Grief: Piece by Piece

Christmas trees are better in threes!

My favorite part about Christmas is the Christmas tree.

My favorite Christmas memories are tied to the process and people involved in decorating our family trees each year.

Every year growing up, I was lucky enough to decorate one tree at my house with my parents and siblings, and then go out to my grandparents’ house (they lived one house behind us) and decorate their tree with them. Even before Brian and I got married, he hiked with me through dry fields, muddy tractor trails, and knee-high snow to pick out not THE perfect tree, but the perfect TREES! In the years since, we have made memories that I will always cherish while decorating our own trees, and during that process, we often also have the opportunity to pay homage to the memories of the past.

One of the things that I remember the most about family tree decorating is singing along to the John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together album – from vinyl record, to cassette, to CD. The first song on the album is The Twelve Days of Christmas, and not only did every member of my family mimic the voices of each character who sings, but when we got to FFFIIIIIIVEEEE GOOOLLLDDD RIIINNNNNGSSSS we sung it at the top of our lungs. Between the 5th Day of Christmas and the 9th, we anxiously awaited our opportunity to add a hearty “badum-bum-bum” to our count of gold rings. From the youngest amongst us to the oldest, this song and this album always brought lots of goofy singing and laughter to the decorating process.

In true Muppet fashion, their album brings delight to little ones. But they also tackle broader issues that resonate in the hearts of the adults in the room. As a child, I always loved that my sister and mom (both altos) broke into harmony while my dad’s tenor carried the melody throughout, and being young, my brother and I always sang along with him. While singing along merrily, I never really understood why my mom would turn serious and sometimes shed a tear while singing The Peace Carol, When the River Meets the Sea, or Noel: Christmas Eve 1913. Decorating the Christmas tree is a happy time for happy people! There’s no crying in tree decorating! Didn’t she know the rules?

Well, as a 37-year old with some life experience and some loss experience under my belt, I understand better the source of her tears. The songs that occasionally brought a tear to my mom’s eye touch my heart all these years later. They speak to difficulties, injustices, and our desperate need for love to shine in the darkness of our world, so that if you listen closely, you can’t help but take their plea to heart. In understanding the source of my mom’s tears all those years ago, I also better understand the joy that she was intentional about finding and creating in all that she did – especially during the Christmas season.

The joy, love, and laughter that was always present as we decorated is the reason why the Christmas tree, and the people around it, are my favorite memories, rather than the gifts that would eventually end up under it. To this day, whenever Brian and I attend a Christmas party, go on a drive to see Christmas lights, or are somewhere shopping, the Christmas trees always catch my attention first and warm my heart. While that’s all still true, on December 8, 2015, my mom died after an eleven year battle with cancer, and that year’s Christmas tree was the first in a new reality.

Let me back up a bit…

Up until November of 2015, through all of her surgeries and chemo treatments, mom had always been incredibly mobile and was able to determine how and when she did everything. But in the weeks leading up to my mom’s death, we faced new and terrifying realities every day. After tumors were found on my mom’s spine, her condition deteriorated rapidly. She began losing the ability to move her legs on her own, and when they moved – through her own power or with the assistance of others – the pain she experienced was immediate and overwhelming. Everything about anything changed.

As soon as my mom was placed in hospice care, the Red Cross was contacted to initiate the process of bringing my brother home from Afghanistan. My bosses at Northwest Bank were incredible in allowing me to immediately take my remaining vacation until the Family and Medical Leave Act was initiated to protect my job while I helped care for my mom. My brother was home within a few days, and our whole family and many of our family friends rallied to make sure that everything that could be being done…was. When it was apparent that mom would need to remain downstairs and comfortable as her mobility deteriorated, a hospital bed was brought in to make that possible. Brian and I brought our truck out to my parents’ house so that we could move their dining room table to our basement for the duration of mom’s battle. Doing so was a simple physical act, but it ended up being an incredibly symbolic one, too.

