Of kings and prophets: Ministry leaders and their critics

Chess pieces

Used with permission

Ever get discouraged when ministry leaders don’t live up to your expectations of Christian behaviour? As an observer, how do you deal with that?

The ideal believer lives a Christ-like life manifesting the fruit of the Spirit. Unfortunately, everyone is on a journey toward that ideal.

We all fall short and we always will until God finishes perfecting us. Until then, we have to deal with imperfect people. That’s the really hard part of life for those of us who are already perfect! (Just kidding!!!)

But should we expect more from ministry leaders than from the average person? Yes, but they still won’t be perfect.

Why leaders deserve a higher standard

Most people have a very localized sphere of influence and we never hear of their shortfalls unless we know them personally. But leaders represent a community, and the ripple effect of their shortfalls is much wider.  In Satan And The Problem Of Evil: Constructing A Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy, Greg Boyd writes that:

Moral responsibility is proportionate to the potential to influence others…the greater the potential a [person] has for love, the greater the potential this [person] must have for the opposite of love [because of free will]… When people who have the capacity and moral responsibility to bless many fail to do so, their extraordinary potential to bless becomes an extraordinary capacity to harm. Hence those people require greater accountability and deserve more severe judgment if they fall…every increase in the capacity for good means a similar increase in the capacity for evil… If God wants a world where a Mother Teresa is possible, he must also be willing to contend with a world in which an Adolf Hitler is possible… We have no idea of how glorious Satan might have appeared had he chosen to actualize his potential for loving service to God rather than his potential for rebellion. Neither can we acquire any clear idea of what Mother Teresa or Adolf Hitler might have looked like had they chosen each other’s paths rather than the ones they in fact chose.

Hitler’s powerful oratory skills could have been used for good, but he chose to use them for evil. Just as he did great evil with his skill, he could have done great good with the same skill.

Ministry leaders have great gifts, skills and talents that got them into their leadership roles, but being a leader they now have the potential to do greater good or greater harm for the cause of Christ than they could before. Somebody with no communication skills, no organizational skills, and no charisma could have the exact same failing as a leader, and never cause a ripple. The leader, however, with the identical failing could devastate a whole community and bring great disrepute to Christ’s name. This means that those who have the ability to influence many should be held to a higher standard and they are accountable to the whole community. The concept applies to everyone who works in vocational ministry, but my focus is the leader.

Furthermore, when ministry leaders fall short, most people (especially the secular public) see it as not just an imperfection or development need, but as outright hypocrisy. That puts a different spin on the perceived problem. It is not a personality quirk, lapse or error of judgment, but an intentional choice. The shortcoming does nothing to help the proclamation of the Good News of the kingdom when it is interpreted this way. Thus ministry leaders get judged harshly when they fail to live up to the Christian ideal.

In my post, “Early warning signs for loss of integrity,” I referred to an excellent book, Integrity: Doing the Right Thing for the Right Reason, that softened my view of people who fall short of the ideal. While we often like things neat and simple, black and white, this is rarely the case. A person could indeed be truly evil in intent, but in many cases the person has succumbed to the very traits that made them a leader in the first place. For example, the same confidence that enables a young person to start a new ministry can later develop into cockiness, arrogance and progressively worse. Then they start to justify their attitudes and behaviours and they are on their way to a fall.

Leaders are like kings

If we believe that the people placed in ministry leadership are God’s choice, then they are similar in function to the kings of Israel who ruled over Israel as under-lords to the Lord, who was himself the  true king of Israel. Ministry leaders are under-shepherds to the true Shepherd, Jesus Christ. The church and its ministries belong to Christ and any human leader is just like a steward who runs a portion of his master’s household.

In Abraham Heschel’s masterful study of the Old Testament prophets (The Prophets) he discusses the role of the king and how the prophets were a check to ensure the king did not begin to rule in his own name, rather than God’s:

The king…is the ruler appointed by God who must reign according to the will and the mishpat of God…What were the safeguards that kept alive that attitude and prevented the king from ever assuming the mysterious nimbus that goes with the power of sovereignty? …  Of paramount importance in the history of Israel was the freedom and independence enjoyed by the prophets, their ability to upbraid the kings and princes for their sins. From the beginning of the monarchy, the king was at any moment in peril of rebuke, even of rejection, by the prophets, who reminded him that the king’s sovereignty was not unlimited, that over the king’s mishpat stood the mishpat of the Lord – an idea that frequently clashed with the exigencies of government.

The role of the prophet is to speak correction to God’s leader so that God’s justice (mishpat) rules over the king’s justice. Heschel said that our conscience develops scales: excuses, pretense and self-pity. The purpose of prophecy therefore includes the intent to “conquer callousness, to change the inner man.” The prophet’s duty is “to speak to the people, whether or not they hear or refuse to hear.” Every ministry leader who wants to stay on as a ministry leader should pray that God would send them a Nathan, a prophet, who would stand up to the king and say, “You are the man!”

Critics as prophets

The Bible has lots to say about people who cause division and stir up contention, and it condemns them. However, there are people who I believe are acting in a prophet-like role who are pure in heart and inspired by God to speak correction to those in leadership.

As a leader, don’t be too quick to label your critics as troublemakers. Their calling a spade a spade may be the greatest service they can do for you. Their message is a wake-up call to assess who you have become and what you are doing. Has being in leadership had a negative affect on you? Has holding power corrupted you? Do you believe your own press? Have you forgotten whom you serve?

The best case outcome when a prophet speaks is that their ‘targets’ see the problem in their current way of being or see that they have some explaining to do (if they have been misunderstood). It would be much better if leaders catch their developing problems while they are relatively insignificant, so that much worse could be avoided.

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My take on shortfalls

When I read or hear about yet another leader with a problem, I first sigh and then say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Their shortcoming is a call to examine myself, my foibles and my attitudes, and check for self-justification, rationalization and so on. Have I submitted to proper authority and allowed myself to be scrutinized? Of course, all Christians should do exactly the same because they too have the same potential to fall short.

If I were in a position to work with the leader, I would approach it with compassion and with the goal of rehabilitation rather than punishment. The goal is always advancement of the Christian mission and in God’s kingdom there is always forgiveness and restoration. The same Jesus who said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” later said to Peter, “Feed my sheep.” This is also the approach of the standards program at CCCC. Its goal is not to punish those who fail to comply with a standard, but to correct the problem and bring them into compliance.

The real issue for me in terms of expectations and failure is, what did they learn from their error (and therefore what will they do differently) and did they submit to correction? Sometimes the unChristian behaviour is so sinful that it is not possible to continue on in the ministry role. But even then I have hope that beyond exposure and censure there can be correction and redemption so the person can continue in some useful service of the Master.

In this regard, Jim Bakker really impressed me. I never watched him, but I was in the service at a church in Phoenix when we were all surprised as he came out and was interviewed. He had been through a rehabilitation process, clearly admitted he was wrong (he wrote a book by that title although I haven’t read it), and at the time of the interview had been working for some time in Los Angeles at the Dream Center as an ordinary, anonymous volunteer. I still don’t follow him at all, but the day of his interview I was impressed by his humbleness. It seemed authentic. What was even more impressive, perhaps, was that the pastor of this church along with a very few others went to visit him in prison and walked with him through contrition and repentance with the goal of redeeming him for something useful.

Kings and queens, listen to your prophets!

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