Facing and Fighting the Corrupting Power of Leadership

I heard from a fairly young age that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I took from this that power is what corrupts in positions of leadership, and consequently, hubris is the sin that leads to the fall of leaders, including Christian leaders. Now, 28 years into serving or leading in Christian ministries, and ten years as a senior pastor of a large church, I’ve realized that hubris, though a favorite, isn’t the half of it. That’s because power isn’t the only corrupting pathogen native to leadership. This article is a sketch of a slightly wider set of leadership dynamics that tend to corrupt leaders. I offer this in order to prepare ourselves to develop and support leaders who are not overcome by the pathogenic dynamics of leadership. Whether we are ourselves leaders, or we are keeping a supportive vigilance over our brothers and sisters in leadership, we need to develop a spiritual and moral immune system that can continually contain and attack the creeping corruption we will all face until final redemption. Understanding how the natural dynamics of leadership inflame and tempt the flesh produces helpful insights. Further, understanding how they compound each other should give us renewed urgency in our vigilance over our own hearts and supportive compassion for those we encourage.

The enticements of leadership and our core idols:

Tim Keller is one Christian leader who has outlined the core idols of the human heart as:

  1. Power: The desire to use avenues of influence outside the constraints of virtue
  2. Affirmation: The desire for the approval of others that displaces our preeminent desire for God’s approval
  3. Control: The desire to have our plans go smoothly that rebels against the improvisational demands of providence or other legitimate wills
  4. Comfort: A desire for ease and pleasure that avoids stewardship responsibility and creative exertion

These are sometimes coordinated to the personality types of popular (and non-scientific) temperament tests like the DISC, MBTI, or the Enneagram. Some of us are more susceptible to one over others. We treat these like the “idolatry love languages,” with primary and secondary idolatry languages. I wish it were that limited.

In practice, I have found all four idolatries creeping in my heart at different times in my ministry, in different situations, and in different life seasons. To allow myself to focus on one, or even two, would be a mistake. I am even certain that there are more than four, and they are usually connected to a group of root wounds, needs, or confusions that increase the enticement of the idols and harbor their presence in us.

What is it about leadership that seems to propel us into the service of idols such as power, affirmation, control, and comfort? In addition to the temptations that come with leadership, its wearying effects can leave us increasingly vulnerable to corruption when they interact with the pressures and powers of leadership.

Pressures and powers of leadership:

Of course, the pressures and powers of leadership are not discrete; they are compounding. You can face them all at the same time, in the same season, and even in the same decision. 

  1. Authority is intoxicating or disheartening. Leaders have power. This is true and inescapable. We are given authority over a set of resources to discharge in order to accomplish the tasks bound up in our charge. Power is intoxicating for everyone, especially those that want it. It can also be disheartening. No one leads alone, and many people around you can subvert your authority. Authority creates an easy route to intoxication and, conversely, disillusionment.
  2. Responsibility is exhausting. Leaders are given responsibility. They are stewards: they own nothing, but are in charge of everything. The better a leader we become, often the more responsibility that will be entrusted to us. Responsibility matters, and the more seriously you take that trust, the more exhausting its weight becomes. This weight is especially exasperating for those who want ease and comfort.
  3. Disapproval is intimidating and approval is alluring. The more people you lead, the more exposed you are to their adulations, appreciation, complaints, disapproval, and abandonment. Humans long for belonging and security, and so this exposure becomes inherently intimidating. We quickly become able to predict how people will respond to our words and actions, and soon we can calculate the human response to our actions. Disapproval is intimidating, and appreciation is alluring. This is especially true of those who desire affirmation more, those struggling with wounds of insecurity, or those experiencing the isolation from deep friendships that leadership can foster.
  4. Complexity is bewildering. The more advanced our positions of trust, the more complex leadership usually becomes. You may have heard of the “Peter Principle,” that “employees rise to their level of incompetence.” This incompetence is usually a function of complexity. As the problems that leaders face become increasingly complex, problem solving and decision making become increasingly bewildering. There are more “no win” scenarios, and interest groups plainly demand contradictory actions. The bewildering nature of complexity and the anxiety that comes from not being able to find the right answer fast enough is particularly hard for those that desire control, such as highly conscientious types.

