During the course of over twenty-five years of involvement in ministry I have had the privilege of knowing and working with many church leaders who sincerely loved God and His people, and who served them with integrity.
I have, however, also known and worked with a small number of leaders who lacked such sincerity and integrity. From observing the skills and methods used by these errant leaders, I have learned valuable lessons I believe have helped me to recognize the same tendencies in myself at the earliest stages and to thus avoid a complete fall. They have also helped me to make wiser choices regarding what ministers and ministries I involve myself with.
In most of the cases I have observed the first and most dominant character flaw that others uncover in these leaders is dishonesty. Lying is particularly tempting to leaders because they are in a position of authority that often makes it easy for them to lie without getting caught. Usually, the most easily detected lies these leaders tell are exaggerations of their ministry results, and misrepresentations of their spiritual lives and work habits. The leader who feels comfortable repeatedly lying to the church about such things frequently proves to be unreliable and deceptive in his or her dealings with church finances, and corrupt in other areas of his or her personal morals.
The rewards lying brings such leaders reinforces the practice and their lying can become habitual. I believe that such lying is a serious sin in itself (see Acts 5:1-11) and that the modern church has often treated it too trivially. 1 Lying leaders inevitably hurt other Christians, bring reproach upon the Gospel, and bring both temporal and eternal harm to themselves. In an effort to possibly prevent some of this harm occurring in the future I share in this article three major lessons (each followed by a number of observations) I have learned from my exposure to lying leaders.
Lying leaders need facilitators
- Lying leaders need facilitators. There must be others who lend credibility to the leader’s lies.
- The most important facilitator is the leader’s spouse. The spouse is the one who best knows the leader and if he or she vouches for the leader’s honest character others will tend to believe the spouse’s testimony. Consequently, an abusive or lying leader must have a complicit spouse who adopts the mentality and methods of the leader. Since spouses share in the glory or the shame surrounding the leader, it is in their own best interest to share in the dishonest traits that most enhance the couple’s position, income, and reputation. This spousal complicity seems to be surprisingly common. The Ananias and Sapphira phenomenon has been repeated many times.
- The lying leader must develop a loyal stable of trusting undershepherds who support the leader and who report to the leader any signs of mistrust among the congregation. The proximity of the undershepherds to the leader lends credibility to their support of him. Followers reason that those who are closer to the leader than they are would know if something were wrong and the unanimous front projected by the undershepherds provides a powerful and intimidating testimony to the leader’s character that most individual followers find impossible to question.
By using these undershepherds as spies who report any mistrust or “disloyalty,” the leader is able to ensure that only implicitly trusting devotees are promoted to leadership positions in the church. The leader maintains the undershepherds’ unquestioning loyalty by making each one feel like a special and exalted part of the group, and to therefore tie the undershepherds’ ego gratification inextricably into the group’s opinion of the leader who has chosen them. Additionally, the leader will so demonize past undershepherds who were “disloyal” that the current undershepherds will be either afraid to think for themselves or, if all else fails, intimidated into leaving quietly.
- Other prominent leaders outside of the group can unwittingly serve as facilitators. These other leaders may be men and women of integrity who are unaware of the liar’s character defects. These leaders’ friendship with the liar will appear to be a public endorsement of the liar which most followers will not feel qualified to disagree with.
- The liar’s credibility increases as the size and status of his or her church or organization grows. A herd mentality overtakes an excited or growing group to such an extent that individual herd members believe and accept things they never would have had they remained outside of the group. Thus, the dynamics of the group itself act as a validating force for the leader.
- Lying leaders will usually claim that any genuine activity of the Holy Spirit done through their ministry is God’s personal endorsement of their character. Followers often find it difficult to separate the source from the vessel of God’s expressions of grace. This is so in spite of the biblical examples of God’s using Balaam (Num 22-24) and Saul (1 Sam 10:10-11, 19:23-24), and His outpouring of spiritual gifts in the deeply flawed Corinthian (1 Co 1:7) and Galatian (Gal 5:5) churches. Jesus said, “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Mt 7:22-23 NIV) Clearly, God’s gracious activity is not necessarily an endorsement of the teachings or practices of the vessel used. The lying leader’s effort to use God’s gracious blessings as an endorsement of their character is an attempt to make the Holy Spirit a facilitator of their lies.
Effective lying leaders have a charming and forceful personality that they use to their advantage.
- Effective lying leaders have a charming and forceful personality that they use to their advantage.
- A lying leader has to have the right skills and personality traits to win the affection of followers and fend off “attacks” (the surfacing of unflattering truths about the leader). Like an unscrupulous salesman, the lying leader must first of all be charming. In personal encounters he generally presents himself as sweet and humble, seeming to genuinely care about the needs of others. People gravitate to him, love him, and sacrifice to please him. His personality disguises his character. He presents and markets himself so persuasively that most followers will not entertain thoughts that the leader is not what he seems to be. Anyone who says anything “negative” about the leader must be either mistaken or evil. The combination of this disarming charm with the leader’s dominant personality tends to result in a cult-like devotion and unquestioning obedience from the followers.
- The charmer will make his or her followers feel “special.” By constantly emphasizing how dramatically unique, important, and effective the group’s ministry is, he or she will make those who participate in the group feel that by being part of something superior to what any other ministry is doing, they are themselves superior to other Christians. Their identity with the group elevates their thoughts and feelings about themselves. The mixture of being charmed and made to feel special is a cocktail that so intoxicates followers they will believe and do things they ordinarily would not.
