Church Leadership in the 21st Century – Focusing on Integrity

I was honored to participate in the Zimbabwe Episcopal Area’s 2019 Lay Academy earlier this month in Mutare, Zimbabwe. Their theme was Purposeful Engagement for Transformation, and the Academy’s organizers presented myself and the other Western Pennsylvania representatives with topics that they were hoping to cover throughout the conference. Members of WPAUMC spoke, as did members of the UMC in Zimbabwe. It was an absolutely wonderful opportunity for learning, cooperation, and fellowship for the roughly 500 people in attendance. Below is my presentation:

John Wesley once said “Tell me how it is that in this room there are three candles and but one light, and I will explain to you the mode of the divine existence.”

I begin with this insight from Wesley because I have been asked to present on the topic of “Church Leadership in the 21st Century – Focusing on Integrity.” I’ve been asked to do this in front of Bishop Moore-Koikoi, Bishop Nhiwatiwa, some of our Cabinet, your Cabinet, new friends, and persons with far more understanding on the subject than I possess.

To discuss integrity in leadership within a closed system of human design would be difficult enough. There are thousands of scholarly works, training manuals galore, TEDTalk videos, and internet self-assessment quizzes dedicated to the subject – I know because I googled them trying to figure out what to say here. There are even more opinions available than there are scholastic pieces on what integrity is, how to identify it, and how to practice it. But nothing fit… 

But to discuss integrity in leadership within the Church – an open and inspired creation of the Trinity – is a lot like understanding those three candles with their one light: there are aspects of it that I can comprehend, and aspects that I am not meant to. Because while each person in this room is a leader within the Church, none is leader of the Church. 

Integrity, as it is defined in the dictionary is:

  1. the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.

It is also…

2. the state of being whole and undivided.

  • The condition of being unified, unimpaired, or sound in construction.

   the state of

  • internal consistency or lack of corruption.

When I look at the Church – my home church; the global United Methodist Church, and every level in between – I find integrity in inconspicuous places. Through Christ, some of the most “broken” people learn to walk the straightest paths. Churches on the verge of collapse let go of “we’ve always done it this way,” and, one faithful step at a time, they find new ways to bring new people to Jesus. Ministries that bolster and care for others often go unnoticed because they are simply an everyday expression of the love within a faith community. Acts of service and compassion pop up in ways and at times when persons need them the most. When we are busy BEING the Church – I see integrity everywhere. When we are busy legislating the Church, it is not always as easy to identify. When we, as individuals, are confronted with difficult questions or challenging experiences – whether in the church or in our daily lives – our leadership and our integrity are put to the test.

When I was given this topic, the following question was posed:

“Our social, economic, geographical, technological, and political environment is always changing pretty fast. We believe this has a bearing on the way we lead. How can leaders maintain their uprightness under such conditions?”

While I agree that our societal environments are rapidly changing, and that in the midst of those changes it can be easy to become overwhelmed or stray off course, it is not the ever-changing nature of human constructs that I would like to discuss. It is the ever-present integrity of God, and our ability to grow in God’s grace, that I believe will answer our question. 

To illustrate my point, I turn to a story that I heard just weeks ago on the radio as I drove to our Annual Conference:

On my way there, I was driving down the highway, and as is always the case at a certain point, I began to lose the signal to NPR (National Public Radio). Already delayed and not interested in trying to listen over the static, I hit the “scan” button to find a frequency worth tuning into. As the radio searched, it landed on some random signal just as a story was beginning to unfold. I had no idea what station I had landed on, but the voice that I heard caught my attention.

A rich, deep voice began to tell the story of a community in the southeastern United States that was in the midst of a drought – the worst drought they’d seen in years. He recounted the fear and anxiety that the community was feeling. You see, it was planting season and the lack of rain had made the soil difficult to till, the seeds difficult to sow, and an abundant crop unlikely. As the hot, rainless days stretched into weeks, and the weeks threatened to turn into months, the community’s worry became frenzied. The pastor of a local church called a prayer meeting focused solely on asking the Lord to provide rain.

As I continued my drive to Annual Conference, the narrator explained that the pastor had gathered outside of the church with two of his trusted leaders before the meeting was set to begin. As the three chatted, they saw one of the oldest women in their congregation walking toward them. Her name, according to the smooth voice of the radio waves, was Mother Mary. On this hot, humid day, Mother Mary had arrived to the prayer meeting dressed in galoshes, a full-length raincoat, and a rain hat. While I don’t remember the exact wording of the narrator, here’s what happened in the rest of the story:

As Mother Mary walked up to the pastor and others, they expressed their happiness to see her, but asked what she was doing in galoshes, a full-length raincoat, and a rain hat on a 95-degree afternoon with not a single cloud in the sky. She looked incredulously at the pastor and responded, saying: “Why would I come here to pray that the Lord will bring rain if I don’t believe that the Lord will actually provide it?”

