faces challenges and temptations, but he always overcomes in the end. The implied message is that if his followers will emulate his faith, they too can live a charmed life.
Social media has made this temptation into an art. The leader tweets about his “smokin’ hot” wife, his incredible kids and the constant spiritual breakthroughs he achieves. He creates a life everyone wishes he had. In reality, it’s a life the leader wishes he had as well.
In the second version, the leader creates a more raw version of himself. He talks about a crisis of faith he never really had. He embellishes college stories to better match those of his congregation. He exaggerates family challenges to sound more like the real-life stuff his followers deal with every day.
This version of the leader requires that he hide a relatively innocent youth as well as the luxuries ministry success has afforded him. He must feign humility even when he doesn’t feel humble. The message to the church is, “You can follow me because I’m just like you.”
Authentic ministry requires one version of you. You may be a little more refined in public, but people who know you should be able to say you’re the same guy on stage as you are at the ballgame.
2. Transparency: Am I human? “Transparency” means “able to be seen through.” Integrity says “what you see is what you get” while transparency says “what you see is a normal human being.”
Transparent, human leaders get tired, discouraged and frustrated. They’re not always sure where to go or what to do next. They don’t have fairy-tale marriages, and their kids sometimes (all the time) exasperate them. They worry about their finances and their health and how they’re going to care for their parents when the time comes. They have been called into a position of public ministry, but they’re just ordinary humans.
Being transparent about our humanity means admitting we sometimes struggle in our marriage, feel clueless as parents and wrestle with balancing our faith with our doubt. Transparency says the human condition is universal.
3. Vulnerability: Am I broken? “Vulnerable” means “capable of being wounded or hurt.” We are creating a version of Christianity that says the true believer, if he follows the right plan or practices the right disciplines, will inch closer to spiritual perfection. The goal is to be a mature believer who almost never sins and who, if he does, commits just minor offenses such as forgetting to leave a tip or sighing out loud in line at Walmart.
Leading the parade is the pastor who proclaims he has overcome the sin he used to struggle with and is now nearing heavenly nirvana. He might have been saved by grace, but he has worked his way to true holiness.
This in spite of all the biblical evidence to the contrary. David seduces Bathsheba and murders Uriah long after writing Psalm 23. Peter succumbs to hypocrisy, refusing to eat with Gentiles, years after leading Cornelius to faith.
The healthy leader says with integrity, “There is only one version of me”; with transparency, “I am only human”; and with vulnerability, “I have broken parts in my life. I am growing spiritually, but like you, I struggle with sin every day.”
4. Accountability: Am I under authority? “Accountable” means “responsible, answerable.” I have not seen a leader fail or crumble who has a small circle of friends to whom he is accountable—friends who know his family, his background, his sins and his failures; friends who call him out on his stuff and have permission to remove him from his position of leadership if necessary.
An accountability group works only if the leader is honest with those in the group. If he isn’t real, transparent and vulnerable with them, they are of little value. If, however, this is a group of peers he trusts with his life, they will likely catch him before his world comes crashing down.
A danger here is the illusion of accountability. A pastor will point to a board of overseers, deacons or elders as his accountability group, or he may say denominational oversight provides his safeguard. Normally, however, the accountability at this level is surface. The pastor rarely shares his intimate challenges and sins with an appointed board. They have the power to discipline or remove, but they don’t live in the daily details.
Board accountability is like floodgates on a dam; it is the last line of defense. True accountability happens in a smaller circle at a deeper level.
Living It Out
A final note on living out these four ideas: Not everything is appropriate to share at every level. It is as unhealthy to dump your garbage on your neighbor’s lawn as it is to hide it in your basement. Though a healthy leader has integrity, transparency, vulnerability and accountability at every level, he also understands what should be revealed at every level of leadership.
The leader’s small circle of friends has open access to his life. Nothing is off limits. They help him determine what is appropriate to share at the other levels.
The overseers have access to the general outline but not necessarily the details. The staff has a clear picture of the leader’s life without information that could hurt or embarrass others (for example, the staff leadership team may know the pastor is struggling at home but doesn’t know the specific challenge).
The congregation knows enough to understand the overall picture of the pastor’s life. If a pastor has been real with the congregation and his son is arrested for possessing or dealing drugs, the members won’t be shocked. They knew the pastor was struggling with a family issue; they just didn’t know which family member or the specific issue.
This article is not aimed at any pastor nor is it a blueprint for growing a church. It is a guide for healthy ministry that will help you project a true image of who you are to those around you. When you are honest with yourself and others, you will be more likely to succeed.?
Geoff Surratt is the director of Exponential, an organization whose mission is accelerating the multiplication of healthy, reproducing churches. He is the co-author of The Multi-Site Church Revolution.