As we took the dining room table apart, my mind immediately went to memories of family dinners, gross out nights, craft projects, and game nights. Dinner in our family was always served at the dinner table. When someone needed help with homework, it happened at the dinner table. Puzzles – literal and figurative ones – were solved at that table. Some of our most important family conversations happened there, as did some of our funniest. So much of who we were as a family was nurtured and developed around that simple slice of maple, and as we loaded it into the bed of the truck, I remember thinking that everything I knew about our family’s reality was about to be taken apart piece by piece, too.

Two days after my mom died, Brian and I went Christmas tree shopping with my brother, sister-in-law, and their boys. We had so much fun watching two-year-old Wyatt determining which tree was the best. His opinion changed as quickly as his big blue eyes could scan the field. Finally, after much deliberation, a handsome, seven-foot tall Douglas Fir was chosen for my sister-in-law’s parent’s family room, while a much smaller, not-quite-Charlie-Brown tree was chosen by Wyatt for their front porch. Wyatt’s joy was infectious and I was excited to pick out our tree(s) next.

After Brandon, Liz, and the boys paid for their trees and made their way to lunch and nap time, Brian and I looked for our trees. Without the exuberance of a cute smallish person, the Christmas tree farm became unnervingly desolate and quiet. Every other year when we’ve gone tree shopping, I have longed for solitude – I wanted the run of the place so that no one else had a shot at my perfect trees. That year, all I wanted was the noise of the crowd and the excitement of the upcoming holiday to surround me. What I got instead was the whisper of the icy wind.

Brian and I spread out looking for our perfect fir tree – spruces are too prickly and cedars are too flimsy. While I was walking my row alone, the wind picked up and stirred the woods. Tears sprang to my eyes. With the rustle of branches and blast of arctic air, I acknowledged for the first time that my mom wouldn’t be waiting at home to lay witness to the perfect trees. My knees buckled and my chest grew tight. For the first time ever, I didn’t really care about Christmas trees, or even Christmas in general for that matter.

Our trees sat in our garage for the next few days drying off and letting their limbs down after being wrapped for their journey home. I was in no hurry to bring them inside. My emotional well-being was safer with them in the garage. I could visit them if I was feeling festive, but while they sat in the garage there was no pressure to observe tree-decorating traditions. If I wasn’t observing tree-decorating traditions, I didn’t have to observe the absence of so many of their origin.

A few days after mom’s funeral and a few days before Christmas, I finally decided that it was time to suck it up and decorate. Furniture was rearranged, trees came in, and decorations came out of hiding. I connected my phone to a set of speakers, turned on John Denver and the Muppets, found (and untangled) the first string of lights, and I set to work. By the time I had gotten the lights untangled, plugged in, and had begun weaving the lights into the branches, The Peace Carol‘s opening lyrics poured into the room…

“The garment of life be it tattered and torn..”

I started sobbing. I sat down on the floor, buried my head in my hands, and was overwhelmed with grief. When the tears began to subside and I was able to catch my breath, I stood up, balled the lights up haphazardly, stuck them in the tree, and walked away. That’s how everything stayed for the rest of 2015: one tree completely barren; one with a tangled string of lights discarded within its branches. It was such a sad state of affairs, but so was the Christmas season for me that year. There were occasions when I walked past the tree and felt nothing but sadness. A few times I felt bitter. Sometimes nothing. I did end up plugging in that lonely line of lights on two separate occasions – a nod to the persistence of a season that I just wanted to be over.

The following year, we went tree shopping again. I was determined to feel the joy of Christmas. Brian and I spread out, found five trees to bring home with us, and after a few drying days, we began to set them up. While decorating that night, I played all of the songs that my family had always decorated ours trees to. There were a lot that made me smile and several that made me cry. With no smallish children running around bursting with Christmas joy, the sorrow of mom’s absence tugged at my heart a little harder when her favorite songs would play. But when I was done, the whole tree had lights and the decorations were all hung.

