Integrity: The pastor's ultimate ally

The crucial role of integrity in the life and ministry of the pastor

Terry Pooler, DMin., is pastor of the Forest Lake SDA Church, Apopka, Florida.

If you disfellowship my daughter, I will personally make sure that you get no place in this denomination!" Coming from a union conference officer, the threat was not to be taken lightly.

I was only five years into the ministry and pastoring my first church alone. Whatever my decision, it seemed that either my future or my integrity was on the line.

The phone call came unexpectedly, just two days before the church business meeting. Jan (not her real name) was in her early 30s, married with three children. She was playing up to a widowed church elder more than twice her age and of question able mental balance. But he had money.

Local church leaders and friends pleaded with them. They tried to reason with Jan: "What about your marriage? your children? the church in this small town?"

She responded, "I know what I'm doing. Leave us alone!" The elder seemed unable to sort it out. He was basking in the sunshine of her attention.

It was one of the few times that I believed serious church discipline was necessary. In a spirit of self-centered defiance she was daring the church to get in her way. Soliciting her father's protection was probably part of her life's pattern. Surely the threatening phone call would chase the church away from her door.

Did I sleep well for the next two nights? Of course not! Like mental hand grenades the administrator's threat kept intrusively exploding into my thoughts. "Am I doing the right thing? What if he's serious? What could he do? How dare he threaten me! Maybe I don't want to be a minister anyway! I know I don't want to be a hypocrite. There must be an easier way. What should I do? That which is right, or that which is safe?"

The church's redemptive responsibility was clear. After several attempts to dissuade them, the church turned to discipline as a last resort of mercy. The business meeting convened, with the couple present. Friends pleaded with them, but they refused to see the point. Finally the business session recommended to disfellowship.

Jan did divorce, and left with the elder. Her children and husband foundered in the storm she had created. I have not seen Jan or her father since. Years have passed, and I now work thousands of miles away. Has her father attempted to thwart my ministry? I don't know. But I do know that my heart is at peace and the Lord has blessed me... and that is enough.

When we reflect upon our ministry, we want to hear not just the final compliment from God, but His words now from within: "Well done, good and faithful servant" (Matt. 25:23). That can happen only if we are committed to the principle of integrity. In the crisis just discussed, integrity was at stake. The decision we took was one that I could live with, even though it put my ministry at risk. If we can't accept the principle "To thine own self be true," how can we be true to the expectations of the congregation at large?

Integrity always

This was not the first threat to my ministry. Four years earlier when I was serving as youth pastor, three elders were hotly engaged in a discussion about the youth. "They always ..." "They never ..." "Why can't they...?" I happened to be nearby when they turned to me and asked, "Isn't that true, Pastor?"

Within me one voice barked, "No, it's not true! And you're a bunch of dogmatic, judgmental pharisees! I can tell that you don't like kids, much less love them!" This seemed like a good answer if I wished to avoid ordination!

Another voice pleaded, "Yes, kids these days just aren't responsible, as they used to be." But that felt so phony.

Instead, I responded, "I disagree [I sensed in them an immediate defensiveness as they prepared to do battle], but I love you anyway." The disarming effect of that last phrase was amazing. The verbal bullets they had been loading rolled harmlessly to the floor.

I felt good about my answer because it was honest, yet not disrespectful. It opened the door to a productive working relationship. And it's a response I have used many times since. In comparison to the incident with Jan, this was far less threatening but just as telling. Other tests of integrity have come, and continue to present themselves. When faced with a choice of personal integrity or advancement in ministry, I hope I will always choose the first.

What is integrity?

One dictionary defines integrity as "the state of being complete, unified." When we have integrity our words and work match up. We are who we are, no matter where we are or whom we are with. "Integrity binds our person together and fosters a spirit of contentment within us. It will not allow our lips to violate our hearts. When integrity is the referee, we will be consistent; our beliefs will be mirrored by our conduct." 1

I have heard it said often that a minister's success is largely a result of the congregation's perception of his or her credibility. If that's true, then I suggest that integrity is what builds credibility. And to be credible to our congregation, we must first become credible to our selves. That means that we must believe that our integrity is of greater importance than praise and promotion from others.

Humanness of ministry

I remember that as a young ministerial student I resisted the temptation to "look like a theology major." The stereotype was that of a student in white shirt and narrow tie, leather zippered Bible/hymnal case under arm, serious-faced, and walking very quickly toward the next class. I resisted, not because that look was in any way wrong. It just didn't characterize me. Plus it seemed to divide the clergy types from the rest of the normal world. That seemed artificial and even dangerous. Pretending can be a temptation for ministers, but it negates integrity.

If ministers act different from the normal church member, then our ministerial effectiveness is compromised. How can I give courage to them on their spiritual journey if I am not on the same journey? How can I help people identify their loneliness and pain if I don't have any or am unwilling to let them think I have any?

