Journeying towards integrity

Integrity. What a word: inspiring and daunting all at the same time. Instantly it conjures up images of our greatest leaders; of men and women who knew what they stood for and lived by it - Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Jose Mourinho*. At the same time, the word (and that list) has connotations of unmatchable expectations: idealism we’ll never quite live up to. We want to be people of integrity, but we know ourselves too well to believe we’ll ever truly manage it.

In essence, integrity is about our actions and our words matching up; the two being ‘integrated’ with one another as we present ourselves to others. It’s taken from the Latin word for ‘intact’ (intregritas), which also refers to wholeness, completeness, and soundness. When we truly demonstrate the characteristic of integrity, we are exactly who we say we are.

Here’s the key, I think, to understanding what it means to become a person of integrity: it doesn’t happen overnight. The path of integrity isn’t a short walk but a long and difficult journey: a process of selfreflection, self-improvement and learning from the times when we come up short. It’s a journey that is – I would argue – a thousand times more difficult when we take it alone, without the nurturing, correcting, revealing presence of God by our side. It’s the journey of a lifetime, an entire life’s work.

Samuel’s example

The Bible gives us an incredible picture of what it looks like to get to the end of that journey successfully, but I’m afraid it’s a rather daunting one. The story takes place in 1 Samuel 12, just as the great prophet who gives that book its name has anointed Saul as Israel’s first king. Samuel gathers the people for his retirement speech. This was a seriously big event, on a par with a coronation or state funeral. The man who had governed over Israel for decades was now preparing to address it for a final time: his last words of wisdom before stepping out of the spotlight that he’d occupied for so long. Whatever the venue, it was standing room only.

He opens with something quite remarkable. ‘Here I stand,’ he says. ‘Testify against me in the presence of the Lord and his anointed. Whose ox have I taken? Whose donkey have I taken? Whom have I cheated? Whom have I oppressed? From whose hand have I accepted a bribe to make me shut my eyes? If I have done any of these things, I will make it right.’ Now I’ve been to a few leaving dos, and I’ve heard a fair few leaving and retirement speeches, but I’ve never heard anything like this. When I left the full-time employment of this very periodical, I didn’t invite HR to check my file for official complaints made against me (ED: no comment), or open up the floor for constructive personal feedback. I presented the version of myself that I wanted others to see, listened awkwardly to the CEO’s kind words and then left for the pub as quickly as humanly possible.

Not Samuel. What he does is invite the assembled people to list his failings, right there, loudly and in the most public forum imaginable. Those moments when he’s abused his power, the times he’s committed a little indiscretion with a member of the opposite sex, the occasions he’s told a white lie, or accepted a small ‘incentive’ to help shape his decision-making. Every slip, every mistake, every moment when his words and his deeds haven’t quite matched up, over the whole of his career: this is an open invitation for the whole ugly truth to come spilling out. And of course, the people don’t bring a single accusation against him. As they say through that weird collective voice of the people that you often find in the Bible: ‘You have not cheated or oppressed us… you have not taken anything from anyone’s hand.’

Samuel is a man relinquishing his power; he has nothing left apart from his reputation and in a sense, he has everything to lose by putting that on the line in the most democratic way imaginable. The reason why the people won’t list the lapses in his character isn’t out of some mafia-type fear, but because there simply haven’t been any. He has been exactly who he said he was.

Samuel therefore is an awesome role model for leadership integrity. And while none of us will be able to get to the end of our leadership careers with entirely faultless records, this picture is one to aspire to. When we imagine our own final leadership speeches, whether that might be five or 50 years from now, what needs to change to enable us to stand before our ‘people’ and take the same risk as Samuel? How do we become people whose lives are so rich with honesty, whose righteous words match up so directly with our actual lives, that we might truly be described as people of integrity? Not at the start of our careers when most of the challenges and temptations are yet to hit, but like Samuel, right at the end.

Most of us share a yearning for selfimprovement, and it’s met in following the examples of heroes like Samuel, and ultimately in trying to become more like Jesus. Like I said before, it’s a lifelong journey, and like all good journeys, it’s made through a series of intentional steps:

Decide who you really want to be

I was the guest speaker at a church youth event in June 2004. Sunday, 13th June to be precise. I can give such accuracy because I know that I spoke directly before England’s crunch Euro 2004 clash with France. In my pre-match slot, I spoke passionately to the young people about how, while football was great, it wasn’t important in comparison to the life that God calls us to (yes, really). The talk went well, and so I settled down with snacks and about 150 teenagers to watch the match on a giant screen. It started well with England taking the lead, but at 90 minutes, it all started to unravel. First, the legendary Zinedine Zidane scored a glorious free-kick equaliser and moments later, the not-solegendary England goalkeeper David James gave away a penalty, which France scored from. From the jaws of glorious victory, we’d grabbed stinking defeat.

I was angry. I was upset. I screamed and shouted at the screen. I threw things. I possibly uttered a rude word. All of which would have been perfectly understandable… if I hadn’t still been seated among the same group of teenagers to whom I’d just delivered a sermon about the non-importance of football. My words and my actions simply did not match up – and didn’t they know it!