As I decorated, each ornament was placed more deliberately than in past years. I took the time to remember the stories and moments that are tied to each little snowman, frog, black lab, or Santa ornament. I missed my mom terribly as I decorated and it was a lot of the little things that were the hardest. But by acknowledging my sadness while decorating, I was more attentive to the love and memories that are a part of my fondness for Christmas trees and the joy with which they fill a room (or two if you live in my house.) My 2016 moments of grief weren’t necessarily easier, but they didn’t stop me in my festive tracks that year either. I was happy to take this step forward.

In late November of 2017, I began a new job working for the United Methodist Church. Because of the time of year, I hit the ground running helping to prepare for the Advent season. All of a sudden, my entire working day was devoted to preparing for Christmas. There was a lot of decorating, Christmas music galore, worship prep and practice, and the totality of it consumed my festive energy and emotion. When it was time for Brian and I to talk about Christmas trees of our own, I just didn’t have it in me. Brian understood and didn’t bat an eye before saying “okay” as he pulled me in for a hug.

The decorations stayed tucked away.

There was no John Denver and the Muppets.

Our house looked devoid of any Christmas spirit.

And that was okay…

2018 was the same. My festive energies were expended preparing the church for Christmas, and I had nothing in reserve with which to face decorating traditions at home. Brian understood, said “okay”, and pulled me into a hug. We celebrated Christmas in other places and found tremendous joy in the season, but our home remained a space to acknowledge what was missing.

This year, when Brian has asked me if I wanted to go Christmas tree shopping, I have been non-committal. I want to, but I don’t. He lets me vacillate. Throughout this Advent season, I have expended tons of festive energy preparing the church once again, but this year I find myself with a little festivity left over. I’ve listened to carols (included John Denver and the Muppets) while going about my days. I have a few decorations out in our house. I wrote (a limited number of) Christmas cards for the first time in forever. And I don’t dread any of our family traditions. There’s still no tree, but that’s okay.

What I’ve learned over the last few years is that grief isn’t linear. In 2015, I was a wreck when facing our family’s Christmas traditions without my mom. In 2016, I made a massive step forward and not only decorated our own trees, but had a blast helping two of my incredibly cute nephews decorate my dad’s Christmas tree. A few tears were shed as the Muppets sang, but my nephews’ joy spread throughout the room and the season. In 2017 and 2018, I was able to enjoy the festivities that occurred elsewhere, but didn’t have the emotional energy to tackle traditions at home. In 2019, some of the season’s light is reappearing in our home. Brian’s patience and understanding have been remarkable as I have navigated my walk through the grief process – I couldn’t have made it this far without him.

As I write this, so many of our family’s Christmas traditions are alive and well.

Others have changed.

A few ended when my mom’s life did.

Several months after my mom died, Brian and I loaded the family dinner table back into our truck, returned it to my parents’ house, and set it back up for use. In the years since, many family dinners have been enjoyed around it, game nights have been held, puzzles completed, and the imagination of my four nephews has materialized right before our eyes. Those incredible boys, who each embody so many of the best parts of who my mom was, bring life and love into every room and every tradition we observe. The hope, peace, joy, and love of this season has remained through the most difficult times and carried us forward into new realities.

In a few days, we’ll all be around the dining room table together, and it’s a pretty incredible gift to realize that so much of who we are becoming as a family will be nurtured and developed around that simple slice of maple. My mom may not be physically present at the table anymore, but she is there in every other imaginable way. As we look to celebrate Christmas, everything I know about our family’s reality is being assembled anew…

…piece by piece.

The “C” Word…

Ten years ago, I sat in the waiting room at the Cleveland Clinic while my mom underwent the longest and most arduous surgery that she had faced in her five-year battle with colon cancer.

Six years and 109 days later, my mom’s battle with cancer ended.

At 12:00 a.m. this morning, Facebook Memories reminded me of what occurred so many years ago today.

Ten years!!!

On one hand it feels like ten minutes ago, and on the other it seems like an eternity. But I remember that day.

