By Jeff and Terra Mattson
The church where I (Jeff) began my long-awaited first vocational ministry position had been at the same Seattle location since the early 1940s. Even with a history dating back to 1917, it no longer exists.
The primary reason the church closed its doors is rooted in the story of Rich and his integrity gap.
Rich was my first ministry boss and a gregarious kind of guy. He had moved from California and arrived on the scene five years before me.
He liked the city, apparently had gifts in business administration, and ultimately convinced our pastor, John, and his wife that he could help them with the kingdom work they were endeavoring to do.
When I was hired, only a few families and individuals were regularly tithing. Money was not the focus of the church, and if we needed to do something for hurting people, we knew God would provide in some amazing way.
To make a greater impact on our city and on the lives of those we served in our community, we needed a savvy businessperson to help steward and develop the limited resources God entrusted to us.
A full-time position was eventually created for Rich, and he became the church administrator.
About a year into my role as youth pastor, I got to work one day, and everyone on our small staff was wondering where Rich was, as no one had heard from him. It was really unusual not to see him there first thing in the morning.
After we were unable to contact his wife, Nelly, we began to get concerned that something had happened to him on his commute.
A team drove to Rich and Nelly’s home. The rest of us began to work and waited hopefully for an update that all was well.
What I soon found out made my stomach drop. I can feel it even as I write today.
The search team reached Nelly, and she gave my colleagues access to a hidden key to their house. They found it empty, and Rich’s wedding ring was on the master-bedroom dresser. It didn’t make any sense.
Hours went by with no word from Rich, and then pastor John called a meeting. As I read his body language and noticed the dread in his eyes, I tried to prepare myself for the worst.
“We don’t know where Rich is, but we know that my signature was forged and our bank accounts have been emptied.” The confusion was palpable.
I asked, “Did Rich steal from us and abandon his wife and all of us?” He answered with clarity: “Yes, it appears that is what has happened.”
Once more I felt the undertow and heard, “Welcome to ministry.”
Decades after walking out of that church building, I’m still regularly stopped in my tracks as I think through the events and relationships of that season.
How did things go so wrong? Were there red flags that the pastor and our team missed? Warning signs of a serious leadership integrity gap?
After many more experiences like this one and being a therapist who works with leaders and trauma, I (Terra) have grown to understand the difference between a red flag and a judgmental spirit, two signals often confused.
From the very beginning, I questioned Rich’s authenticity. I couldn’t put my finger on why I didn’t trust his words, but instead of pressing into that concern, I questioned my own integrity.
Something was not right in my gut, and I often wanted to talk about it, but I felt the internal shame message that it was just me. I would pray, but the feeling would not fade.
The church teaches us to trust God and others but to always question the authenticity of our own needs or desires.
This fact is important for trauma survivors to understand because abuse is a boundary crossing that teaches survivors to ignore their own feelings for the sake of a person or system.
I remember knowing something was wrong yet pushing that thought or feeling (I’m not sure which was stronger) away with a louder voice: Who tries to speak up about red flags with no proof?
This has often haunted me, as I see my own contribution to allowing harmful leaders to remain in places of power because of my own uncertainty and insecurity about rocking the boat.
If we could make room for red flags to be heard, discussed, and acted on if necessary, then the ripple effect of horrific abuse in the church would not have a place to grow.
Over the years we have crossed paths with hundreds of stories similar to Jeff’s early ministry scenario. Since then we’ve learned to recognize subtle patterns that signify a leadership integrity gap.
These red flags are often hiding in plain sight:
- A leader cannot tolerate questioning and refuses to allow disagreement.
- An organization has no accountability system for its top leaders, no regular check-ins or check-ups for a leader’s mental, emotional, and spiritual health.
- An organization places its leadership on a pedestal, leaving leaders isolated, vulnerable to blind spots, hiding and addictions.
- Rumors of a leader’s misconduct go unacknowledged or unaddressed.
- A leader is privately “talked to” about an integrity gap — but no plan for accountability is established or executed.
- A leader’s bad behavior is excused due to his or her leadership position or fear of damaging the organization’s reputation/funding.
- A leader has a continually rotating team and few long-term relationships.
- An organization quickly restores a leader to his/her place of authority after a moral failure — with no time dedicated to repair and healing.
As leaders, we must exercise courage; we must use speak up to protect the sheep from our own and others’ integrity gaps. Healthy churches and organizations require accountability systems for their leaders.
Whether you are preparing to lead or already are leading, make it your mission to humbly shrink your integrity gap for the rest of your life.
Excerpted from Shrinking the Integrity Gap by Jeff and Terra Mattson, © 2020 Living Wholehearted, LLC. Used by permission of David C Cook. May not be further reproduced. All rights reserved.
Jeff and Terra Mattson
Jeff and Terra are founders of Living Wholehearted, where they coach leaders and counsel individuals. Their new book is Shrinking the Integrity Gap: Between What Leaders Preach and Live.