The world has no shortage of political and business leaders — or church leaders — who fall prey to greed, corruption, or selfish behavior. Does the church have a role to play in helping such leaders resist temptation and live with more integrity?
Baptist ethicist Louise Kretzschmar of South Africa addressed that question July 10 in a joint session of the Christian Ethics commission and the Theological Education and Leadership commission of the Baptist World Alliance, meeting in Izmir, Turkey.
In a paper entitled “Beyond milk: The moral failure and ongoing formation of lay Christian leaders in the Church and society,” Kretzschmar noted that corruption among people in power on many levels is rampant. This reflects a need for greater moral formation in society, she said, and especially among leaders who are Christian.
“Spiritual formation is initiated by God’s grace,” Kretzschmar said. It “requires a human response to the regular prompting of the Holy Spirit, and results in mature persons and communities of faith. For Christian leaders it forms the foundation, motivation and principle means of moral formation, which is the development of moral virtue, character, behavior and lifestyle.”
How is ethical character to be formed in leaders of business, education, politics, and charitable organizations? Even those who are Christian, she said, may belong to “churches where they receive very little in the way of discipleship, support, intellectual input and spiritual formation. As a result, they may have developed a ‘split’ spirituality that separates their faith from their workplace activities.”
“Christian leaders need to be rooted in the stability of a relationship with God and the simplicity of a life that is straightforward and open,” Kretzschmar said. “This rootedness in a God-centered life of righteousness can enable them to face the confusion and conflicts that arise as a result of morally wrong motives, relationships and actions and to be peacemakers.”
Kretzschmar named three levels at which Christian leaders face perils that need to be overcome for their lives to be characterized by integrity and generosity. On the “micro” level, leaders are threatened by “arrogance, self gratification and indifference towards the needs of other people and the planet.” Insecurities such as “self-protective withdrawal, a sense of despair, fear, and the unwillingness to take a stand on a matter of moral principle” may also have an effect, easing the way for leaders to surrender ethical principles for the sake of profit or promotion.
Christian leaders should also be aware of the “perils of over-scheduling, burnout, a loss of faith and direction and family breakdown,” Kretzschmar said.
Leaders should engage in personal reflection on values and the meaning of success as compared to biblical teachings about faith and stewardship, she said. “The longing for meaning in life cannot be distanced from God’s purposes for us and what leaders value deeply needs to be questioned because it will determine what they choose.”
Those who become self-aware and competent, living healthy and emotionally balanced lives “are able to reflect on the moral elements of decision making,” and “can add significant value to their family life, communities and the world of work,” Kretzschmar said.
On a “meso” level, we should recognize that leaders are a part of the broader community that includes the church, and in which “Pastors and theologians need to provide teaching that both critiques elements of the secular mindset in which these lay leaders work and provides relevant and constructive insights to guide and support the decision making and actions of these leaders.” Being active members of a church and of larger Christian organizations can provide role models and support for Christians to maintain exemplary values in other areas. This could encourage them to promote company policies that value the welfare of employees and the community and not just the financial bottom line.
The church can help on this level by raising up people to mentor or coach business and political leaders who are Christians and encourage them to continue growing in their faith and Christian maturity.
Leaders working on the “macro” level are aware of national and international conflicts, the impact of industry on the environment, massive economic disparities, and other issues. Thus, it is important for the church to speak truth to power. Business values such as maximizing short-term profits at the expense of workers or the environment “are in conflict with a Christian norm of the stewardship of the earth and what is good for society as a whole,” and the church should say so.
Likewise, the church should long for “Christians in political leadership that are credible in the eyes of the broader electorate because they work to improve the lives of citizens and neither hide their faith nor use it to pander to the interests of particular groups in order to gain votes,” she said. In particular, Christian leaders should show concern for the marginalized and neglected, especially children and young people who are vulnerable to violence and exploitation.
The church can respond to these needs, Kretzschmar argued, by offering theological training to lay people and encouraging Christian leaders to grow in their personal faith and to uphold values that focus more on the world’s needs than personal greed.
In a discussion period following the presentation, Richard Wilson of Mercer University called the paper a “stunning admonition” and asked how we should respond when it’s the church that exploits people.
“It’s impossible for spiritual leaders to help others when they are the problem,” Kretzschmar responded. “We need renewal in the churches, and renewal begins with us.” The church can’t focus on social ministry alone without seeking spiritual growth first, she said. “Ambition, greed, and indifference to the needs of others can afflict pastors, too.” To deal with that, she said, “We have to have the kind of fellowship in which we can speak truth to each other.”
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.