My mom was scheduled for a ten-hour surgery that would involve at least twelve surgeons. Her cancer was so widespread that the only reason they were even willing to attempt anything was because a new chemotherapy “wash” that the Cleveland Clinic had had in trial phase had been approved by the FDA that summer. It was the only treatment that had any shot at making a difference, and they were determined to at least try.

It had only been a few weeks since some of us had been at the Clinic. In July, when blood tests revealed an abnormality but scans had not shown tumors, the surgeon who had performed her prior tests, treatments, and surgeries opted for exploratory surgery just to make sure nothing was wrong. It turned out that everything was wrong.

My mom had cancer in her colon, all over her abdominal cavity walls, and on many of her vital organs. There was so much cancer that the surgery that they had hoped was just exploratory, or at most a simple procedure to remove one or two tumors, was aborted to brainstorm how to move forward, and to schedule the surgeons required. They would try again on August 21st.

When we arrived in Cleveland the night before mom’s surgery, we spent our time enjoying each other’s presence and doing our best to ignore the elephant in the room. My siblings were in from North Carolina and Pittsburgh, and having no idea what we would face the next day, we enjoyed the evening as much as possible. At some point, we went down to the hotel pool in an attempt to kill some time. The pool water was cold, but there were people in the nearby hot tub. We wanted to get into the hot tub and my siblings were annoyed when the people in it occupied it for a great span of time with no consideration for anyone else. I remember being so irritated with them for being so irritated about something so inconsequential! Mom’s body was overrun with cancer and this surgery was our only hope. Who cared how cold the pool was or how long the hot tub hoarders stayed? Tomorrow was what everyone should have been worried about.

Well, tomorrow finally arrived and my family made our way to the Cleveland Clinic. Mom’s surgery was scheduled early since it was slated to take so long and require so many people. My family and I sat with my mom until she was called back to be prepped, and then the waiting game began. It’s funny what you remember in the midst of trying times…

I remember that we had a large group, so finding space in the waiting area was difficult.

I remember that at the time, the Cleveland Clinic provided families with a pager that allowed the surgical team to send updates as things progressed. That pager seemed like a hot potato in the children’s game – everyone touched it, but everyone was afraid to be caught with it when the timer went off. What if the message it transmitted hinted at something bad? Who would be the one to know first and have to share the news?

I remember that when we went to sit on the lower floor because there was more space, the particular area that we ended up in had a water feature. It was meant to soothe. It ended up irritating me because it had been a rainy summer at home that year, and the water feature sounded like a downpour. I didn’t want the dreariness of a rainy day clouding my mood in the waiting room on surgery day. I wanted to remain hopeful.

I remember that at different parts of the day, my family drifted in and out of the hospital. No one went real far, but they couldn’t just sit and wait. I couldn’t do anything but sit and wait. I had brought several books with me, had a list of people that I was entrusted to update throughout the day, and I just couldn’t make myself walk out of the waiting room even though I desperately wanted to be anywhere else.

I remember people watching.

I remember witnessing moments of incredible emotional intimacy play out in the midst of anxious chaos.

I remember seeing the relief on people’s faces when they received the page that their loved one’s surgery was coming to an end.

I remember waiting.

And wondering.

And staring at the pager.

And hoping.

And waiting.

And fearing.

And staring at the pager.

And waiting.

And praying.

And reflecting.

As I managed my stress that day (I got mad at my coffee cup), and observed other people – complete strangers – manage their own, I remember knowing that the irritation I had felt toward my siblings the night before had been unfair. They were anxious, too, and their frustration had been placed at the steps of an occupied hot tub. It wasn’t about the people or the hot tub. It was about wanting to be able to affect an outcome; to be in control when we were overwhelmed by a situation in which we had none.

