Let’s start with the definition of an integrity gap. An integrity gap is really the distance between the values we preach—what we say we’re about—and how we actually live. There’s a distance.
We want you to know this: every one of us has an integrity gap. Only Jesus did not. He’s the only one.
This is not an event. It’s not something that you decide or a sticker you wear. This is a lifestyle—the choices that you make throughout every day. And there are ebbs and flows in that—there are victories and some setbacks. It’s a calling that God has on our hearts to live with more wholehearted integrity.
When leaders are actively shrinking their integrity gap, everyone in their wake benefits. The converse is also true: When leaders are increasing their integrity gaps, everyone in their wake pays. It’s just a matter of time. We’ve been around long enough to see that truth play out time and time again.
Let the Holy Spirit guide us towards shrinking the integrity gap we have and get on mission for doing that as a lifestyle. Not because we have to, but because we want to.
The big point: Your integrity as a leader is important.
Who is a leader?
A leader is anyone with a following. Think about that. If you are a parent, you’re leading the most important organization on the planet, the organization that makes the church. You’re a leader for your family unit.
And if you’re a CEO of a fortune 500 company, you’re a leader and everything in between. If you have any following, you’re a leader and how you live and lead matters.
What is integrity?
We like to say it this way and encourage you to look at integrity like this: integrity is where every part of your life, mind, heart, soul, actions, and relationships are moving in the same direction. And for those of us who are believers, that means every part of our lives is moving in a God-orientated direction.
We’re not talking about perfection here. It’s not about doing everything right. It’s actually about being honest when something starts to get off track and having the integrity to be honest so that we don’t go too far down a path where there’s incongruence.
God wants all of us, right?
The word wholehearted comes from the Scriptures. It comes from the Old Testament, the Jewish culture. When they said their whole heart, they meant literally their mind, their heart, their emotions, their gut—the core of who they were and everything that they did.
When we’re thinking about wholehearted leadership—it’s not only about your heart.
The symptoms we are going to address and talk about here are symptoms that we have discovered over 20 years of working with leaders of all capacities. All leaders are vulnerable to these.
The higher you go in influence and power and authority, the more vulnerable you are.
So, if you’re a young, emerging leader, we’re trying to give you a leg up here. It’s not what you can avoid, but what you can turn to and notice and be mindful of in concert with the Holy Spirit as you do the journey of leadership.
One of the first and most key pieces that we collected over years is recognizing that high-capacity leaders often have unresolved trauma. The difference between a wholehearted, healthy leader and an unhealthy leader is that one has resolved their trauma and the other hasn’t. What we mean by trauma is something that happens that is out of the ordinary.
From things like your parents divorced or a sudden death in the family and all the way to physical, emotional, sexual, and verbal abuse are all trauma. A lot of us have experienced trauma—not only in our family systems, but also in our cultural systems or in our churches.
As leaders we often minimize our own trauma because we’re taking care of and helping others. But the more we can acknowledge and name the realities of our story, grieve them, process the hard realities, and actually call things what they are—the more we can heal.
Jesus does this, and we see it throughout the Scriptures. God calls things what they are, and we see that we don’t need to dwell on them, but we have to grieve them. We have to lament, and we have to process.
Wholehearted leaders have processed their own stories, their own pain, and their own trauma. Therefore, they can go deeper and care for those in their wake at a deeper level. But when we do not process our own stories, we are unable to go there with other people. We lack compassion and empathy in ways that we’re blind to.
Triggers & Toxic Shame
Trauma is actually held in the body. God created it so that it’s not just a mindset. All trauma has been stored in the lower half of our brain that reacts to the world with fight, flight, or freeze. So, these neural pathways are being built, whether you want to pay attention to them or not. That’s why when you smell a certain smell, it automatically reminds your body of an event in your story.
So, when all of a sudden you find yourself yelling at somebody or reacting a certain way, or feeling shame in a way that you go, “Wow, that doesn’t feel congruent with the current circumstances.” That’s a trigger. It’s actually your brain picking up a reminder because it has mapped out things in your story from when you were three, maybe even before you were verbal.