I like the imagery of the spiritual journey as a team of mountain climbers. Everyone is struggling. Everyone falls occasionally. Everyone needs the team. Everyone needs encouragement. In this model ministers who see themselves as team members are far more credible and helpful than those who act as if they've been helicoptered onto the mountaintop and to call down, "You can make it. Just work harder. It's really quite easy."

That's why I have difficulty with preachers who act and speak differently in the pulpit from the way they do in real life. The pontifical transformation of voice, walk, and body movement on the rostrum would be almost amusing if it weren't so artificial. I recognize that some congregations or cultures expect preachers to be "different" when they "speak for God" from the "sacred desk." (I don't completely understand this desire, and have some reservations about its effect on integrity.) My experience is that this artificial behavior separates us from (and perhaps elevates us above) the worshipers. This artificiality can breed inauthenticity in one's ministry.

I am not calling for a type of nonchalant informality in preaching. I believe a minister can speak in normal tones and conversational style, yet do it with dignity and passion. I'm simply advocating integrity, honesty, and authenticity.

Sense of humor

One way we can show our members that we are just like them is to have a good sense of humor. I continually caution myself as part of a ministerial team, "Let's not take ourselves too seriously." The ready ability to laugh at ourselves reminds us and our congregation that we are in fact only human. Embracing our humanity reminds us: struggling, sinful human beings relate best to a spiritual leader who is human, like themselves, but has a vision for reaching the peak of the mountain and says, "Come, let's climb together." A minister who can balance the integrity and truthfulness of his or her humanness while encouraging the members to keep climbing will build healthy climbers.

Humor also saves us from getting tangled into fruitless and belabored efforts to explain facts. For example, every minister has heard the question "What do you preachers do all week, anyway?" Let's be honest. Doesn't that question bug you? If they're serious, you think they must really be out of touch. If they're being critical, you really don't want to take the effort to answer. Someone overly sensitive about integrity might attempt to explain the weekly schedule in a detailed, intelligible manner. Good luck! Probably the more you try to explain, the less they will understand. On rare occasions I have said, "Well, you ought to shadow me sometime and see for yourself." But on most occasions it's easier just to say, "Oh, you know us preachers; we work only one day a week!" Integrity without humor can be confining.

The mirror test

The final, uncompromising test of integrity comes when we look into the mirror. No one is watching. There is no one to impress. There are no facades to maintain. It is you looking into your soul and asking, "Am I really who I project myself to be? Do I like the person I see? Do I respect the person in this mirror? Is this person authentic or phony?" John Maxwell says, "Image is what people think we are. Integrity is what we really are."2

If integrity has been our guide we will receive the commendation "Well done." If not, we will restlessly grab for trivial and more measurable tokens of success. Edgar Guest says it well in a very moving poem, which ends:

I don't want to look at myself and know

That I'm bluster and bluff and empty show.

I can never hide myself from me,

I see what others may never see,

I know what others may never know,

I never can fool myself, and so,

Whatever happens, I want to be

Self-respecting and conscience free. 3

1 John C. Maxwell, Developing the Leader
Within You
(Nashville: Thomas Nelson
Publishers, 1993), p. 36.

2Ibid., p. 38.

3 Edgar Guest, "Am I True to Myself?"
Maxwell's, pp. 45,46.

 

Continuing Education Exercise:

Questions to Contemplate or Journal On:


1. What area of your life causes you to pretend before your church members? How
does that affect your sense of integrity? What will you do about it? When?

2. What would you be willing to give up to maintain integrity? A promotion? Your
reputation? What was Jesus willing to sacrifice for integrity?

3. Is there an unresolved conflict in your life that causes you to hide behind a
facade? Are you willing to face it? Will you seek professional help or that of a
trusted friend?

4. When was the last time you laughed at yourself or your mistakes in front of
your church members? What would happen if you did? Would they stiffen up
and gasp, or relax and identify with your humanness?

5. What frightens you most about being transparent and honest about your
humanness before your congregation? Is it a valid fear? Why?

6. Do you put on a pontifical air when in the pulpit? Why? Is this something God
has asked you to do? Did you learn this from Jesus?

 

Forbes, Cheryl. The Religion of Power. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House,
1983. An explanation of what power is and does; its use and abuse; its biblical
meaning.


Hybels, Bill. Honest to God? Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1990.
Hybels explores 12 manifestations of inconsistent Christian living. His call for
authenticity in these areas of life is in fact a call for integrity in ministry.


Hybels, Bill. Who You Are When No One's Looking. Downers Grove, III.: Inter Varsity
Press, 1987. A call to Christian self-examination in our attempt to become
authentic Christians.


Maxwell, John C. Developing the Leader Within You. Nashville: Thomas Nelson
Publishers, 1993. Examines characteristics that set great leaders apart from run-of-
the-mill leaders. The chapter "The Most Important Ingredient of Leadership:
Integrity" is superb.


Nouwen, Henri J. The Wounded Healer. New York: Doubleday Books, 1972. A well-known
classic that identifies the suffering in a minister's heart and makes that
recognition the starting point of service.


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Terry Pooler, DMin., is pastor of the Forest Lake SDA Church, Apopka, Florida.

June 1997

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