“There’s a cross-section of the dechurched community that suffers not from a lack of faith, but a lack of trust.“1
Often the “dechurched” have lost faith in “organized religion” because their leader was misusing the church’s finances, according to John Richards.
As I sat discussing my experience under a toxic leader with a fellow traveler on that painful journey, I recognized a common thread of behavior in our leaders. Both leaders were financially reckless under the guise of building God’s kingdom.
Both of our leaders were heading up large ministries with budgets well over a million dollars. My friend’s ministry was a multi-million dollar, well-respected, educational organization and mine a third world education mission.
Though there were differences in our leaders, both were building a kingdom of their own.
It was apparent they were spending ministry resources to create their own legacy rather than God’s.
That is a difficult judgment to make. Those who are visionaries are gifted at looking to the future and calling on others to trust in God’s faithfulness to build His kingdom through the finances he has given…even at times trusting the Lord to provide down the road what is not already banked. Are we not called to step into the mighty Jordan River in faith?
I have used that argument more than once – we need to go out on a limb trusting that God is going to provide and through our faithfulness reach more people with His love.
But, when does this become reckless? When does it become presumption upon God’s grace? When is it personal kingdom building rather than God’s Kingdom building work? And how can I know a leader is not faithful, but reckless in his building program?
I would suggest it primarily comes down to motive. The leader is either hearing God’s voice or his own as he leads an organization to take steps of faith. If it is his own voice he is hearing (read ego), his motive is self-aggrandizing. He is seeking his own kingdom. He is pursuing his own glory.
How do we determine whether God is directing him or the toxic appetite of ego is gaining the upper hand?
Motives are found in the heart (inner man including cognitive and emotive in biblical language). It is in reading the heart which makes our judgment of leaders a sticky-wicket. Are we truly able to judge another man’s motives – that which flows from his heart? I would normally answer, “No.”
However, we are at times called upon to make judgments and sometimes we rely on the outward actions and expressions to get a glimpse inside the man (Matthew 18). But, it is evident in the story of God’s people that the ultimate Judge and Master of all on earth provides wisdom to His people for making judgments.
The good king of Judah, Jehoshaphat, set about making reforms in the land. Judges were appointed for the ordering of the society.
He appointed judges in the land in all the fortified cities of Judah, city by city, and said to the judges, “Consider what you do, for you judge not for man but for the Lord. He is with you in giving judgment. Now then, let the fear of the Lord be upon you. Be careful what you do, for there is no injustice with the Lord our God, or partiality or taking bribes.”
[2 Chronicles 19:5-7 (ESV)]
Jehoshaphat’s instructions are helpful to us even though we are not working for our local court system! Note, the justice of those appointed was to be based on God’s true judgments. God is the perfect judge and we are a mere reflection of Him. We are called to consciously mimic the goodness of our Lord’s judgments.
And, it cannot be influenced by political or financial benefit (God is not partial, nor does He take bribes).
Partiality is מַֹשּׂא with פָּנִים, meaning favoring one over another. Our judgments need to involve eyes that are open to see and ears open to hear the truth though it may surprise and shock us. “John couldn’t possibly think that!”
The attractiveness of ministry expansion due to donor excitement over a project cannot rule the day. The attention received (image-building) can simply be the result of pursuing our own ends. The ministry leader may just want to show the world how Christian he is by building, building, building.
Having said that, judging whether someone has acted in evil ways is much easier than judging whether their intent is evil (self-centered). Many good things have been done with evil intent and many evil things done have been intended by their perpetrators as good.
Once again, when can we truly judge the motives of a leader who calls on his organization to step out in faith? Especially when he is spending the contributions of supporters on a seemingly good project?
The godliest of men (or women) will struggle with their motives as they set out to build a new program or new ministry structure. No ministry leader can fully claim purity in motive when building something highly visible and that will promote the egos of the organizational leadership. We are broken people and the temptation is great. We do not easily die to ourselves.
However, there are those who are thoroughly motivated by their egos. To know their motives is usually to see the results of their inward thoughts acted out. Generally, they will give evidence in outward forms to that which dwells within them beyond the purview of their employees or boards. Consider the following actions:
- The leader shifts the discussion from the merits of the project to a question of loyalty, intelligence, or faithfulness when questioned.
- The leader has frequently brought attention to himself in other projects.
- The leader is known for being more concerned about his image than the church’s (organization’s) work.
- It seems image takes precedence over actual ministry work.
- The leader is easily angered by pushback regarding the project.
- The project does not fit the mission of the organization.
There are leaders who greatly blemish the work of Christ as they create in order to gratify their own pleasures and egos. They build neat new buildings. Create new ministry programs. How often have we heard from their lips, “If you aren’t moving forward, you are falling back.”
Financial stewardship is the use of funds as God would have them used.
God may call an organization to step out in faith, with limited present financial backing, because He is a God who is continually challenging His people to live by faith. But, in the hands of a toxic leader, the financial stewardship of an organization is harnessed not to do ministry well, but to do much of it to market either his image or that of the organization.
If your leader is toxic, he is likely to push his vision until ratified and if rebuffed, be angry or sulk. His distrust of others in the decision-making process will become apparent. Most abusive individuals are described as entitled. If they lose the vote, they are likely to make someone else pay for it.
My friend’s CEO sought to purchase buildings for ministry to the impoverished, while the ministry’s mission was education. All the while, the organization was struggling with decreasing contributions and students. My friend interpreted the reckless vision as a means of drawing attention away from failed leadership.
My CEO continued to build buildings and purchase land while the impoverished students of our educational mission took on more and more debt to pay their tuition. He then marketed a scholarship program that did not provide for the students what was promised to donors.
In addition, when giving a tour to a potential donor, science lab items were prominently displayed despite having never been used by the children. It was all about image.
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Though financial abuse is handled in business ethics texts, there is little written or researched that connects toxic leadership with poor financial stewardship. There are leaders who cheat their organizations financially and steal from donors. But, I have yet to see an analysis made of simply bad financial decision-making in relation to abusive leadership.
Have you experienced what my friend and I did? Share with the Pearls & Swine community what you have learned either on our Contact page (will be kept confidential) or Comment below.
- John C. Richards and Jr., “Church Hurt as a Barrier to Evangelism,” The Exchange | A Blog by Ed Stetzer, accessed July 27, 2018, https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2016/september/church-hurt-as-barrier-to-evangelism.html.