With that, the pastor led the group inside and as more folks arrived, the prayer became focused and fervent. As the prayers continued, the community began to hear drops of rain on the church roof. The drops became larger and fell faster, and the gathered neighbors rejoiced. After a time of celebration, people began to ready themselves to head home. It was then that they realized that only Mother Mary was ready for what had come after the drought because only Mother Mary trusted God to truly answer their prayers. 

Mother Mary’s actions matched her spoken and unspoken belief in the grace, faithfulness, mercy, and love of God. This, to me, is leadership in the Church. This to me is integrity in leadership. And, to me, when our actions – individually and collectively – match our spoken and unspoken belief in the grace, faithfulness, mercy, and love of God, we will withstand any social, economic, geographical, technological, or political environment that is present at any given time. Leadership in the church, for me, is not a question of the nature of our pressures, but the integrity with which we respond to them.

Now, I don’t know if you know this…but Americans like data. We love it. We believe that if we can gather enough information, categorize it correctly, and follow a checklist borne of the insights provided, that all problems can be solved. Every one. While it doesn’t always work out that way, we are still able to learn valuable lessons from the answers to our questions. In study after study – when asked what people look for most in a leader – integrity ranks near the top, or at the top, of every results sheet. And that makes sense, right? People want to know that they can trust their leaders. So what is integrity? I gave you the dictionary definition…but what does the Bible have to say about it? In Matthew 23: 1-39, Jesus provides some clarity:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. 

Matthew 23: 1-12

Jesus goes on in this sermon to chide the Pharisees for locking people out of heaven; swearing on gold and gifts alone; for tithing mint, dill, and cumin, while neglecting the weightier matters of justice and mercy; for attending to their outside appearances while ignoring their inward cleanliness of heart; and more. Jesus does not mince his words. 

As part of the Western Pennsylvania United Methodist Foundation’s Lay Leadership Academy, I received a book entitled Handbook to Leadership: Leadership in the Image of God. The first section of this book is a daily devotional series offering one reading per day, five days a week, for fifty-two weeks. Week 8, Day 4 offers the following insight into these verses from Matthew:

Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites seven times in this sermon (v. 13,14, 15, 23, 25, 27, and 29). His language reveals His anger. Notice that each verse that includes the word hypocrite begins with the words: “Woe to you.” In this passage, Jesus chided the Pharisees for saying one thing and doing another.

Integrity – which is the direct opposite quality of hypocrisy – is the quality that people want most to see in a leader. The Pharisees didn’t live up to that standard. When we talk about integrity today, we generally use other closely related terms such as ethics and morality. But a clear understanding of the concept of integrity requires clear thinking about all three words. Each has a distinct meaning. When properly used, they bring clarity to a crucial but often misunderstood leadership essential:

Ethics refers to a defined standard of right and wrong; good and evil. It’s what the Pharisees said they believed was right.

Morality is a lived standard of right and wrong, good and evil. It’s what the Pharisees actually did.

Integrity means “sound, complete, integrated.”

To the extent that a person’s ethic and morality are integrated (or put together in a unified whole), that person has integrity. To the extent that a person’s ethics and morality are not integrated, that person lacks integrity. Let’s look at it another way. If John tells you he will lie to you, he has low ethic. If he does business that way, he also has a low morality. John is unethical and immoral, but he has integrity because the morality is consistent with the ethic. If John claims to lie, but doesn’t lie, he is moral, but lacks integrity. Think about that. You can have a high or low ethic. You can be moral or immoral. But if you want to have integrity, you MUST choose your ethic and live to match it. Leaders should let prospective followers know what they are getting into.

A person who claims to be a Christian makes an ethical statement and has committed to a certain morality. For that person to have integrity, then, he or she must live by the biblical ethic. Jesus makes it clear that the worst choice is a hypocritical one.

(Boa, Buzzell, Perkins, p. 83-84)

Jesus makes it clear that the worst choice is a hypocritical one.

I had the opportunity to be a Page at the 2019 Special Called Session of General Conference earlier this year. Being a Page at General Conference is a lot like being a bartender – everyone knows you’re there, but they often forget that you can hear what they’re saying. 

As I mentioned before, I believe that the question of integrity in leadership is not a question of the pressures, but of how we respond to those pressures…and General Conference 2019 was a pressure cooker. As I wove between tables delivering voting machines; staffed the observation deck then ran down flights of stairs and along corridors delivering notes; and helped people find the places where they needed to be, the talk I heard and the actions I saw were not those of a people who were convinced of God’s faithfulness; the talk I heard and the actions I saw were of a people fearful of human folly.

