The private life of a Christian leader

Stone wall

“Detail of a fortress wall” Used with permission

I chatted recently with a pastor* who is doing graduate research on how people hear absolute truth in preaching. His example was “Do not steal.” That is an absolute truth and you would think people would get it. But here’s how the conversation goes when he asks young people in his church “What do you call it when you take something that belongs to someone else without permission and don’t pay for it?”

“That’s stealing,” they say.

“Why is that wrong?” he asks, digging deeper.

“Because the Bible says in the Ten Commandments that you shouldn’t steal.” Sounds like a good enough answer, but here’s the kicker.

“So what do you call it when you download MP3 files for free that others have posted without permission?”

“Oh,” they say, “everybody does that.” They heard the absolute truth, but they chose to apply it to only part of their life. They isolated the area of their life that includes downloading MP3 files for free by constructing a wall around it and saying that that area is different, so different rules apply.

Compartmentalization

Psychology calls that compartmentalization, which is building walls to prevent inner conflict, in this case between values (“do not steal”) and actions (downloading free music).

This pastor is on to something that is vitally important to all Christians, but especially Christian leaders. It has to do with the integrity of our lives and our faith. If Christian leaders could learn the lesson these kids need to learn, we would see fewer of them falling from their ministries for personal failures.

It breaks my heart when I hear of another ministry leader in trouble for things they do in their private lives. I wonder, how does that happen? How does someone who knows better make such poor judgements about their personal behaviour? How is it that they will do things that jeopardize their call?

I think it is because some leaders build walls around their personal lives and compartmentalize what they do personally from what they do vocationally. That is why, when challenged about their behaviours, some leaders respond with such claims as, “What I watch is my own business,” “How I treat my family is none of your concern” or “My financial affairs are private”.

What they are really saying is that their Christian values apply only to their public life, and that they are not accountable to their boards for what they do in private life. Yet 1 Timothy 3:1-13 establishes the criteria for Christian leadership and it refers not only to the personal affairs and character of the leader, but also the leader’s spouse and children! How can anyone say what they do in private is separate from their public ministry?

One integrated life

Let’s put another absolute truth on the table for discussion. There is no part of my life that is exempt from God’s desire for righteous behaviour (Gen 18:19). Jesus did not go to the cross so that I could have a career in Christian ministry. He did not go to the cross to give my soul a ticket to heaven. He was willing to die so that I could “have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Christ claims my whole life. So it is not possible to have one set of values while I am leading a Christian ministry and another set of values for the rest of my life. As a believer, I cannot say that one part of my life is not subject to reproof or correction.

Accountability to the community

Furthermore, the Christian life is lived in community. We are all together the body of Christ, the church. We have a responsibility to keep a watchful eye on one another. We are told to submit to one another (Eph 5:21). We are told to challenge one another when we feel someone is off-side (Mat 18:15-17). The Bible says we are to “save others, snatching them out of the fire” when they go astray (Jude 23). In other words, we are accountable to the body of Christ for our behaviour and what we teach about our faith. It is this accountability that forms the basis for reproving and correcting each other (2 Tim 3:16).

This general accountability is made more particular within Christian ministry because we are also accountable to our leaders, and for the senior leader, that means the board. If you are credentialed, you are also accountable to your denomination.

People look to the leader of a ministry to model what the ministry does, to  be what the ministry stands for. And since Christ transforms whole lives, not components of life, we expect congruency throughout a leader’s life. A double life ruins your credibility in your public leadership role, not to mention all the other problems it causes.

Download discussion guide

Download discussion guide

Reproof and correction

Reproof and correction starts with an ability to call someone to account when a question or allegation is raised. Christian leaders cannot compartmentalize their lives and say that some things are off-limits to the employer’s concern. They can’t say things like “My private life has nothing to do with my ministry life.” A Christian can always be called to account.

Acknowledging that no one is perfect and allowing for some grace as people progress in their spiritual development, I do think that when there is cause to be concerned, a board has every right to ask the senior staff member to give full disclosure about the concern, either to refute it or to admit to it, and to submit to a restoration process if there is a problem. The same holds true for all ministry staff members. They in turn are accountable to the senior staff leader for their behaviour.

All my comments so far are from a faith perspective. From a civil perspective, you will need to have a code of conduct/lifestyle statement to implement accountability like this in a workplace.

If each of us treats our entire life as one, holistic life and stops compartmentalizing for accountability purposes, I’m sure we would see fewer leaders fail. There’s lots more to be said, but that’s for another day.

Surely you desire truth in the inner parts;
you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Psalm 51:6, 10

* He gave permission to use this story anonymously.

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Thoughts on The private life of a Christian leader

  1. Anthony McLean

    LOVE THIS! You have diagnosed the root cause of moral failure in people of public ministry. I think everyone in ministry needs to here these words:

    “Jesus did not go to the cross so that I could have a career in Christian ministry. He did not go to the cross to give my soul a ticket to heaven. He was willing to die so that I could “have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Christ claims my whole life. So it is not possible to have one set of values while I am leading a Christian ministry and another set of values for the rest of my life.”

    Reply

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