Spiritual Leadership: Acting with Integrity

It is thought that spiritual people don’t make good leaders. Yet a biblical view holds that leadership without spiritual character is incompetent. Integrating competence and character is frightening for spiritual leaders aware of their failings. However, leaders with the integrity to own this kind of honesty will find the grace they need to "finish first."

Spiritual leaders aren’t what they used to be. There was a time when spiritual leaders were respected in the community for the contribution that they made to the public good. Spiritual leaders had status and a voice in public life. Things have changed. Spiritual leadership today is seen as an anachronism, either raising images of darkly-clad, elderly parsons, well-meaning but out of touch with contemporary life, or else offering the more frightening vision of a wild-eyed David Koresh leading deluded followers toward some kind of cultic doomsday.

So who would aspire to spiritual leadership today? Why would anyone willingly take up such an ill-fitting mantle? There’s very little money in it and precious little status. It seems presumptuous to aspire to this kind of leadership. We have a cynical feeling that some things are beyond our grasp, or should be. We suspect that those who claim to have mastered spirituality are getting above themselves and we’ve seen too many of them fall. Some such folks are felt to be harmless. We merely tolerate them. Others are seen as dangerous and them we vigorously oppose.

Competence vs. Character

Combining spirituality with leadership seems an odd kind of alchemy. To be spiritual is to subscribe to a higher standard than what seems necessary for the rest of us. Spiritual people live in a different landscape. They walk a different way. To embrace spirituality is to be concerned about holiness. It is to cultivate character.

Leadership, on the other hand, holds no such illusions. Leadership is a bottom-line interest, bestowed upon those who get the job done. Leaders gain credibility only when they earn it through successful achievement. Leadership is credited to those who are competent.

So what has Rome to do with Athens? What does character have to do with competence? Can a leader be spiritual? Can a spiritual person lead? Generally, we tend to see competence and character at opposite ends of a polarised continuum. Any gains to be made in the pursuit of character must be accompanied by a corresponding loss in competence. 


In other words, "nice guys finish last." Winners win by being ruthless. Honest people are taken advantage of. People with principles are admirable losers. 

Case #1 – Who would you vote for?

Consider, for example, a practical case in point. Who would you vote for, given the opportunity, Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter? Nixon is widely viewed as having been a competent president. While not necessarily well liked, he was respected for his policies on economics, foreign policy, and for his political acumen. At the same time, he was a scoundrel. Carter, on the other hand, is universally appreciated as one of the all-time nice guys. If there was ever any doubt, his years out of office have proved him to be a man of character who cares about people and is willing to put himself out in order to serve others. At the same time, he was generally believed to be an ineffective president, particularly as seen in his failed energy and foreign policies. 

The case is, of course, overdrawn for the sake of the argument. Undoubtedly, Carter had his competencies as Nixon did his vestiges of character. Nevertheless, the question stands. Who would you vote for – a man with questionable character who will deliver peace and prosperity? Or a man with questionable competence who you can respect as a man of principle? Perhaps recent history could furnish us with the answer. Bill Clinton, a man whose moral compass pointed somewhere other than north, enjoyed phenomenal support because of his success in public policy. People would vote for Clinton, though they wouldn’t let him near their daughters. In this case, competence mattered more than character.

Case #2 – Who would you hire?

To put a finer point on it, let’s consider the matter from a perspective more pertinent to the question of spiritual leadership. Who would you hire as your pastor – a person with spiritual character or a person competent to lead? After all, neither Richard Nixon nor Jimmy Carter offered themselves as spiritual leaders. Your pastor, however, does. Would you be willing, then, to hire a pastor who can motivate people, attract crowds, raise the offerings, and lead multitudes to faith if you weren’t sure of this person’s own practice of biblical morality? Or would you prefer a person of outstanding moral fibre whose stagnant leadership skills will ensure your church never cracks the 100 barrier?

