Credibility: gaining and losing it

Integrity is the most precious resource a leader can possess.

J. David Newman is the former editor of Ministry

Integrity is the most precious re source a leader can possess. With out it, one's influence is greatly diminished, if not destroyed. A leader with a fistful of credibility can surmount almost any obstacle. Without credibility, most of his or her influence will vanish like snow on a warm spring day.

The World Survey Commission report given at the 1993 Annual Council of Seventh-day Adventists in Bangalore, India, described a credibility gap between church leaders and some members. This survey of 18,484 members worldwide (52 percent of whom hold local church leadership positions) revealed a confidence level of 69 percent in conference leaders and 68 percent in the leadership of union conferences or missions. That left nearly one third of them with misgivings about their leaders.

Local pastors fared a little better, with 78 percent expressing confidence in their leadership. However, 22 per cent still lacked confidence in their pastor's leadership. The survey identified "the need for increased openness, disclosure, and accountability by church organizations and leaders" if this gap is to be closed.

In a new book, Credibility—How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It, authors James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner report on the extensive research conducted on the key characteristics people want from their leaders. The number one quality desired is honesty. Leaders must be truthful, ethical, and trustworthy (p. 14).

The second most important characteristic of credible leaders is that they be forward-looking, setting and defining the vision (p. 15). Inspiring ranks third. People desire leaders who are dynamic, uplifting, enthusiastic, positive, and optimistic (p. 16). They also want leaders to be competent (fourth) capable and effective (p. 17).


The Bible also mandates honesty: "The man of integrity walks securely, but he who takes crooked paths will be found out" (Prov. 10:9).* Without integrity, how can one be trustworthy?

Peter reminds us to "be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock" (1 Peter 5:2,3).

As pastors, we want the very best for the people we lead. Sometimes we may be tempted to withhold certain facts because we feel the maturity level of the congregation is not high enough. Or we may slant the truth just enough to procure the kind of decision we want. As long as people do not discover what we know, we are safe but what happens when they find out? Are they pleased with our decisions? Do they applaud our approval of their maturity?

Ellen White, in commenting on the words of Jesus that our " 'Yes' be 'Yes' "and our" 'No' No,"says:"Even facts may be so stated as to convey a false impression. And 'whatsoever is more than' truth 'is of the evil one.'

"Everything that Christians do should be as transparent as the sun light. Truth is of God; deception, in every one of its myriad forms, is of Satan."1

Jesus' integrity

Jesus is the greatest leader this world has ever seen. Millions have sacrificed life itself for Him. His integrity was indisputable. When the religious hurled every charge they could invent against Him, even Pilate sensed the hollowness of their accusations. He wished desperately to re lease Jesus, but he was a leader who did not have the integrity and courage to administer justice. To save his own skin, he perverted justice.

Why have people followed Jesus even to death? Because He is the "way and the truth and the life" (John 14:6). Because He is the only person who lived a sinless life from birth to death. Because only He can save us from our sins. Because "while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). Because God loves us "with an everlasting love" (Jer. 31:3). And love begets love.

At the conclusion of Christ's sermon on the mount, the people "were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law" (Matt 7:28, 29). What made Jesus so powerful and so credible? No one ever lived as Jesus lived. The purity of His character shone like a beacon. There was no deceit, no hidden agendas, no cover-ups, no partial truths in His life. Jesus lived for others not for Himself. The ultimate proof of His caring, of His integrity, was the sacrifice of His own life.


The World Survey Commission suggested three ways to improve credibility:

1. Openness People want leaders to be candid, straightforward, and frank. If there is a problem, admit it. Since no person or organization is perfect, why be so shy about acknowledging imperfections?

I once pastored a church that took up a collection for every imaginable expense. I invited the conference stewardship director to conduct a week end series on giving, financial planing, and wise management. He presented to the church board a combined budget plan that would obviate the need to keep passing the plate. I was astonished when they rejected the idea and clung to the status quo.

In fact, I was so angry at what I perceived to be their ignorance and stupidity that I prepared a special sermon for the next Sabbath: "When the Church Board Voted 10 to 2 Against God." And my text was taken from the passage recounting the experience of the 12 spies who searched the Promised Land and came back with a split report.

I did not win any converts from that sermon. I just alienated people. It took me some time to come to my senses. Later I apologized to the board and to the congregation. Not until I was willing to be open, vulnerable, and contrite could I restore my credibility. Openness means being awake to new ideas, new ways of doing things, listening to alternate points of view, and most important, saying sorry when needed.

2. Disclosure A certain commit tee was asked to authorize several hundred thousand dollars to hire a particular firm. The members were most reluctant to vote this money and were moving toward a no vote when the presenter disclosed that the firm had already been hired and was busy at work. The presenter was embarrassed; the committee members were angry. How much better if the presenter had been candid from the beginning.

After a cover-up is exposed, people wonder what other things might have been kept back. They suspect that they may have voted for other items that in reality already were decided.

Just before I became secretary of the Ohio Conference, we hired a new principal for one of our academies. He came with high recommendations and an impressive resume. He oozed energy and ideas. However, before the end of the school year he developed an illicit relationship with one of the faculty and had to be dismissed. He left his wife and departed for Florida. There he was strangled to death by the husband of another woman with whom he was having an affair.

After his dismissal we discovered that similar problems had plagued him at the two previous academies at which he had worked. His references contained no hint of any problems. Had there been full disclosure, we probably would not have hired him. You can see why the World Survey Commission report stresses the need for more disclosure by church leaders at all levels to increase credibility.

3. Accountability---Church members sometimes feel that pastors are really not accountable to them; it is the conference that hires the pastor, not the local church. One way to bridge that gap is to give regular reports to the members on how time is spent. In addition, conducting an annual evaluation of the pastor by local church leaders helps foster dialogue and a certain level of accountability.

Conference presidents face the is sue of accountability at every constituency meeting. Once again, if their administration has been characterized by openness and disclosure, they have no problem letting their constituents hold them accountable.

It is perhaps harder for organizations to be open and accountable than it is for individuals. If an organization reveals a mistake, it may expose itself to lawsuits. It also is difficult for a committee that believes it was led by the Lord to admit that just maybe it did not hear the Lord correctly.

Hans Kung tells the following story: "One day during a session of the Second Vatican Council, one bishop passed another a note, which then made the round. The message read: 'Senatus non errat, et si errat, non corrigit ne videatur errasse'" ("the Senate does not make mistakes, and if it does, it does not correct them, lest it should seem to have erred").2

Ministry printed a cover (August 1990) that gave offense to many people. In retrospect, we should not have used that particular painting. We had commissioned it because we wanted a striking portrayal of Christ's second coming that was different from the traditional pictures. Unfortunately, it offended more people than it blessed. And for that we are sorry. We hope we learned from that experience.

Openness in the Bible

The Bible contains a history of candor. It does not gloss over the sins and problems of its heroes. Both the Old and New Testaments report problems with individuals and organizations, even religious ones. Paul says, "Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body" (Eph. 4:25).

Paul likens the immature church to one taken in by "the cunning and craftiness of men" but says the mature church should be able to speak "the truth in love" and "grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ" (verses 4:14, 15).

Ultimately, staying with the truth is always the best policy. Jesus said: "Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:32). Truth is the essence of credibility. And credible leaders are truthful leaders.

* All Bible references are from the New International Version.

1. Ellen G. White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing (Mountain View, Calif: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1956), p. 68.

2. Hans Kung, Truthfulness: The Future of the Church (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1968), p. 15.

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J. David Newman is the former editor of Ministry

January 1994

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