What is to be done?

Not everyone should be a leader (or not yet). James 3:1 is quite direct that not every believer should be a teacher. Neither should every believer be a leader. Hebrews 13:17 tells us that elders are those that will have to give account for how they kept watch over souls. The biblical responsibilities and qualifications for leadership (1 Tim. 3, Tit. 1, Acts 20, 1 Pet. 5, etc.) are morally serious and should be considered as such at the beginning of leadership. Leaders must not only count the cost of what they will give up, but also the pathogenic load that our spiritual immune system will have to bear. We should have the constitution to bear that load through our sanctification if we are given a trust of leadership. Do not accept or promote someone into leadership that does not yet have the spiritual constitution for it.

Accountability can’t save you. When Christian leaders fall, we hear people say, “what they needed was accountability.” This response is rooted in our anxiety to feel that the problem of leadership corruption can be “fixed,” so that we can feel safe and at peace. You cannot fix the problem of leadership corruption any more than you can fix the problem of the flu or COVID-19. Linda Stanley, who has worked for many years in church consulting, said the following in a recent email exchange:

“As for accountability, I observed pastors that have put all kinds of safeguards, guardrails, accountability partners, external accountability boards, etc., in place only to hit the wall, burnout, fall from grace, and in a few situations, commit suicide. It wasn’t that they didn’t really try to be accountable. The pressures and demands became too much and they did not allow themselves to admit that and seek help. Some began to “believe their own press” and abused their power and influence. Call it a dysfunction of our society, man’s sin nature, pride, etc. It’s the human condition and it will keep happening.”

I have many forms of accountability in my life: porn-reporting software on my screens, elders that meet with me bi-weekly and ask me very pointed questions, pathways for my staff to circumvent me to the elders if I act wrongly, an extremely vigilant assistant, a wife and children replete with candor. But let’s face it: These only work if I don’t lie. If I cooperate. Their main service is that they alert me to the power of enticements before they become so strong that I’m intoxicated by them. Accountability is helpful. It is no answer to the corrupting effects of leadership

Prioritize sanctification above leadership development. In my seminary days, we flocked to leadership conferences and were told always to be reading at least one leadership book. These books were beneficial—for maybe the first 2,000 pages. Meanwhile, Scripture, church fathers, and men like John Owen and Wesley confronted me with ideas like mortification and holiness that went beyond the positional sanctification familiar to me from my reformed background. I began to realize that I could not let my fear of self-righteousness keep me from the pursuit of righteousness. Only godliness can stand against the flesh and the continual corrupting enticements of leadership (Matt 5:6; 1 Tim 4:8).

Attend to primal wounds. God has seen fit to make humans emotionally complex. Clinical issues often rooted in primal wounds complicate the process of growth and bewilder the Christian pilgrim. I cannot tell you how many people do things they can’t seem to stop, or who do things for reasons they don’t understand. I’ve pastored many, many people that seem to be progressing in godliness, and then they just seem to get stuck, and certain faults seem supremely durable in their constitution. Our neglected soul wounds can create hiding places for the flesh that our conscious selves overlook or ignore. If the church is to be well led, we must help people overcome these wounds in Gospel-faithful ways. This may mean devoting personal or church funds to ensure leaders and ministry staff get the help they need to face issues related to abandonment, trauma, sexual abuse, family dysfunction, unexplained depression, intense anxiety systems, etc. Do it before they do something that will split the church or make the news. This also means looking for and supporting high quality counselors and spiritual directors and not complaining about what they charge.

