Several years ago, I met with a pastor search committee at a hotel in a city halfway between the four hundred miles that separated where I was pastoring at the time and where the church of the pastor search committee was located. My wife, Wanda, and I had met previously with the committee, but, for those who know the usual process, this was the meeting that would determine whether the pastor search committee asked me to come in view of a call to their church. Wanda, our three children, and I met for several hours in a hotel suite with the pastor search committee. We talked about a variety of subjects, relevant to families, churches, and society in general, in getting to know one another better. Then there a came time when one of the men on the committee said that he would like to ask some questions which they had prepared for me. For over an hour he systematically questioned me during what was the most intense and thorough interview I had ever been through. I was even asked a question, which some pastor search committees and secular hiring committees will be careful to no longer overlook in light of some recent public embarrassments. That question was, “Are the academic degrees you list on your resume ones you actually earned and received?” Three times near the end of the interview, the interviewer asked, “Are there any hidden skeletons in your closet that you can think of that we need to know about?” I did become the pastor of that church, and later would refer jokingly on occasion to the pastor search committee member who did the questioning about the “grilling” he gave me that day. I later learned that I went through an interview and questioning time similar to that of Secret Service agents because a Secret Service agent, who was a member of that church, had provided the pastor search committee with the questions asked of potential Secret Service agents.
Why was that pastor search committee so thorough and personal in their questioning and evaluation of me? They wanted a pastor who was a man of integrity, whose life backed up who he claimed to be and what he professed to believe. They wanted no surprises or embarrassments to taint the reputation of their church and to hinder their witness for the Lord. They did their best up front to make sure the man they called to be their pastor would not be one who would disappoint them later on by his pastoral leadership, decisions, and manner in which he would conduct himself as a minister and as a man. In the twenty-five plus years I have been in the ministry, serving three churches as a senior pastor and five churches as an associate minister, the search committees that brought me to the seven other churches may not have been as in depth and as intense as the one mentioned earlier, but every church wanted a pastor or associate staff ministers with impeccable integrity as one of their major characteristics and qualifications.
The moral failures of ministers over the past several years, especially those who are well-known, have received vast press and media coverage and have been the butt of joke after joke of the talk show hosts and comedians who have performed on television and radio shows. But, integrity issues are not just limited to sexual immorality and have moved into other aspects of ministry today at an alarming rate. For example, resume “padding” has not only cost some senior pastors and associate ministers their job and influence in recent months, but the coaching ranks and high ranking administrators at prestigious universities have seen firings because an individual claimed to have academic degrees they had not earned or claimed credentials that were bogus. Another example of the expanding integrity crisis involves some of the denominational “young bucks” (as I call them) of a few years ago moving in to become the senior pastors at some of the megachurches and rising churches in our Southern Baptist Convention. In some cases, they are moving too quickly to try to establish their mark on those churches, making poor decisions, and then having to make amends and rebuild trust among the church membership. Some, sadly, are even trying to cover up their mistakes or attempting to focus the blame on others. Another contemporary area for integrity concerns regards “blogging” on The Internet. Some pastor “bloggers” have many readers who faithfully read and respond to what, at times, is simply someone’s slanted opinion about another minister and his methods or a traditional theological belief or practice they no longer want to follow. I have seen the blogs of some individuals who sarcastically and mockingly criticize the soulwinning methods of one preacher in our denomination, a former Southern Baptist Convention president, whom the Lord has used to bring thousands of lost souls to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ through the evangelistic efforts of the churches he pastored and the revival meetings and conferences where he has preached. Integrity has taken a back seat to such disrespectful, in your face ministers who are influencing a new generation of church members to use confrontation as the means by which to move out of positions of influence those whom they believe are “behind the times” church members.
What are some answers to overcoming the decline in ministerial integrity, which in turn causes a loss of integrity and influence of the local churches in the communities where those ministers serve? As I give some remedies, I am going to be generic in their brief descriptions because I might hit too close to home with some of the illustrations to back them up. Most anyone reading this article could immediately think of personal situations in your own life or how you have seen others affected, who violated the following steps to maintaining integrity as a minister. First, if in doubt, don’t! When you are doubtful about a decision or a planned action, you not only may feel “tossed to and fro” (James 1:6), but it causes a rippling effect of doubt about you upon those you lead spiritually. If you can give more time before changing the way your church has been ministering in some way, do not move too quickly, especially if you or others in leadership have doubts about it. Allow more time to pray it through and seek godly counsel from those you know who strive to have the mind of Christ. For those of us who are Mid-America Seminary alumni, it was emphasized to us over and over again while students: “Don’t make any major changes, unless absolutely necessary, your first year on a church field. Get to know and love the people and allow them time to get to know and love you.”
Another way to avoid an integrity failure is to avoid all appearance of evil (1 Thess. 5:22). Don’t allow yourself to get in a questionable situation with someone of the opposite sex or put yourself in a position regarding a decision you have made where your intentions could be questioned. Any minister who would allow a situation where he is alone with one of the opposite sex other than his wife, daughter, grand-daughter, mother, or sister is playing with fire. Be cautious especially of decisions you make in a church where money is involved so that it will not be a source of concern because proper accounting practices have not been followed. Be able to back up your decisions with an unquestionable assurance in your heart that you have God’s mind on the matter.