God created our brains in such a powerful way. What is so cool about this is that when we actually listen to the stories of our past, then we can bring closure and our brain actually files it away. The more that we ignore the sirens, the worse those symptoms become. It’s like a car engine.
Trauma breeds guilt and toxic shame. And there’s often a feeling of it’s my fault. And so that toxic shame and guilt makes me feel like I have more power than I really do. They abused me because it was my fault, I was the reason that leader left, or there’s this voice that constantly makes me think that it’s my fault.
The very nature of trauma attacks our level of control and feeling like we have power in the world. It leaves us with voices and only through the power of Christ and healthy relationships can we find healing from them.
Escapism & Compartmentalization
This is the notion that everybody loves me outside my house. How does a leader get to that place?
Early on, one of the ways that leaders cope with trauma is they get busy. They get on the achievement bandwagon and they start liking the rewards and the dopamine hits that happen in their minds when people are seeing them and affirming them and giving them these things. And there’s nothing wrong with achievement.
It’s a beautiful thing to steward the resources and talents that God’s given us to achieve. It’s a beautiful thing. Not so beautiful though, if we’re striving after it to run from pain. And when we are vulnerable as leaders, as influence grows, the tendency to escape or to compartmentalize can grow if we’re not tending to the things that are at home.
What we’re saying is that we’re vulnerable as leaders to this idea that when things aren’t so great, we should try to get our needs met outside in unhealthy ways. And what we need to do is work to deconstruct or decompartmentalize these different parts that have a gap and to integrate and to do the work.
Let’s learn to save the best for those we love the most.
All narcissism is a continuum, and actually every leader that we’ve ever met, including ourselves, has some tendencies of narcissism. Hopefully we’re on the very small part of the spectrum.
In the clinical world, we call it narcissistic personality disorder. And there’s a huge difference between those of us as leaders have tendencies of narcissism and what we’re talking about here on the clinical side.
The research done by Glenn Ball and Darryl Poles in their book, Let Us Prey, reports that of 1,380 active and retired clergy surveyed in just one Canadian denomination, almost 30% met the diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder.
This is kind of a sobering thought. The point is that the problem of narcissism is much worse in the church than we realize.
Many of you are identifying with that and could raise your hand saying you know a person with NPD who is abusing their power and authority. They lack the ability to empathize, and they are creatively keeping up the image that their church ministry is unable to happen without them, but they don’t want other people to think that that’s what they’re thinking. So quietly in the background, the people that are underneath or beside them are their pawns being used and abused.
If you’re a person who resonates with the feeling that maybe there’s something of what we’re saying here that you need to explore further because, you may be perpetrating some of these types of things. We want to encourage you to do the hard work to know your story. That’s where this is coming from. There is a path to healing.
And a true NPD cannot empathize. They might be able to cry with you, but they’re crying because they feel sad, not because of you. We would love for the church to better understand this, because we think we’re putting narcissists in leadership roles and putting many people in harm’s way. So even if it’s not us, it’s our lack of understanding, because narcissists are really clever.
It leads us to the next symptom that maybe majority of us can relate to at some point. Arrogance is this temptation for us to think that we’re better than everyone else in a room. Arrogance is subtle and small. But when we start to think that our way is better than the other ways people live in our community, there’s a problem.
The COVID pandemic has created a different kind of busy. It’s not the same busy that we had before. As leaders, it’s gotten more intense and more complicated. We don’t have the same vehicles that we’ve normally used to connect. So, we have too little time to actually listen.
If we aren’t careful, we will intentionally attract people who are just yes people and end up missing out on the kingdom work. Being busy constantly can be dangerous. It’s sobering for us to ask the Lord, “Am I listening well to the people you’ve put in my life? Am I intentionally listening well and learning how to mirror, validate, and empathize?”
