A Crisis of Character: The Need for Leaders of Integrity

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Leaders today must be honest in their business dealings, generous with their money, and true to their words.

Many years ago, author William Martin wrote the authorized biography of Billy Graham entitled, A Prophet With Honor. Throughout the almost 800 page book, he recounts numerous conversations with the famed preacher who perhaps touched more souls than any other in the last century. Toward the end Martin sat down with Dr. Graham to ask him one question, which he had purposely saved for last:

What one word would you like people of future generations to use when they characterize your life and your ministry?

Martin said he purposely saved this question for last and the striking gravity of the question explains why. He reports that the great preacher thought only for a moment before responding with a nugget of wisdom:

“Snapping his head slightly as if to lock into position to fire precisely at a key-target, he thrust out his jaw and said, “Integrity! That is what I have worked for all my life: Integrity.”

If Graham could choose one thing that would memorably mark his ministry, he says it would not be crowds or converts, but integrity. Yet one must wonder how many leaders today desire the same thing. If we could choose what might mark our lives, what would we choose? Influence? Legacy? Or the little rewarded, but always noticed, character quality of integrity?

We are experiencing a crisis of integrity that is drenched in corporate and political scandals and set to the soundtrack of bootlegged music. Our world in the last decade has been especially riddled with lies from Madoff to Abramoff, from Enron to Goldman Sachs.

It’s easy to cast stones at such failures, but we need to do the hard work of analyzing those trends that are fueling the breakdown of integrity in culture. What is causing us to compromise the characteristic that Graham feels is supremely important? Culturally speaking, there are at least three trends at work here.

THE ROOTS OF OUR DUPLICITY

Pragmatism. According to the New York Times, America leads the world in workplace productivity. But we didn’t get there by accident. In the 20th Century, American thinkers like John Dewey, Charles Peirce, and William James began developing an influential way of thinking known as pragmatism. This paradigm, now an earmark of American culture, seeks to make decisions based on something’s usefulness and ability to deliver the desired result. From the church growth movement to metrics-obsessed managers, pragmatism continues to bear down on us.

The problem with this way of thinking is that it assumes that what works is right or best. For example, I know a church that offered expensive gift cards to members who brought first time visitors. By essentially paying people to bring their friends to church that day, this congregation hit record high attendance, but one might argue that they lost much more. But by valuing the goals over the means, we open ourselves up to decisions that might compromise our character.

Declining Creativity. A recent Newsweek cover story declared, “For the first time, research shows that American creativity is declining.” According to the Torrence test of our nations “creative quotient,” our creativity has been falling for the last 20 years. The effects of the decline are visible. Marketplace brands are virtually indistinguishable from each other, and children regularly rely on prepackaged video game experiences rather than employing their imaginations.

To keep up with every one else in this environment, we are tempted to steal others' ideas rather than tap into our own. A great example is the American church. If you walk into many churches today, their striking similarities will make you feel like they are all nothing more than an emulation of some invisible standard. The sermon series is usually a rip-off of the latest summer blockbuster movie, grungy fonts besiege you from all directions, and the pastor has clearly plagiarized half his sermon. Trapped in a creative vacuum and desperately wanting to produce results, we often produce the desired facade at the expense of our character.

Image Obsession. Any public relations firm can tell you that perception is everything today. If you don’t maintain the right image, your brand can falter and next thing you know, you’re looking for a job. But for Christians, image isn’t everything. We must be careful not to sacrifice our integrity on image’s alter.

A great example of what not to do is the Catholic church’s handling of the sex abuse scandal. Concerned with their image and the way the church might be perceived, some in the church responded to allegations of sexual misconduct by ignoring them, silencing them, or making them go away. Even as reports of incidents reached as high as 800 in one year, priests were quietly transferred and victims were paid off. In the end, the cover-up did more to tarnish their image and compromise their integrity than doing the right thing from the start.

NOTHING TO HIDE

In the face of such cultural trends, Scripture speaks powerfully. Again and again, its pages remind us that we need to maintain integrity despite the changes around us or the fallout will be great. In 1 Kings 9:4-5, God told the future King Solomon, “As for you, if you walk before me faithfully with integrity of heart and uprightness, as David your father did, and do all I command and observe my decrees and laws, I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father when I said, 'You shall never fail to have a successor on the throne of Israel.'" (TNIV)

Though Solomon arguably forgot this command from time to time, the King went on to write in the book of Proverbs that integrity was the key to making sound decisions. “The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity.” (Proverbs 11:3, TNIV)
Unfortunately, the Western Church in the last century hasn’t always been a shining beacon of integrity. Each one of us can conjure up images of the teary-eyed televangelists and damning headlines, which continue to foster religious skepticism among non-Christians.

So on the one hand, we have several cultural trends pushing us to compromise our character; on the other hand, we have religious skepticism bearing down upon us and waiting for us to mess up. In such a moment, is there any characteristic more important than integrity?

When institutional distrust and religious skepticism reign, we have the choice to either hold fast to integrity or be destroyed by duplicity. If others put a tail on us, hide in our closets, or investigate our tax returns, they must find us in good standing. Leaders today must be honest in our business dealings, generous with our money, and true to our words. Like Graham, may we live the type of lives that future generations would survey our legacies and find them marked by unquestionable integrity.

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