The Matter of Integrity

One Sunday I preached a message on how Christians need to stop playing hide-and-seek, how they need to be vulnerable with one another. It was a challenging sermon with stirring stories and convicting applications. I was feeling pretty good about my performance until I got home that afternoon, when my wife confronted me.

"You don't practice what you preach," she said. "You are not open with others and with me. You are always guarded, only revealing what you want people to know. In reality you are tighter than a steel drum."

I had been caught, and I knew it.

Ministers live in a world of tension. We must balance our message with our behavior. Yet sometimes the two don't match.

Granted we can hide our weaknesses and failures from many of our church members. But often we cannot fool our spouses or our children. They watch our lives, seeing the discrepancies and shortcomings.

The issue at hand is integrity. Integrity presents a life of consistency and sincerity, with no deception or pretense. Integrity's overriding quality is wholeness: There is no discrepancy between what people of integrity appear to be in public and what they are in private. For ministers specifically, integrity means we live according to what we say we believe, according to the Scriptures. People with integrity have nothing to hide and nothing to fear. Their lives are an open book.

Integrity is not reputation (what others think of us) or success (what one has accomplished). Nor is integrity something we have; it is something we are that inevitably shows itself in what we do.

Politicians aren't the only ones a cynical world disbelieves. At one time a minister was the epitome of integrity. But in the last few years with churches and ministries rocked by moral scandals, ministers have been subject to skepticism and questions about integrity. Leadership requires two ingredients: competence and character. If you can only pick one, choose character. It is everything. Repeated surveys of churches' expectations of their pastors would agree. These surveys consistently place spiritual integrity at the top.

The old adage is true: Our walk must match our talk. That is what my wife pointed out to me after my sermon on vulnerability. To be honest, I have caught myself in other lies. I exhort others to have a daily quiet time, but some weeks I struggle to find the time. I challenge others to share their faith in a personal way, but I can go stretches without talking to one single person about his or her relationship with God. A friend once told me, "I respect that leader's abilities, but I don't want to be like him." That is sad.

Albert Schweitzer, legendary missionary doctor to Africa, once said, "Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing." And part of integrity is admitting that we struggle and fall. Some of the most positive remarks I receive from people following a message come when I confess mistakes. Granted I don't hang all my dirty laundry out each Sunday, but when I do share appropriately about my struggles, I acknowledge that I am a fellow struggler, and many can readily identify with me. That is freeing.

Some politicians seek to separate private life from public behavior. Yet while politicians try to get away with it, ministers cannot. The minister is the message. The two are synonymous. They are integrally connected. When Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Every great institution is the lengthened shadow of a single man. His character determines the character of the organization," he spoke more truly about ministers than about any other leaders.

Clyde McDowell became president of Denver Seminary after 12 years in one pastorate. Upon his leaving, one of the elders of his church said to him, "Clyde, don't get me wrong. Though I think you are a good preacher, I really don't remember a lot of what you have said from the pulpit. But I'll never forget what you are."

Without such consistency, we will succumb to the whim of the moment or the dictates of the majority. And our ministry will suffer. Effective ministry flows out of being. John Maxwell wrote in his book Developing the Leader Within You, "A charismatic personality will draw people; only integrity will keep them." He's right.

I have pastored the same church more than 13 years. One day I ate lunch with a long-standing and well-respected member, one whose counsel I trust. He had witnessed the steady growth, the development of need-meeting ministries and the effectiveness of our church's overall strategy to reach people. And he mused as to why it all had happened.

He said, "Rick, while there are many factors that attribute to the growth and health of our church, I think that at the heart of it is that you have been here for a long time. People know you and trust you, and they will follow you. You are a man of your word." I was both honored and humbled, knowing my lapses in maintaining consistent integrity.

For the sake of our ministries, our families and our very lives, integrity is required. In fact, we must put it right up there with spiritual health, family priorities and personal development.

Speaking to a world conference of national evangelists, Billy Graham, declared that our world is looking for men and women of integrity. Several months later in an interview, he said he would be content with a simple epitaph for his life and ministry: "A sinner saved by grace; a man who, like the psalmist, walked in his integrity. I'd like people to remember that I had integrity."

So would I.

Article copyright © 2003, William Richard Ezell.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
Used by permission.

William Richard Ezell pastors Naperville Baptist Church
in Naperville, Ill.