It’s easier for me to just do it now. It’s like we get to this point at many times in our leadership journeys, right? And you may actually be right in the sense that it feels easier for you to do it. But why?
In our intensity and our capacity to just go, achieve, achieve, and perform because it’s the Lord’s work—we are driving ourselves into the ground. We need reflect.
I just want to acknowledge that leaders model self-care, and this is such an important piece here. Because first of all, you can’t give really what you don’t have and what you aren’t experiencing.
And we just say it this way: when leaders do not model how to care for themselves, their followers are left feeling guilt, even shame, when they try to address their own needs. Leaders, your congregants need more of you engaging in taking care of yourself.
Now, of course, some of you are thinking of the Scriptures that we’re supposed to die to myself here and all of that. No, no, no. We know that God called you into ministry to be like Him, a good shepherd. And yes, He did lay His life down for others, but you can’t. If you’re done, if you’re burned out, you aren’t able to care for a flock.
It’s important to protect yourself from burnout.
The next symptom that leaders are vulnerable to is isolation. Here’s the tagline: no one really knows me. Leadership by itself is isolating. Leadership makes relationships complicated.
We want you to hold onto this: it’s important that you have someone, even if it’s just one or maybe a couple people in your life who are outside your church, outside your ministry organization, that is a friend. You need someone who can speak truth. Someone who can influence you.
Have community—authentic community—and see how it changes your life.
Survival thinking is believing that needs are a sign of weakness. That comes from our family of origin, maybe the culture we’re in, and sometimes the church actually promotes this.
We often disconnect our emotions from our humanity. We confuse that with the flesh. The flesh is of the enemy. Our humanity was designed by God. And so, He made us with needs and vulnerabilities.
There are some really basic human needs that God has created. One of those is for love and for connection. To be honest and to be able to tell our stories and to get empathy, all these things are needs. And we dismiss those a lot as leaders. One, because there’s a subtle line or a subtle whisper that we aren’t to have needs. In fact, the more mature we get with Jesus, the less our needs become reality and that’s actually not true.
We want to say that the more healthy, more wholehearted we get, the more aware we are of our needs and the more we can ask for help and get those needs met in a healthy way.
The last symptom is hiding. We have a propensity to want to hide. What’s difficult as leaders is confession can cost us too much. Sometimes, in fact it, it will. There are consequences when we have to confess to a spouse or to a friend and sometimes to our colleagues in our ministries, but it’s worth it. It’s worth it because it can lead to restored relationship.
Sometimes we confess to one another, and then, all of a sudden, we’ve got way too many consequences. So, we have to learn how to walk in that balance with a few and to be able to make it safe so that we don’t hide. And we need a posture of being honest about our struggles sooner, hopefully before the gap is too big.
Consequences may even be God’s gift in the process toward unpacking trauma and experiencing freedom and hope. And it is worth it. It’s a recognition that sometimes it feels like I can’t confess because it’s going to cost too much, so we deepen our hiding and the consequences, unfortunately, are going to be greater, much greater the longer we hide.
Well, Proverbs tells us whoever walks in integrity, walks securely, but whoever takes crooked paths will be found out. And this is the truth, and we’ve seen it over and over again.
How Is Your Posture?
We’ve really covered a gamut of symptoms that a lot of us relate to. And this is meant to be something to look at throughout our lives. We don’t just finally arrive and finish a particular section. It’s about taking a posture that asks how am I doing in this each day?
So, what do we do with all of this at the end? We simply just say, go to the Lord and ask Him to search you to know you, to show you if there are any wicked ways.
At the end of Psalm 139, it says and lead me in the way everlasting. Let the Holy Spirit lead you. You see, Jesus is so kind and so gentle, but He will call things what they are. Recognize what is working in you and actively take healthy steps to shrink the gaps in your life. And then, go to one another and lean in.
Remember, we all have gaps in our lives—there is no guilt for being human. Allow Jesus to work in your life to heal, mend, and restore in order to shrink the gaps that exist.