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early warning signs for loss of integrity
A sign attached to a chain-link fence that reads "Warning, Dangerous Tree, Keep Out." Used with permission from

Last winter, someone mentioned in passing that a local ministry leader had to step down because of a moral failure. I replied, “Wouldn’t it be great if there were an early warning signal which alerted people that they were near the edge of the slippery slope that ends with loss of integrity, so they could nip the problem in the bud?” Something like a trip wire in a prison yard, or the ‘fence’ of rules the Pharisees built around God’s law. These are supposed to keep people safely away from the true danger point. So I wondered, “Is there a point at which the disastrous long term consequences of an apparently innocent choice are not obvious? A point where people would choose differently if they could see ahead where this would take them?”

I remember 28 years ago now driving home from our cottage and the highway was stopped dead. No problem. I had a map  showing a side road that went all the way down past the slow area. It went through a few tiny towns and over a river, but it sure looked good as an alternate route. So off my wife and I went. Maybe I should have been concerned that no one else had the same brilliant idea.

We drove along a two lane paved road that became a two lane gravel road. Hmm. We went through a tiny town that reminded me uncomfortably of the scene where Dueling Banjos was made famous in Deliverance. Hmm again. But on we went, and the gravel road became a single lane. Eternally optimistic, I knew we were close to getting back on the highway and whizzing home. But, fixated on my goal, we drove obliviously through miles of forest with no sideroads and no driveways until it became a cow path, two ruts with high grass in the middle. It didn’t help that my wife said repeatedly that she was enjoying the drive and seeing places she’d never otherwise see! However, by this time even I was thinking, “Something’s not right here.”

According to the map we were almost at the river and all we had to do was cross over it and we’d be back in civilization, but it was looking doubtful. And then a hill arose in front of us, and we climbed up it slowly driving on smooth boulders poking through the earth, finally stopping when we came to outright rocks. Climbing up the rocks I had a glorious view of the river below, a paved road on the other side, and absolutely no bridge at all! The map showed a bridge, but there obviously had never been a bridge here. I had to back up for miles before I could turn around!

I wish when I first turned on to the gravel road I had realized that the roads were  deteriorating in quality and unlikely to be through roads. At that point I could easily have turned around and got back on course with no significant loss of time. In the same way, when people make those first choices that set them on a questionable course, before they lose their integrity, surely at that early point if a person recognized the significance of  the present choice in terms of how it can lead to lost integrity, they would gratefully make a different choice and preserve their integrity. I thought someone should research that, and I discovered accidentally while perusing a bookstore this week that someone has. (I did my usual checking out of the book before deciding to buy it.)

The Earliest Warning Signs

Every person in Christian ministry should read this (secular) book called Integrity: Doing the Right Thing for the Right Reason. I’ll warn you though, it is a frightening read because the author, a clinical psychologist in Toronto, found that the earliest warning signals are things that I think every person already has to a degree in their psychological make-up: the desire to perform well. In fact, society honours and rewards those who exhibit the related behaviours of producing good quality work and having a good work ethic, even as we say we want to avoid their logical extremes, perfectionism and workaholism. The author, Barbara Killinger, says the problem is that these two behaviours are really just socially acceptable diseases.

For example, workaholics are overly responsible idealists who have compulsively competitive natures and they seek fulfillment in work. Being responsible is good.  Having ideals is good. Being competitive is good (it leads to better value for your ‘clients’). Finding fulfillment in your work is good too. But there can be too much of these good things. You can feel so much responsibility on your shoulders that you feel only you are carrying the weight of the ministry and you become resentful and curmudgeonly, as though the ministry owed you something. You can be so idealistic you will continually be frustrated with the reality of the world around you, so you become angry and bitter. You can become ruthless in your competitive race to win. If you find fulfillment only in your work, you have an unbalanced life and incredible stress as pressures mount in other areas. Workaholism leads sequentially to chronic fatigue and no longer being able to relax or play, guilt over the parts of your life that are falling apart, loss of feeling which means loss of compassion and purpose, and finally character change as you become self-absorbed while leading a dead life of declining physical health. The workaholic is now primed and ready for loss of integrity. Yet employers unconsciously (at least I sure hope it is not conscious) are complicit in their employees’ slides down the slippery slope because they give them laptops and smart phones so they can work 24 hours a day. These are good tools, but need to be used responsibly.

