Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I heard this maxim from a fairly young age, and took from it that power and its accompanying hubris are primarily responsible for the downfall of leaders.
Now, 28 years into Christian ministry, with 10 years as a senior pastor of a large church, I understand that the natural dynamics of leadership tempt us toward myriad other corruptions, too. I discuss these themes at greater length in my article “Facing and Fighting the Corrupting Power of Leadership.”
What is it about leadership that seems to propel us into the service of idols such as power, comfort, and control? In addition to the temptations that come with leadership, its wearying effects can leave us increasingly vulnerable to corruption for at least four reasons.
- Authority is intoxicating or disheartening.
- Responsibility is exhausting.
- Disapproval is intimidating and approval is alluring.
- Complexity is bewildering.
And we can face all of these in the same season—even in the same decision. How do we protect against these corruptions? Accountability has long been our go-to safeguard, but let’s face it: even the most comprehensive safeguards only work if we don’t lie.
Even the most comprehensive safeguards only work if we don’t lie.
What, then, can be done to help us stand firm amid the eroding forces of leadership? In my experience, the following are critical elements of a robust defense against corruption in leadership.
1. Consider spiritual constitution as a qualification for leadership.
James 3:1 is quite direct: not every believer should be a teacher or leader. Assessing a person’s biblical qualifications for leadership includes not promoting someone into leadership (including yourself) who does not yet have the spiritual constitution to withstand the pressures and temptations of the role.
2. Emphasize sanctification above leadership development.
In my seminary days, we flocked to leadership conferences and were told to be always reading at least one leadership book. These books were beneficial—for maybe the first 2,000 pages.
Meanwhile, Scripture, church fathers, and men like John Owen and John Wesley confronted me with ideas like mortification and holiness that went beyond the positional sanctification familiar to me from my Reformed background.
I began to realize that I could not let my fear of self-righteousness keep me from the pursuit of real righteousness. Only godliness can stand against the flesh and the continual corrupting enticements of leadership (Matt. 5:6; 1 Tim. 4:8).
3. Attend to primal wounds.
God has seen fit to make humans emotionally complex. Clinical issues often rooted in primal wounds complicate growth and bewilder the Christian pilgrim. Our neglected soul wounds can create hiding places for the flesh that our conscious selves overlook or ignore. If the church is to be led well, we must help people overcome these wounds in ways faithful to the gospel.
This may mean devoting personal or church funds to ensure leaders and ministry staff receive the help they need to face issues related to abandonment, trauma, sexual abuse, family dysfunction, unexplained depression, intense anxiety systems, and so on. Invest in this before they do something that splits the church or makes the news. This also means looking for and supporting high-quality counselors and spiritual directors—and not complaining about what they charge.
4. Be ready to let it go.
Many have said that if you can’t walk away from a negotiation, you’ve already lost. Similarly, if you can’t risk losing your place of leadership in order to keep the integrity of your stewardship, you aren’t free.
If there comes a time when feeding and protecting God’s sheep under our care means to losing our place of leadership, then it’s a glorious and blessed thing to be deposed and rejected. Being prepared (emotionally and practically) to let go of your place of leadership will produce the freedom and noble spirit that make one content to be either “consecrated to the dignity or removed from it,” as John Chrysostom wrote in On the Priesthood—an invaluable safeguard against temptation and corruption.
5. Practice vigilant compassion.
The more we understand about the weight leaders carry, the corrupting influences they face, and the particular intense enticements endemic to this work, the more we will be both vigilant and supportive, investing in both accountability and rejuvenation.
Our church has made it a priority to invest in the health of other church leaders in our community, too. Examples include paying the guide fee for pastors’ fishing trips and sponsoring a pastoral retreat for the local African American Council of Churches. My elders (and family) also support me when I leave for eight days to hunt elk, because they know I come home a completely different, better person than when I left.
Who and How
If you’re reading this, maybe you feel frustrated with yourself or the leaders around you. In an age when we’re disheartened by reports of one fallen leader after another, we may ask ourselves, Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Rom. 7:24).
My elders (and family) also support me when I leave for eight days to hunt elk, because they know I come home a completely different, better person than when I left.
I’m not arguing against accountability, leadership training, or the promotion of young leaders. Rather, I’m calling for us to return sanctification to its rightful place as our only true hope of improvement, along with a reminder that the crucified and risen Christ is the both the who and the how.
Jesus is the only uncorrupted leader in the history of his church, and it is by his Spirit—working in the places of groaning too deep for us to understand, crying out to God for his power to conform us to his Son—that we ultimately grow into glorification.
Understanding how leadership tears us down should give us both renewed urgency in our vigilance over our hearts and supportive compassion for those we encourage. Let us not take lightly that underappreciated promise: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt. 5:6).