Be ready to let it go. Many have said that if you can’t walk away from a negotiation, you’ve already lost. Similarly, if you can’t risk losing your place of leadership in order to keep the integrity of your stewardship, you aren’t free. St. Chrysostom wisely warned:

“I have not said that it is a terrible thing to desire the work [of a priest/pastor], but only the authority and the power. And this desire I think one ought to expel from the soul with all possible earnestness, not permitting it at the outset to be possessed by such a feeling, so that one may be able to do everything with freedom. For he who does not desire to be exhibited in possession of this authority, does not fear to be deposed from it, and not fearing this will be able to do everything with the freedom which becomes Christian men: whereas they who fear and tremble lest they should be deposed undergo a bitter servitude, filled with all kinds of evils, and are often compelled to offend against both God and man.”

If you are not ready to walk away or not ready to be deposed, then the one who pays the piper is already picking the tunes. No leadership thrives under this dynamic, especially Christian leadership—and worse than that, the pastorate. Jesus demanded of Peter that he take care of his sheep and feed them. If there comes a time when to feed and protect God’s sheep under our care means to lose our place of leadership, then it is a glorious and blessed thing to be deposed and rejected. And if it happens that God in his good providence allows you to be permanently removed from the position of ministry as a vocation, consider: why is that a sadness? Are you longing for the day when it ends in the glory? When such a responsibility of war is taken from your shoulders because the conflict is finally at an end? If God displaces you now for doing what integrity and godliness demands, why should you be dejected? I train every pastor and intern to prepare their hearts and their financial investments such that they could be kicked out of their position at any time because they choose to keep their integrity and execute their stewardship under the trust of Christ. I am not encouraging foolish brashness; especially among the young, pastors can moralize and create ultimatums over things that they could instead more strategically handle. But being prepared (emotionally and practically) to let go of your place of leadership will produce the freedom and noble spirit that makes one content to be either “consecrated to the dignity or removed from it,” which is an invaluable safeguard against temptation and corruption.

Practice vigilant compassion. Although every leader must face the inner task of leadership with piety and discipline, we cannot neglect that God has put us together for cooperation as well. The more we understand about the weight leaders carry, the corrupting influences they face, and the particular intense enticements endemic to this work, the more we will be both vigilant and supportive, investing in both accountability and rejuvenation. Last summer, Compassion International paid for me to spend four days in rural Nebraska shooting shotguns, going fishing, and sitting around a campfire with eight other pastors of large, growing churches. I didn’t realize how good it was for me until a week later. I went to hunt pheasants and catch walleyes, but I ended up being strengthened, helped, and encouraged by men I had never even met. My family and the elders of our church also support me when I leave for eight days to hunt elk, because they know that I come home a completely different person than when I left, in a good way. Similarly, our church has made it a priority to invest in the health of other church leaders in our community. Examples of this are paying the guide fee for pastors’ fishing trips and sponsoring a pastoral retreat for the African American Council of Churches in our city.

The who and the how

If you’re reading this, it may be because you feel frustrated with yourself or the leaders around you. Maybe you didn’t know the extent and effects of the corrupting powers of leadership. Maybe you thought your dryness, constant anxiety, or lingering depression was simply more evidence of your weakness or wretchedness. In an age when we are disheartened by the reports of one fallen leader after another, we may find ourselves asking, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24).

I’m not arguing against accountability, leadership training, or the promotion of young leaders.  Rather, I’m calling for us to return sanctification to its rightful place as our only true hope of improvement, along with a reminder that the crucified and risen Christ is the both the who and the how of the question above. Jesus is the only uncorrupted leader in the history of his Church, and it is by his Spirit, working in the places of groanings too deep for us to even understand, crying out to God for his power to conform us into his son, that we ultimately grow into glorification.

Understanding how leadership tears us down should give us renewed urgency in our vigilance over our hearts and supportive compassion for those we encourage. Let us not take lightly that great underappreciated promise: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt. 5:6).

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