- Besides charm, successful lying leaders must have an intimidating side to them as well. Charm alone may not be sufficient to keep in line those who are disturbed by the uncovering of troubling facts about the leader. The effective lying leader must be able to bully others into silence and compliance. Though he will never be successful in intimidating everyone in the group into mindless obedience, he can use the “rebels” as examples to scare most of the others from following in their footsteps. The leader so demonizes the “rebels” in his private conversations and public speaking that it becomes clear to the followers that to “rebel” would mean having their reputations destroyed in a similar way by the leader.
To further intimidate followers, the leader will teach them that God’s judgment will fall on anyone who “attacks” (disagrees with or notices the misconduct of) the leader. The leader’s “anointing” is portrayed as a divine force-field that destroys those who try to penetrate it with criticisms or accusations. Lying leaders frequently cite David’s decision to “not touch the Lord’s anointed” (1 Sam 26) as a model that teaches one must never question, disagree with, or disapprove of the leader’s teachings or actions. They trust that their devotees will not study this passage with an open mind, for in it we find that David and his band were not in compliance with Saul. Saul, the anointed one, considered these men to be rebellious outlaws who would not submit to his discipline. David’s choice to “not touch the Lord’s anointed” was a decision to not kill Saul, not a decision to agree with everything Saul said or to mindlessly obey his every dictate.
In fact, the lying leader must trust that followers will not read the New Testament with an open mind because it teaches against unqualified obedience to any man. We are taught to question or test everything that is presented to us (1 Th 5:21, 1 Jn 4:1), and provisions are made for disciplining leaders guilty of misconduct (1 Tim 5:19-20). Christ commended believers who tested even those leaders who claimed to be apostles (Rev. 2:2).
Generally, the followers so value their part in the “special” work of God they are part of, and have become so attached to the community of faithful ones they have joined, they cannot endure the prospect of losing these things. They would rather give up their critical thinking skills than risk the loss of what has become so vitally important to them. Additionally, it seems that the thought of admitting they have been wrong in their devotion to the leader generally proves to be a prospect too humiliating to allow followers to think clearly or critically about the leader’s teachings and conduct.
Lying leaders are headed down a moral slippery slope
- Lying leaders are headed down a moral slippery slope.
- As a liar tells more lies he or she becomes more of a liar at heart. The practice becomes an increasingly natural and dominant part of the person as their conscience becomes increasingly seared and the rewards of lying become increasingly appreciated. In one extreme case I am aware of it seemed to some observers that the liar actually came to delight in the lying itself. Lying can give the liar a sense of power and personal triumph over the ones he or she has deceived. In the extreme case mentioned above, the leader was known to occasionally lie even when there was no tangible benefit to himself or anyone else. In time, habitual liars do not think of themselves as doing anything wrong when they lie. These liars come to think of “truth” in utilitarian terms. Whatever is useful is “true.” Whatever inconveniences or embarrasses them is “false.” Whether something is factual or not seems not to be an ethical issue for these dishonest leaders. Consequently, they feel a genuine sense of moral outrage when someone challenges or opposes them. This “sincerity” that their twisted morality provides them enhances their continued persuasiveness with their followers.
- The habit of lying removes the safe-guard of accountability. Accountability to others is a strong barrier to sin. 2 If, due to the habit of lying to cover our sins, we believe no one else will know what we have done wrong, we will not feel accountable to others for our actions and this barrier will be removed. When this barrier is removed the backslidden heart is given free reign and the liar will inevitably find himself gaining unstoppable momentum down the moral slippery slope. On this downward slide he will hurt himself and others.
- Lying leaders increase their culpability by remaining in leadership positions that, in spite of their rationalizations, they know they are not morally qualified for. Paul provides us with strict moral qualifications for leaders (1 Ti 3 and Tit 1) and while lying leaders seem to feel that their position and “anointing” somehow excuse their sin or validate their rationalizations, James tells us that those who exercise leadership responsibilities in the church such as teaching are actually more accountable to God for their conduct (Jas 3:1). As Matthew Henry said, “A wicked man is the worst of creatures; a wicked Christian is the worst of men; and a wicked minister is the worst of Christians.”
For those who have seen a picture of themselves painted in this article and who feel trapped in a prison of hypocrisy and deceit, know that there is a way of escape. If you long to be restored to integrity there is a door that leads to the way back. It is painful to open it. You must be willing to confess hidden things to the proper people and possibly step down for now from the position you hold. But after the pain you will find righteousness, sincerity, wholeness, and self-respect. Whatever your history, you can end well. May God help you to make this decision now.
For those who know someone who resembles the portrait just painted, you must decide if you care enough about this person to make the painful choice to confront or discipline them. He or she needs your help. If you do nothing, this lying leader will eventually have to give an account to God and you will answer for being a facilitator. Out of love for God, the church, and the lying leaders themselves, let us uphold a high standard of honesty among church leaders.
Written by David Kowalski
See also David’s article, Some Red Flags When Evaluating a Ministry
Also by David Kowalski: “Name it and Frame it” — Phony Doctorates in the Church
Is Your Church Free from Cult-like Tendencies?
What is Spiritual Abuse?
Why Whistleblowers are Often Ignored (Even in Christian Organizations)
© Copyright 2006 by David Kowalkski. All rights reserved. Links to this post are encouraged. Do not repost or republish without permission.