We prayed. We sang songs of petition. We prayed some more. All throughout General Conference we prayed. All throughout General Conference we sang songs asking for the Holy Spirit to come. But both the mood of our General Conference and the words and actions that permeated people’s comings and goings were, to me, words of a people who didn’t expect God to actually deliver the rain. No one had shown up in their galoshes, full-length rain coat, and rain hat.  

This same fear was evident at Western Pennsylvania’s Annual Conference. “Us vs. Them” was almost immediately apparent. The scarcity mentality that shows up in droughts like the one Mother Mary and her community experienced reared its head in Section meetings. Everywhere I looked, and in so many of the conversations that came up, I saw and heard an attitude of “I know better than you do. I’m more faithful than you are.” 

In the days leading up to Annual Conference, individuals (clergy and laypersons alike) throughout our Conference undermined their own integrity by calling into question the faithfulness of others. The approach used in hopes to secure delegates was harmful to our proceedings, demoralizing to many, and in violation of our Discipline. Their integrity was damaged because their words (a demand to adhere to Discipline) and their actions (their own violation of it) did not match.

As we began the selection of our General Conference delegation, our Bishop reminded us of our own Conference rules about electing a delegation that reflects the diversity of our faith community. Almost immediately, a pastor asked whether our Conference Rule suggests that we should elect a group that reflects our diversity, or dictated that we must? What I heard was that this pastor wanted to know how much wiggle room there was in holding ourselves accountable to our own Conference rule. It was at this moment that I knew that we were in bigger trouble than I had imagined… 

The next day, our Bishop deemed a portion of our space Holy Ground – a place for persons to seek solace and strength in the midst of our turmoil. Almost immediately a young pastor moved to our Holy Ground and began to pray. Another pastor joined the first in an effort that no one would be alone in that space.

In conversation during our next break, the second pastor made a remark about how they felt moved by the Spirit to provide support to the young pastor, but that there were undoubtedly assumptions being made about what joining that young pastor said about this second pastor’s church-related political stance…and this pastor was right. I heard whispers asking that very thing on the way back to my seat.

I left Annual Conference asking myself so many questions: 

  • How do we encourage integrity from persons outside of our meetings and gatherings when we search for loopholes around our own rules within them?
  • How have we arrived at a time in our relationship with one another when seeking Holy Ground for ourselves, or joining persons who are already there, can be considered any “stance” other than a good one, a Holy one, a Christ-like one?
  • Why are we assigning ulterior motives to people who are acting out of Christian compassion and love?
  • When did we begin selectively seeing Christ only in those with whom we agree? 
  • Have we lost our faith that God is capable of making God’s will known…even through those with whom we vehemently disagree? Or those who don’t look like us? Or those who don’t speak like us? Or those who aren’t as far along their faith journey as we are? 
  • Do we believe that God has stopped speaking – that there is nothing left to be revealed?
  • Have we just stopped listening?
  • Or have we simply decided that we like the sound of our own voices more?

In our current contexts within the United Methodist Church, we are struggling with issues of integrity. What we say and what we do do not always match up. These struggles are being played out individual to individual, conference to conference, and in dramatic fashion across news media and social media forums. The world is watching. Potential disciples are watching. God is watching. So what do we do?

When trying to find an answer for this complex question, I remembered a quote from a book that the women’s book group at my church read some time ago: 

“God is God. And I am not.” 

It’s such a simple phrase, but in its simplicity is the reminder to approach our efforts of integrity in leadership with perspective: It is not our own integrity that we must rely on…it is the integrity of God that will see us through and shape us into the leaders that God desires us to be. The Handbook to Leadership once again offers some valuable insight for me. It reminds us that:

Even the most spiritually committed among us will blow it at one time or another. No matter how devoted or mature we are, we will find ourselves asking, “What do I do when I have violated my commitment to God and to my own integrity?” David demonstrates what a godly person does in the face of his own failure, and in Psalm 32 we find the Joy of Forgiveness:

“Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,

    whose sin is covered.

Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,

    and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

While I kept silence, my body wasted away

    through my groaning all day long.

For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;

    my strength was dried up[a] as by the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you,

    and I did not hide my iniquity;

I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”

   and you forgave the guilt of my sin.

Therefore let all who are faithful

    offer prayer to you;

at a time of distress,[b] the rush of mighty waters

    shall not reach them.

You are a hiding place for me;

    you preserve me from trouble;

    you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.

I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;

    I will counsel you with my eye upon you.

Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,

    whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,

    else it will not stay near you.

Many are the torments of the wicked,

    but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.

Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous,

    and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

God Himself referred to David as a man who walked with a heart of integrity, (1 Kings 9:4), fully devoted to God (11:4), and who followed the Lord completely (11:6). David’s psalms teach obedience to God. But how can the psalmist who sins be a model of integrity? David had integrity because he consistently held to the same standard. When he wrote about that standard, he meant it. When he violated it, he called it sin – he never glossed it over, made excuses, or took it lightly. Psalms 32, 40, and 51 reveal that David’s sin broke his heart. He pleaded forgiveness. He took his lumps. He learned and grew. 

Does that excuse David’s sin? No! Does David’s story give today’s leaders permission to sin? Absolutely not. But integrity doesn’t demand perfection, either. Even the most morally committed people blow it. Integrity doesn’t guarantee a perfect life, but it does require an integrated life. People with integrity have a moral center that integrates their behavior. When they violate that moral center, they recognize that violation as sin and treat it as an aberration. They confess it, make restitution, seek forgiveness, and reconfirm the standard.

David would be scandalized if he were to learn that people were using his failure to justify their own sin. His prayers of repentance show leaders what to do when they violate their commitment to God’s standards and want to reestablish their integrity.

(Boa, Buzzell, Perkins, p. 91-92)

John Wesley assures us that even when we mess up, even when we fail to be leaders with integrity…“God is so great that He communicates greatness to the least thing that is done for His service.” But Wesley also warns us that “as the most dangerous winds may enter at little openings, so the devil never enters more dangerously than by little unobserved incidents, which seem to be nothing, yet insensibly open the heart to great temptation.” We must take our dedication to living with integrity seriously. We must hold ourselves accountable. When we fail – and we WILL fail – we must confess our failure, make restitution, seek forgiveness, and reconfirm the standard to which we are called to live.

Our societal environments are rapidly changing, and in the midst of those changes it can be easy to become overwhelmed or stray off course. As people of faith, we will find our best practices for living with integrity not amidst the ever-changing nature of human constructs, but by understanding and assimilating the ever-present integrity of God into our personal character. This process is not a quick or easy one, but must be approached with the dedication and patience of mining for gold or silver. We must use the right tools and ask for God’s help as we seek to live our lives with integrity. As we grow in integrity, we will grow in our ability to lead. 

The Gospel accounts only record Jesus speaking directly to the topic of leadership a few times. Two of those incidents contain non-negotiable teaching about His view of leading and they set a tone for the rest of the Bible’s emphases on the subject.

After Jesus appointed the twelve apostles, He told them what He required of those who aspired for leadership. He said that the essential qualification for leading was the leaders’ spiritual/moral depth. In Luke 6:45, Jesus reveals “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good and the evil person out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil. For his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart”. Jesus’ first teaching on leadership to His apostles was that their character mattered most.

(Boa, Buzzell, Perkins, p. 2-3)

In study after study asking what people value most from their leaders, this observation continues to be true.

A second time Jesus spoke directly about leading was near the end of His time on earth. The twelve apostles were debating who would be the greatest leader among them. Jesus stopped their dispute about which of them was greatest with His teaching on Servant Leadership. He pointed out that the Gentiles led by lording it over their followers and exercising authority over them. Then He said, “It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave” (Matt. 20: 26-27). The leader’s job, as Jesus went on to demonstrate, is to help their followers. Leaders who serve their followers by equipping them to be the best they can possibly be are leading the way Jesus intended. To drive His point deep into a leader’s soul, Jesus closed this teaching by reminding us that, “even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.” With those words He defined what servant leaders do by reminding us of the difference His life and death has made to us. Those who follow Jesus’ teaching and live in a personal relationship with Him are made into better people than they could ever have become without His leadership.

(Boa, Buzzell, Perkins, p. 2-3)

When we practice what we teach, we are leading as God calls us to lead. When we hold ourselves accountable to the rules that God has set for us, and those we have set for ourselves, we lead with integrity. When we confess our failures and take immediate action to realign our course with God’s path, we earn the trust of those we are called to lead and to serve. When we acknowledge that leadership with integrity is not possible through our individual efforts alone, but rather through an intentional partnership with each other and a reliance on God, we are enabled to make disciples. When we make disciples for Jesus Christ, we transform the world. 


Three candles, and one light. Aspects I understand, and aspects I don’t quite have figured out yet. Galoshes, a full-length raincoat, and a rain hat. Human constructs that fail, and a God who never does….

John Wesley said “He who governed the world before I was born shall take care of it likewise when I am dead. My part is to improve the present moment.” As we live and grow in our leadership, as we foster our relationships with one another, and as we better understand the wholeness that comes from living into the integrity of God, I am confident that no matter what state the world is in, United Methodists will continue to be a people with hope for tomorrow, and a people who lead others to the promise of that day.

Reference List:

Boa, Kenneth, et al. Handbook to Leadership: Leadership in the Image of God. Trinity House Publishers, 2007.

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