When you have made a mistake that needs to be addressed or a decision which is being challenged, face up to it and don’t try to cover it up. Don’t try to deflect criticism toward someone else, about a completely different matter, to take the critical focus off you. When Jonah was running away from God and the will of God, to his credit he took the blame for the turmoil caused by his disobedience which affected negatively everyone around him (Jonah 1:9-12).
An important factor to keep in mind to help you avoid making mistakes you must address and in answering questions about decisions which are challenged is to get all the facts before you go out on a limb on any decision. One eyed vision and one ear hearing is not getting the full picture on a matter. You must seek to get all the necessary details before making a decision and not just listen only to those who agree with you or surround yourself exclusively with people who are going to tell you just what you want to hear. There are often three sides to most decisions: your side, the other side, and God’s side. It is God’s side that the minister of God must always find and abide by and lead those whom he pastors to hear and to heed. You can then back up your decisions with an unquestionable assurance you have God’s mind on the matter, and that is what matters above all else.
From personal conversations and interviews I have heard or seen with ministers who made choices which resulted in their loss of integrity and usually their ministry, one area in their life that had taken a back seat was their daily devotional and prayer time. Some ministerial duties and responsibilities, which they could do well, had become rote and were being carried out in the strength of their flesh instead of the power of the Holy Spirit. Some of those ministers could still wax eloquently in the pulpit but had become hollow spiritually. Eventually the spiritual hollowness was filled with things which they would have avoided at all costs when they were Spirit-controlled and Spirit-led. Make it a priority to spend enough time with the Lord everyday in Bible reading, prayer, and meditation to get a clear sense of God’s direction to do graciously and appropriately what he desires for you to do and enables you to do. Another reason today that ministers have lost their integrity is because of the ambition to have to be the best. The Bible says that whatever we do, we should do it heartily (Col. 3:23) and our focus should be on pleasing the Lord, not receiving the accolades of what the world views as success. We should certainly give our best but that does not necessarily mean that we will be the best. “Having to be the best” ministers can get so focused on attaining success in the world’s eyes that they sometimes make poor decisions looking for loopholes or shortcuts to quick numerical and statistical achievements and violate ethical ministerial practices and proper protocol. Then, when they have reached the pinnacle of their idea of success, they feel spiritually invincible and let their guard down, and that is when and where moral failure often takes root. Success, God’s way is not based on who you are or where you are but on what you are, and it comes in regular daily times of meditating upon the Word of God and “observing to do all that is written therein” (Joshua 1:8). The minister who reads the Bible daily, meditates upon the Word and delights in it, and makes his decisions in light of God’s Word, will not listen to wrong counsel or personally make decisions he will regret (Ps. 1:1-2). To maintain a level of impeccable integrity, it is vital to get into the Word daily and get the Word into you in order to get the mind of Christ on the matters of life awaiting and facing you each day.
Next to spending quality time with the Lord every day in prayer, Bible reading, and meditation, simply being up front with the membership of the church you pastor is a key to being looked upon as a person of integrity. The people you lead spiritually need to be able to trust you. When Jesus told His followers to let your “Yes, be ‘Yes’” and your “No, ‘No,’” (Matt. 5:37) He was saying that a Christian’s word alone should be enough. Your word should be as trustworthy and binding as your signature or swearing under oath in a court of law to tell the truth. Pastors who would detest another pastor who falls morally are no better off when the members of their church feel their pastor is not leveling with them on decisions and issues relevant to a church, resulting in the pastor’s loss of integrity in the minds of the church members and crippling his ability to lead them spiritually. Prior to accepting my first pastorate, I had the joy of serving on the ministerial staff of my home church, a church where both of my grandfathers, my father, and my older brother had served as chairman of the deacons. Two of my father’s boyhood friends, who were groomsmen in his wedding, were members of the church and had served as chairman of the deacons. One of those two longtime friends of my dad gave me a memorable piece of advice my last Sunday on staff at that church before beginning my first pastorate. He put his arm around me as several other long-time deacons of that church were listening and said, “Son, always be honest and up front with your people. They’ll be like us when it comes to how they follow you. If you were our pastor, we may not agree with you on something you wanted the church to do, but if we were convinced in our minds that you were convinced in your mind that you were doing what God had led you to do, we would get on our knees and crawl with you, if that’s what it takes, to help you do what the Lord was leading you to do.” I have found his advice to be on target at the churches where I have pastored, and although there are certainly exceptions, most churches want a pastor to lead them in the way they should go and want to do their part to support their pastor in fulfilling the will of God. They desire a man who will maintain impeccable integrity.
Being a man of integrity is a lifelong process. Spend private time with the Lord everyday, be up front about everything with the church you pastor, live a life where you get all the facts and don’t have doubts about decisions you make, and don’t allow yourself to be put in compromising situations. You will be able to identify with the Apostle Paul and joyfully say, “I am not ashamed: for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day” (2 Tim. 1:12). And, if you do make a mistake, don’t try to cover it up or blame someone else. Admit your mistake, make the necessary amends, learn the lesson from it, become better because of it, and move on beyond it, “reaching forth unto those things which are before, pressing toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 13-14) and daily thanking God Who “always causes us to triumph in Christ” (2 Cor. 2:14).