The below is Lesson 8 from our Leadership Lessons series.
LESSON EIGHT: Integrity eclipses image
KEY QUESTION: How can we grow our integrity behind the scenes?
As a teenage tennis player, my idol was Andre Agassi.
Agassi was the rockstar of professional tennis. I loved everything about him and his game.
When I needed new tennis shoes, I would only agree to wear his new Nike Air Tech Challenge. Remember these? White shoes with black trim and a hot pink swoosh.
As a super fan, I didn’t stop with his shoes. I had the entire fit. I wore his black denim shorts with hot pink spandex at every match. I paired the shorts with his diagonal black and hot pink fade Nike shirt. I had everything Agassi had… except the hair and game.
It turns out Agassi didn’t have the hair, either. He did initially, but losing your hair at an early age doesn’t play to the “image is everything” brand built on your physical image (and luscious hair!).
Is Image Everything?
That was Agassi’s slogan for the Canon camera company. His commercials were as flashy as his on-court clothing, with every commercial ending with his patented catchphrase, “image is everything.”
Meanwhile, Agassi’s internal integrity struggled to maintain his external image. He was an emotional mess most of the time. Nearly everything off the court was in shambles. Half the time, you could see the chaos spilling onto his court life, too.
You’re not reading my blog to learn everything about Agassi’s life, so if you’re interested in more, pick up this book: Open: An Autobiography. I’ve read it, and it’s worth the audiobook for sure.
Here’s my point: What intrigued me about Agassi as a teen was the image. The clothing. The big forehand. And hair. What intrigued me about Agassi as an adult was how internal integrity eventually led Agassi to find himself, and in doing so, become the player he always believed he could be.
I see this in so many leaders, especially in church and ministry leadership.
I want to focus on pastoral leadership in this post, but the principles are identical in any form of leadership or relationship.
Pastors are expected to live, love, and pastor to an image imposed by others. This expectation pressure is real and unrelenting.
Think about that for a moment. As a pastor, you are held to an image by the expectations of others. More, this expectation exists on a spectrum. Meaning it’s impossible to meet the expectations all of the time. Or even some of the time.
My Pastoral Image Journey
I’m a leader at my core. I studied business in college and attended graduate school to further my business education. I worked in consulting and spent a lot of time with c-suite executives. After nearly a decade in the marketplace, I felt God calling me to some version of ministry. It took a long time to understand the calling and embrace the change entirely, but in 2005, I leaped.
Remember, I’m a business guy and leader at my core.
Not to say that replaced my identity in Christ. Just to say that my instincts are to create, build, grow, innovate, strategize, and lead. That’s what I do best. And that’s what I brought to ministry.
My early days of ministry were good. I worked in student ministry at a rapidly growing church plant. There was plenty to create and lead. Three years later, I found myself accepting a job to become a lead pastor.
Enter immediate expectations.
When you hear the word “pastor,” an image comes to mind. An expectation surfaces. That’s okay. I have a picture and expectation in mind, too.
The problem is I don’t look or act like most of those expectations. Heck, I might only meet 2% of those images.
It took less than a week to hear my first “you’re not like most pastors” comment. That comment came from an expectation – and expectation that I wasn’t meeting.
As our church grew, that specific comment increased. And the expectations increased. The pressure of the image began to cave in upon me. As I saw it, I had two clear options:
- Leave ministry and the expectations behind.
- Embrace the expectations and meet them as best I can.
With some 25,000+ active attendees at our church, there were a lot of expectations. Leaving was undoubtedly the easy route. But I wasn’t ready to go. I didn’t feel God was ready for us to leave. He called us to this struggling church to lead it to health, and that’s what we did. But our work didn’t yet feel finished.
So I stayed. I chose option two: Embrace the expectations and meet them as best I could.
And a tiny part of my soul died that day.
I wrote about my sabbatical and the emotional journey I experienced previously, so I won’t repeat all of that again. I can tell you this without question: Attempting to meet the expectations of others can stop you from being who God expects you to become.
That’s the summation of my pastoral journey. I was a leader playing the part of a pastor.
Living to the Right Expectations
You can’t live with personal integrity while simultaneously living to the expectations of others. Integrity is about values and principles, but it’s also about honesty. Self-honesty is the most challenging version of honesty.
When you live dishonest of self, you live to an image, not to integrity. It could be an image you created. It could be an image placed on you by others, like a congregation.
In a way, that’s what I was doing as a pastor. I lived to an image created by others.
What I didn’t realize is God gives a third option. I didn’t have to either leave ministry or play pretend pastor. I could choose what was behind door number three:
3. Live to God’s expectations.
As a follower of Jesus, this option should be easily identifiable. Yet, it’s easy to miss when facing the constant pressure of expectation. After all, it’s the person in front of you saying, “you’re not like most pastors, are you?”
God expects me to live out of my identity in Christ while living as the whole person he created for the purpose of his creation.
I didn’t create my leadership orientation. I didn’t define my ability to innovate, strategize, and build. I didn’t choose brown hair, my family of origin, or my artistic skill. God defined me, and it’s my job to refine me in Christ.
Option three means living to God’s expectations, not the expectations of others.
Embracing this truth allowed me to finish my pastoral role well while becoming more and more myself along the way. When I began seeing my true self as God-given, it unhitched me from expectations.
That’s integrity. Being honest about who God made you to be and becoming that person more and more each day.
Integrity is Everything
If you are not living to God’s expectations, you’ll succumb to the expectations of others. Or worse, you’ll remain your unrefined self. Don’t forget, God defined you, but as a broken and sinful human, ongoing refinement is critical to your journey.
If you hope to reduce the image and embrace integrity, do these things immediately:
1. Define who gets to define you.
If you don’t decide, others will decide for you. God has defined you and called you. God knit you together. And that includes your personality, passions, skills, and capabilities. When you allow God to define you, you position yourself to live with complete integrity.
2. Study your true self.
Who are you? God knows, and it’s our job to find out. Take personality tests. And take more. Take spiritual and secular assessments. What you do with them matters more than who creates them.
Take some time to remember your childhood. It’s been said that we are never more our true self than when we were a child.
The better you understand your created self, the more you’ll live out created person.
3. Identify the images and expectations placed upon you.
You don’t need to name names or send letters. But it’s helpful to identify the expectations others have placed on you and consider how these expectations might lead you to an image, not to integrity.
Word of Caution: This is only helpful when biblical. You can’t say, “my wife expects me to be faithful, but that’s an image placed on me by her…” That’s not of God. When it doubt, live this out:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” – John 13:34
4. Decide how you’ll refine yourself.
As a follower of Jesus, you are created to be a part of the body of Christ. Meaning you are designed to be connected to a local church. The best people to help us refine are people who love us for who we are, not what they need.
Biblical refinement is the secret to living with integrity.
5. Build reminders into your refined life.
As you learn more about your true self, build tangible reminders around yourself as reminders. In biblical times, we call these alters.
In my office, I have skateboards hanging on my wall. I have a sketchpad. I have my favorite books. You get the point. Each of these items reminds me of me. More, each of these items reminds others about me.
Integrity isn’t a license to be the fully unrefined version of yourself. Being honest isn’t a “truth in love” license for bad behavior. Integrity is, however, your opportunity to let the image down and start being fully you.
How can I help?
Partnering with ministry and marketplace leaders from innovation through implementation is why I created Transformation Solutions. I’m dedicating my time to helping leaders like you discover potential problems, design strategic solutions, and deliver the preferable future.
Go right now to mytransformationsolutions.com and sign up for a free, 15-minute conversation to decide if working together works for you.