As I reflect today, I am astonished by the events that led us to that day and the events that would come after. Mom’s recovery was long and painful; her surgery had been all-encompassing and took a toll on her body. My mom had been through a lot in the prior five years since her original Stage 4 diagnosis (including a diagnosis of, and treatment for breast cancer), but this was the first time that mom showed signs of battle fatigue. As usual, though, Mom handled it with incredible patience, grace, and humor, and she was back to normal in a remarkably short period of time. If you had met her, you’d never had known that she was fighting a terminal illness.

Looking back, I know that the five years that led us to August 21, 2009, helped prepare us for the years ahead. The waiting, and wondering, and fearing, and hoping of that day ten years ago prepared us for the unknowns that accompanied the diagnoses that were yet to come. Waiting rooms and treatment facilities became familiar territory as mom underwent a total of more than one-hundred rounds of chemotherapy…with a few radiation treatments and clinical trials thrown in, too. While the ten+ hours of waiting that day seemed excruciatingly slow, the three weeks of transitioning to death that happened late in 2015 seemed to happen in a split second. Through all of it, though, three things stood out: We had mom. We had each other. And we had faith.

A little over a year ago, I wrote the following:

God didn’t give my mom cancer. God didn’t choose to not cure my mom. God didn’t choose to not answer the prayers of all of those who desperately wanted my mom to live. God didn’t. Cancer did.

Cancer happens. Life happens. Tragedy, illness, and heartache happen. God doesn’t cause it. Ever. God sees us through.

My mom had cancer…not because God decided to smite my mom for some sin or misstep, but because cells in her body multiplied too quickly and tumors formed. Cancer spread…not because God thought my mom deserved to suffer, but because cancer is; cancer does.

Through every single moment of her cancer, my mom believed in God, trusted God, thanked God. Not because she thought God would cure her…but because she believed that God gave her the strength to find the good in every single day that she didn’t have cancer, and every single day that she did.

My mom was first diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer in 2004. It should have been the end, but she had eleven incredible years after her diagnosis. She got to see her kids get married. She got to see her kids start families. She got to meet every single grandson born into our family. She got to teach after she retired from teaching, and she retired early because she had a cancer fight to fight.

She lived to see my brother come home from Afghanistan after she was placed in Hospice care, and she died the day he turned 30. That might sound awful to you, but we actually got to celebrate my brother’s birthday because we weren’t worried about the deteriorating status of my mom. She couldn’t give him a gift that day, but she ended up giving us all a gift. We celebrated life that day instead of fearing her death.

Life happens. Illness happens. Death happens. Things we can’t control happen. The God that my mom believed in, and taught me to believe in, doesn’t cause them…but God does see us through.


And God continues to do just that…as does my family.

It’s been ten years since my mom’s massive surgery. It’s been just shy of fifteen years since her original diagnosis. It’s been almost four years since she died. As I look back at all of the days between then (the many “then”s which we experienced) and now, I don’t see cancer anymore. I see a brief part in the continuing story of a remarkable family. Cancer may have facilitated the end of my mom’s life, but it in no way defined it. Her life was defined by love. Always love.

My mom loved life, she loved and was loved by her family, and she loved and was loved by God. Those days were full of cancer and all of its messiness, of course…but they were also filled with courage, laughter, friendship, hope, victories, celebrations, tears, fears, hope, patience, kindness, compassion, and strength. But most of all, love.

On this tenth anniversary of one of my scariest days, I am so thankful for the lessons that my mom taught – in life, through her illness, and in the way that she died – and all of the lessons that I’m still learning along the way. I’m thankful that I have reached a place where the realities of cancer no longer provide the lens through which I re-view the stories and life moments that happened between 2004-2015. I would give anything for my nephews to have had more time with my mom, but I look forward to the stories that I can tell them of her strength, grace, humor, and courage – the true scope of which I would never have fully understood had it not been for the battle she fought.

At the end of this day ten years ago, I was so thankful that my mom was alive. At the beginning of this day, I am so thankful that she lived. As I look toward tomorrow, I do so knowing that I can’t stop what’s coming – good or bad – but it’s still up to me to choose how I will respond. I’m grateful to have had such an incredible example.

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.