Consider the case of well-known television preacher, Charles Stanley. Stanley, pastor of First Baptist Church in Atlanta, was recently divorced by his wife of 44 years. However, instead of resigning from his ministry as he had promised five years earlier, Stanley vowed to remain as senior pastor. Announcing the situation to the congregation, administrative pastor Gearl Spicer said, "It is my biblical, spiritual, and personal conviction that God has positioned Dr. Stanley in a place where his personal pain has validated his ability to minister to all of us."1 This is an amazing piece of theological manipulation. Apparently, God caused the Stanley divorce for the benefit of the church. As Spicer concluded his statement, the people of First Baptist responded with spontaneous applause.

This is an issue that gets at the question of the character of the spiritual leader. No doubt Charles Stanley is a good man whom God has used in significant ways for his glory. He is, without question, a competent leader. He may even, under most conditions, qualify as a man of good character. In this case, however, Stanley’s failing strikes at one of the core issues of his teaching and preaching over many years. As president of the Southern Baptist Convention and as pastor of this megachurch, he has a long history of speaking about marital fidelity, publicly criticising liberal divorce laws. The hypocrisy of his current position is evident. Note, however, that the primary argument used in favour of Stanley retaining his position is that his moral failings make him a better pastor. In other words, his diminished character makes him more competent to fulfil his leadership role. 

This line of argument closely follows the model offered above. As character is diminished, competence is increased. People, apparently, like leaders they can relate to – people who mess up regularly and sometimes spectacularly just like they do. Yet does this kind of thinking meet the biblical mark? Charles Colson, commenting on the Stanley scenario, said that, "Biblical standards for pastors are very high, and rightly so. Given the already high divorce rate among Baptists, the last thing we need to do is give one of our own leaders a pass, no matter how much we may respect him."[2]

The Biblical Call for Integrity in Leadership

Colson is correct with regard to the biblical standard. Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus provide direct instruction to those aspiring to spiritual leadership. Paul said that spiritual leaders "must have a good reputation with outsiders" (1Tim. 3:7) and that they must be "worthy of respect" (v.8). Titus 2:7,8 says that the spiritual leader is to "set an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us."

This emphasis upon moral integrity runs throughout the Bible both in the example of people like Job (Jb. 2:3) and David (1 Ki. 9:4) and also in the direct instruction found in the Psalms and Proverbs (Ps. 78:72; Pr. 19:1). Biblically, one gets the idea that spiritual leadership with integrity demands the integration of competence and character. Etymologically, integrity describes wholeness, or structural soundness. Integration speaks of the congruence of parts within a structural whole. Integrity in spiritual leadership, then, requires a different model, one that reflects the biblical sense that you cannot be competent without character.


This model is an attempt to integrate the concern for competence and character. For example, a leader who combines high competence with low character is not to be trusted. Such a leader will not shy away from manipulation or deceit to get his or her way. Such a leader will be feared. The leader who has deficient character and similarly lacks the requisite leadership competencies will not be relevant. Such a leader will lack credibility and will therefore be pushed to the margins and ignored. Such leaders will be forgotten. The leader who exhibits sterling character, but who is incompetent as a leader will win the sympathies of the people, but not their allegiance. People will feel sorry for such a leader. However, the leader who combines strong character with a firm grasp of the necessary leadership competencies will be in the happy position of winning both respect and allegiance. People will follow such a leader.

Of course, this model is too one-dimensional. People should not be so easily stereotyped, or so rigidly boxed in and categorised. Most of us find ourselves in several of the boxes at once eliciting all manner of responses to our leadership. It is hard, for instance, to imagine the people of First Baptist being afraid of Charles Stanley in the manner described. Yet once character is lapsed and weakness exposed, the pull on the follower is clearly less compelling.

If there is any doubt as to the truth of this claim, consider the case of the Roman Catholic priesthood. For centuries the public generally appreciated priests in this tradition both for their spirituality and for their leadership. For more than fifteen years, however, priests have reeled from multiple allegations of gross sexual misconduct. The integrity of the priests in question and the priesthood in general has been damaged, perhaps irreparably. As Donald Cozzens writes, "The absolute confidence (people) once placed in them has faded into a wary cordiality. They have lost their once unquestioned authority, their role as moral leaders and spiritual guides."3 Once confidence is lost, it is hard to regain. Simply put, character counts.

