[In light of Preemptive Love’s decision to sever ties with co-founders Jeremy and Jessica Courtney over allegations of toxic leadership and misleading fundraising tactics, we are re-running this article about coping with the “integrity gap” many observed when Liberty University parted ways with Jerry Falwell Jr. Though the substance of the allegations in question is very different, the ultimate fallout — and lack of trust in institutions — is similar.]
The aftershocks of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s resignation keep coming. As new details come to light, Falwell’s actions cast a shadow over Liberty University’s reputation. The university’s board and faculty, already navigating education amid a global pandemic, must now navigate a globally publicized leadership scandal. Students and alumni are expressing outrage and embarrassment over Falwell’s behavior.
Yet this is how it always goes. The greater a leader’s influence, the greater the impact of their integrity gap (the gap between what leaders preach and live).
News headlines announce the failings of influential Christian leaders with depressing regularity. For those of us who coach and counsel leaders, the latest news about Jerry Falwell Jr. was not surprising. The warning signs had been blazing for quite some time. But one more name in a parade of leadership failures may leave Christians wondering, “Can anyone finish the race well?” Yes, and it’s happening every day. Christians can monitor and shrink their integrity gaps. It’s a matter of commitment and accountability.
High-performance leaders often work within unhealthy systems that fail to notice and address integrity gaps. These leaders may feel shame over a private struggle yet feel it necessary to hide. As their integrity gap expands, he or she realizes that coming clean would mean losing everything, so they hide the truth. If a leader decides to get honest, they must be willing to lose everything for the sake of living with integrity. It was Jesus who asked, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (see Mark 8:36). The answer is still the same: nothing is worth sacrificing your soul.
When leaders get honest about their integrity gaps, whether their hand is forced or they simply want freedom, the next event is key. Dr. Gerry Landreth, a respected play therapist who helps parents, explains, “It’s not always what you do, but what you do after what you did, that matters most.” The response to failure determines the health of both the leader and the organization. The most humble and healthy posture for a failed leader is to face the music without excuse. The time needed for recovery may be two to five years, depending on the severity of the integrity gap, but only time and consistency reveals whether a leader is moving toward health or is addicted to power and status.
In too many Christian circles, leaders who reveal moral failures are quickly returned to positions of influence. Their restoration may be expedited in the name of grace and forgiveness, but it forfeits time needed for healing and growth. True repentance is evidenced by leaders who take time to build trust, first with those in their inner circle, and then beyond. True healing and restoration are experienced by those who are genuinely willing to submit to a long, slow, steady process. Leaders unwilling to endure a slower restoration process will likely return to their old habits.
Healthy Christian leaders work within systems that prioritize leadership accountability. These organizations see and address warning signs such as rumors of leadership misconduct, a leader’s refusal to allow disagreement or questioning, a leader’s unresolved trauma that spills out on others, or a leader’s lack of long-term relationships. Accountability provides an opportunity for growth, counseling, and greater maturity. Accountability also helps leaders identify unhealthy coping strategies they might miss on their own, such as isolation, hiding, and minimizing.
It is possible for leaders to “finish the race well.” Leaders with integrity maintain an ongoing commitment to monitor their motives and to allow others to point out their blind spots. Healthy Christian leaders allow all of who they are – mind, heart, body, soul and relationships – to be increasingly aligned with the heart of our God, who is humble and gentle in Spirit.
We know many leaders who have come face to face with their integrity gap and the consequences that lay before them. We have seen men and women sit with the impact of their choices and really own it, and we have witnessed tremendous healing. Conversely, we have seen leaders offer quick, seemingly sincere apologies, but they quickly move on. Their urgent need to return to a position of influence may be a symptom of a larger integrity gap.
In God’s economy, it’s never too late. When a Christian leader faces their integrity gap and its consequences, when they do the quiet work necessary to heal (alongside trusted professionals and those who know them personally), everyone in their wake will benefit. For all who lead, today is the best day to begin shrinking the baggage from your integrity gap down to carry on size.
Jeff Mattson and Terra Mattson’s forthcoming book is Shrinking the Integrity Gap: Between What Leaders Preach and Live. They are also the founders of Living Wholehearted, where they coach leaders and counsel individuals.