Perfectionists have their own issues. They believe they are highly intelligent, superior people. Their feeling of specialness, Killinger says, can foster arrogance or a feeling of entitlement, that they are the exception to the rule and are exempt from community standards. The perfectionist who reaches this point has the attitudes that will support loss of integrity.

Perfectionism and workaholism are particularly insidious because they are related to the key threat to integrity: obsession. Killinger says that “If I had to make an educated guess about who might eventually lose his or her integrity, it would likely be an individual who has become obsessively fixated on a thought, idea, or action.” So what are the pre-conditions that lead to obsessive thinking? It turns out that all the pre-conditions are related to the choices we make about how we think about things.

The Slippery Slope!

If the choice was between stealing or not stealing, that would be an easy decision. Will you cheat on your spouse? “No, of course not!” you say. But that is now.  How does someone get to the place where they can say “Yes”? They get to that point when they have no empathy or compassion left for their spouse, when their intuition has become negative so that it is slow to speak up and the person becomes bored, impatient and impulsive. You get to this stage through more innocent choices you make, such as the choice a perfectionist makes as to how to handle self-doubt. The choice a person with chronic fatigue makes about whether to press on with work or give in to sleep. The choice a creative person makes about whether or not to be concerned when it takes 12 hours to do what it usually took 8 hours to do.

These are among the many conditions that Killinger says are pre-cursors to loss of integrity. And that is what makes this book so scary. We associate loss of integrity with the obviously bad choices people make, and we say “So I won’t do that!” But the road to lost integrity starts with nothing so obvious. It starts with apparently benign and unrelated symptoms that we choose to ignore because we don’t appreciate their true significance. The choices we should be concerned about are not what we choose to do at the end of the road, but what we choose to think at the beginning of the road. It is at this point that we can most easily avert what Killinger calls “the predictable breakdown syndrome.” But even if you have started to slide, it is still possible to grab on to a branch and keep from sliding all the way down.

Integrity Means Doing What You Say

Here’s an important point about integrity. Integrity means being consistent and predictable, acting in ways that are consistent with what you say you believe. Moral failure such as cheating on your spouse is one form of lost integrity, assuming you say you believe in faithfulness to your spouse. That is an obvious sin. But we must remember that any behaviour that is not consistent with our Christian view of life would also be a loss of integrity. Skipping church. Treating staff as objective resources rather than as humans made in God’s image. Staying silent and insensitive to injustice. You might not fail in obvious sin such as adultery, but you could still lose your integrity as a follower of Christ.

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A Solution

The solution is relatively straight-forward. Killinger says we need compassion and a deliberate surfacing of the positive aspects of the personality traits that we have least of. For example, thinkers need the emotional side to come out while emotional types need the rational thinking side to come out. The point is to have a holistic view of the situation and make a decision that takes into account the needs of other people who would be affected. She says, “Discerning integrity, I believe, requires a compassionate eye. Informed decisions based on hard facts and figures, or stringent rules and regulations, rarely represent the whole story. Our moral choices must also show a genuine concern for the welfare of others. This is not to downplay the role of thinking in formulating opinions, but wise moral choices are made when intelligence, compassion, and maturity come together to guide our judgments.”

This post is closely related to another post, The private life of a Christian leader, in which I wrote about how compartmentalizing life creates a condition in which moral failure is rationalized away. It turns out that Killinger says the same thing.

I think the upshot of this is that everyone should have an accountability partner to whom they disclose what they are thinking and feeling. This is a lot more important than disclosing what they are doing, because they won’t be doing anything questionable until long after they have been thinking and feeling that they are alienated, hard-done-by, or any of the other pre-cursor attitudes that Killinger identifies. Accountability relationships should be focused on our attitudes and feelings.

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.
Philippians 4:8

Thoughts on Early Warning Signs for Loss of Integrity

  1. Joshua Gordon

    Great post, John!

    I really enjoyed reading it. My church is currently putting on the ‘Valiant Man’ series by Dr. Allan Meyers – have you heard of it?

    Anyway, I’m not sure if you remember me or not, but I met with you in February – yo u gave me some great job leads. I ended up getting hired at The Gideons International In Canada!

    Hope you’re doing well!


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