Spiritual Leadership by the Grace of God 

The implication of this position can be frightening to those of us with sufficient integrity to own our spiritual infidelities and leadership incompetencies. Integrity demands we be honest with ourselves and honest to God about our failings.

Spiritual leadership obviously requires a vital intimacy with God’s spirit. So what does the leader do when God goes AWOL? How can we lead when the well runs dry? Every spiritual leader vacillates between faith and doubt, hope and fear. It is hard to offer refreshment when you are living in the desert.

Spiritual leaders with integrity will also have to admit the limits of their leadership. Though we love to nurse the "hero-myth" we admit when we’re honest that the job is bigger than we are. What do you say that will encourage the abused wife and the abandoned child? How do we raise money without looking crass? How do we proclaim truth to be relevant to people who believe all truth to be relative? What do we do when we lose our joy and our calling feels like drudgery? 

Our first response must be to make fact of our failure. There is no point pretending we’re something we’re not. Honesty, even about our weakness, is a sign that marks a true spiritual leader. We simply appeal to grace.

Yet, it is hard to respond graciously to a leader who fails us. What do we do with our broken expectations? Again, consider Bill Clinton. Alan Wolfe, of Boston University, described the two responses to the former president as exemplifying what he called hard and soft Protestantism. Hard Protestants (represented by prosecutor Kenneth Starr) are uncompromising, disciplined, and straight backboned. Soft Protestants (represented by Clinton himself) are inclusive, therapeutic, and forgiving.4 On the one hand we want to "hang ’em high" and on the other hand we prefer to "give ’em a break." The former approach appeals to the biblical standards of holiness. The latter appeals to the biblical mandate to forgive.

Of course, both of these principles are critical within Scripture. They find their point of integration in the biblical concept of grace. Grace does not relieve people from their responsibility before God’s righteous standard. As C.S. Lewis said, "Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who did it."5 Grace makes no excuses, but then grace makes sure to forgive. That God, for instance, could offer David as an example of integrity (1 Ki. 9:4) despite his acts of adultery, murder, and espionage is powerfully encouraging. 

Spiritual leaders understand that they do not offer themselves on the merits of their own character or competency, but on the basis of that which has been granted them by Christ. Our ability to lead spiritually is entirely a gift of God’s grace. The opportunity to stand with character intact in his presence is only because he has forgiven us. The ability to lead others competently is only because he gifted us. When it comes down to it, even those who follow are being gracious to us.

Choosing to Exercise Spiritual Leadership with Integrity

One of the more outstanding examples of spiritual leadership in the 20th century was seen in the ministry of Billy Graham. Even cynical journalists found Graham to offer a message and an example that was compelling. Clearly, he was a creative leader. His competency as a leader would not have been sufficient, however, without his character as a man of the Spirit. Early in his ministry, Billy Graham and his team made some hard character choices about the way they would approach their work. They deliberately determined that they would avoid even the appearance of financial abuse. They chose to exercise care to avoid the possibility of any perception of sexual impropriety. They agreed to co-operate with any local church that could subscribe to their view of the gospel so as to avoid any sense of competition among churches. Many would have thought they had taken precautions beyond what was necessary. Yet decades later Graham’s ministry stands as a paragon of ethical propriety. The credibility of Graham’s message has been immeasurably enhanced by these commitments to character deliberately chosen and carefully maintained over all these years.

Those of us who are committed to the cause of spiritual leadership need to make deliberate intentional choices first to receive God’s grace, and then to live by it, faithfully choosing moment by moment to live in ways that are congruent with our calling. Competency doesn’t cut it in the course of God’s kingdom. Nice guys may finish last on the short run of this earth. But Jesus reminded us that eventually the last finish first (Mt. 20:16). People with character will be proved to be competent.


  1. Reported in Charles Colson’s Breakpoint broadcast, June 13, 2000.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Cozzens, Donald B, "Confronting All of the Priests’ Losses," in In Trust (Autumn 2000): 4.
  4. Quoted in Alissa J. Rubin, "Sex Scandal Revives Dilemma over Ethics," in Hot Coco (October 4, 1998): 1.
  5. 5 C.S. Lewis, Fern-seed and Elephants and other essays on Christianity. Walter Hooper, ed. (Glasgow: Collins, 1975), 42.