If integrity is about true harmony between who we are and who we say we are, then we need to be clear about what we’re aiming for. What are the values we truly want to espouse? What are the things that we’d like others to say of us, even without us having to prompt them? Based on that experience, young people will have heard me say that God was more important than football, but they’d have seen and experienced the opposite, and that’s much more powerful. Once the red mist had faded later that evening, I was heartbroken. I felt like I’d let myself, and that group of teenagers, down really badly. I had lost sight of what I stood for.

The practical: Take some time to write out your core values as a person, leader and follower of Jesus. These are the things that you’d like to be true of you - they don’t have to be totally true of you right now. Pin them to your fridge / wall / door, and make sure you’re regularly reminded of them.

Identify the areas of tension

I want to suggest that the next major step in developing our own integrity involves radical honesty. I’m not suggesting that you walk into a crowded coffee shop and start confessing the worst secrets of your internet browsing history to anyone who’ll listen, I’m talking about the inward-facing variety.

In his phenomenal (and muchplagiarised) book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster talks about how the practice of Christian meditation can be in three ‘directions’. For centuries, he explains, God’s people have spent time deeply reflecting on him and his character. They’ve also devoted great time to meditating on his word: listening for the voice of the Spirit in the text as opposed to rigorously studying it. But the third type of Christian meditation which Foster describes and advocates is inward reflection. This is where we take time in quiet to place our own lives under the microscope, taking time to notice where God has been at work in our lives already, and realising where there’s still work left to do.

The problem with the pace and complexity of modern life – and the sometimes-hectic youth ministry lifestyle – is that we often fail to do this. We have a vague sense that we’re not quite yet who we want to be, but we don’t take the time to really think about where the cracks are. Perhaps it’s a bit scary to do so. But as they say in extreme sports circles (with which I’m clearly familiar): face the fear and do it anyway.

The practical: Take some time in silence, with all distractions put away, to reflect on those areas of dis-integration in your life: the ‘besetting’ sins or bad habits which prevent you from being the person you described on that list.

Take deliberate steps toward integration

The great thing about youth ministry is that it’s an intensely practical discipline. So the great news is that the final step involves finding practical treatments for the sicknesses you’ve identified. In the otherwise-unremarkable Evan Almighty, there’s a great moment where Morgan Freeman’s God character talks to Evan’s wife about the nature of prayer. ‘Let me ask you something,’ he says. ‘If someone prays for patience, do you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient? If he prayed for courage, does God give him courage, or does he give him opportunities to be courageous?’ I reckon this is pretty good theology, and it’s also a good suggestion for how to build integrity and character in general.

So if we’re serious about closing the gap between who we want to be, and perhaps say we are, and who we are in truth, then it’s time to take some active steps toward doing so. The journey towards integrity means that, having asked God to show us where we’re not yet fully-formed, we look for opportunities to practice integration. If we speak of generosity, let’s look for opportunities to be generous; if we speak of justice and compassion, yet in truth, our lives are pretty empty of evidence of either: don’t stop at feeling guilty - take some action. And perhaps we should simply take Morgan Freeman at his word, and ask him (well, God) to give us those opportunities.

The practical: Choose one area of dis-integration in your own character, and find some practical strategies that will allow you to practise what you preach about it. If you preach about sexual purity but secretly struggle with pornography, then it’s time to make some changes. If you compel others to pray, while your prayer life is as dead as a dodo, then create some personal disciplines around prayer.

All of this, really, is not just about becoming the people that we subjectively think we should be, but becoming more like Jesus. Integrity in Christian leadership means talking like Jesus and walking like Jesus, without any discrepancy between the two. None of us are there yet, but fear or guilt at the scale of the gap is no answer. It’s a journey, and one we can embark on together through ideas like these, and through dedicated resources like Youthscape’s Open Me devotional (see box). Achieving integrity, like that displayed by Samuel, is never a story of overnight success; it is right at the heart of what it means to become more human, more like Jesus, more like we were always meant to be.

Open Me: the honest truth

In the spirit of this article, it’s time for a bit of full disclosure. This month, Youthscape is launching the second season of Open Me, our characterdevelopment devotional for Christian youth leaders. Sound niche? You bet, but that’s ok, because it’s aimed squarely at you, the person reading this magazine. We believe passionately that if we’re serious about seeing young people’s lives change, then that change starts with us. Reflecting on and developing Christ-like character should be a primary focus of Christian youth leaders, because we can only disciple young people out of our own discipleship. So please sign up. It’s free, it only lasts for six weeks (starting mid-February), and we send you free stuff.

But… since we’re being really integrous here, we should probably tell you the un-doctored truth about our story so far. Season one, our seven-week pilot, focusing on developing Christ-like courage, tanked. Over 300 people signed up, but thanks to the joys of technology, we know exactly how many of them actually saw the journey through. Guess how many people interacted with the whole course, all the way through? One.

While this stuff is important, it’s also hard. Investing in our own character development is costly; it involves putting down our agendas (and maybe turning off Netflix for a bit), and carving out regular time. It involves self-discipline, focus and self-control, all counter-cultural attributes in an age of constant distraction. We believe this stuff matters, and is worth doing. So we’re having another go and this time, our focus is on the characteristic of integrity. Sign up for season two at If you’re a little late to the party, we’ll make sure we catch you up.

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