‘Don’t try too hard to guard your reputation.’
A brother once spoke these words into my life, and I am deeply grateful that he did. I had shared with him about a couple of situations in which my reputation was at risk unfairly. As we walked away from the café where we met, he offered these words as a gentle reproof to my troubled heart. I have thought of them often while navigating the world of ministry. For we live in a reputation-fuelled culture.
Reputation matters in Christian circles.
In our loosely inter-connected evangelical subculture, it is the currency which unlocks speaking and writing invitations and job and committee appointments. Perhaps this is inevitable to some degree, but, sadly, gatekeepers to these ministry opportunities don’t always look beyond charisma in both its modern and biblical senses. A strong personality (the modern sense) and spiritual gifting (the biblical sense) are used to assess a person’s suitability for the role, while character is not properly considered.
Consider the process of taking references. The right questions sometimes aren’t asked. Candidates may choose referees who don’t know their true character, and those who do may not share it openly for fear of losing their own reputation. It’s a tangled web.
I have come to the conclusion that there are two unhealthy ways that people in ministry respond to this reputation-based culture.
Personified, I will call them,
They are not mutually exclusive, but can exist at the same time in a person’s heart. In what follows, I will describe them in their most extreme forms.
Boosters embrace the culture founded upon reputation building. They may start out with good intentions; they may want to use their God-given gifts, but they get sucked into building their progress on their reputation. Fearing that any whiff of negativity may harm their prospects, they hide their true selves behind ‘whiter than white’ public personas. In this hidden space, pride thrives and boosters start to believe their own social media propaganda. It then leads to manipulative and controlling leadership. This in turn goes unchallenged by others who fear that they might lose their reputation if they express a concern.
When challenges do come, extreme boosters justify their behaviour by invoking God, and they use fair means or foul to silence dissent. There are always enough admirers and ‘yes people’ to sustain the illusion. Honesty is sacrificed on the altar of the ego. Subconscious jealousy motivates boosters to exclude rivals by damning them with the faint praise that kills reputations. Hidden addictions and immoral behaviours also begin to flourish, occasionally coming to light in explosive disgrace that brings the gospel into disrepute.
Bombers are at the other end of the scale. They reject the culture of reputation. Bombing is a greater temptation for those who place a high premium on integrity or have been harmed by boosters in the past. In response to boosters’ dominance, they withdraw out of fear of being squashed by stronger personalities or becoming proud themselves. Chronically discouraged by the injustices of ‘the system’ and the ‘crash and burn’ stories of fallen boosters, some bombers abandon ministry altogether. Others retreat from the politics of pan-evangelicalism, preferring to focus on small and localised ministries. A few even give up on the faith altogether. Bombers often dream of a culture which recognises authentic godly character, but struggle to see how such a culture can be developed without playing the booster game.
Faced with these twin temptations, how should Christian servants approach the question of reputation?
Be encouraged. There is hope, but it’s the subject of my next post.
This week we are also releasing the latest in our catalogue of refreshed resources for leaders, the first part of a two-part article by Roy Bishop on pastoral care in the situation of adultery. You can find it here. We hope you find it helpful. Part 2 will follow in a future blog post.