Introductory Note:

As applications come in for the next cohort of the Renovaré Institute, a student asks Director of Education, Carolyn Arends, “Is there any chance we’re going to eventually find out some terrible secret about one of the leaders in this program?”

Carolyn takes the question as a jumping off point for writing about spiritual practices that help keep leaders immersed in honest, accountable relationship with God and with their fellow disciples. These “rhythms of God-connection and relentless transparency” are imperative not only for those in the ministry spotlight, but for all of us who hope to be credible witnesses of the Kingdom of God.

—Renovaré Team

Carrie was a new student in the Renovaré Institute, a two-year Christian spiritual formation program I oversee. She’d asked to meet over Zoom.

I anticipated discussing the typical student enquiries about homework and logistics. But the catch in her voice told me her question was about something more serious.

She swallowed hard and asked, Is there any chance we’re going to eventually find out some terrible secret about one of the leaders in this program?”

I hadn’t anticipated her question, but I immediately understood it. There had been a devastating spate of fallen Christian leaders in the news and the revelations had left her heartsick. If a skeleton was going to come out of one of our mentors’ closets, she’d rather stop the learning before it began.

Together, we unpacked the question. Carrie wasn’t asking if our teachers and the authors we read were perfect. She just needed to know they weren’t living split or self-contradicting lives.

She understood the failure of someone who professes to follow Christ does not invalidate the claims of Christ Himself. But our program emphatically affirms the possibility of transformation, of becoming increasingly whole and holy through cooperation with the Spirit. So, Carrie needed to know if the people making that claim could be relied on to embody it.

I confess I wasn’t sure what to say. I deeply respect the authors we assign and the lecturers we invite, and they are, to a person, the last folks I’d expect to have hidden lives. But the sobering fact is only God knows the secrets of the heart” (Psalm 44:10).

Still, after a pause and a prayer, I told Carrie I thought our teachers were a reasonable risk for two reasons.

First, each of the folks we’ve asked to teach about Jesus have sought to emulate the lifestyle of Jesus. They’ve paid attention to how often, in the Gospels, we see Jesus stepping away from His public work to connect with His Father. They’ve endeavored to move toward the slow, relational pace in which He conducted His demanding ministry.

As a result, these teachers have woven such deeply entwined cords of solitude, silence, worship, prayer, and fellowship into the fabric of their lives that it would be difficult for them to become unravelled without either themselves or their community noticing. These habits and rhythms don’t make them bulletproof. But they sure help.

I’ve noticed this same principle in the life of my (now retired) pastor Brian Buhler. When Brian was 35 he received his first post as a senior pastor. He invited author and professor Mark Senter III to come preach at his church. Following Mark’s sermon Brian pronounced the benediction.

Proactively cultivate the rhythms of God-connection and relentless transparency that will make you a credible witness for others. 

As people were mingling,” Brian remembers, Mark walked up to me, placing his hands on my shoulders. And then he spoke these words. Brian, I don’t know you at all, but I can see that you have gifts for pastoral ministry. Don’t ignore the spiritual disciplines. If you do, no one will know for 20 years. But in 20 years everyone will know.’”

The folks I can trust are people who, like Brian, understand their natural gifts will only take them so far. They’ve put the necessary disciplines in place to keep them healthy in the long run, for the sake of their souls and the good of others.

The second reason, I told Carrie, that I have a high confidence level in the integrity of our mentors is because of the supremely high value they place on transparency. They understand self-deception is a real and present danger. So they’ve implemented routines like the prayer of examen (a daily review before God’s loving gaze), spiritual direction sessions and the cultivation of gut-level honesty in their closest friendships. They’re quick to apologize and the first to acknowledge their own struggles.

They don’t pretend they never stumble. But they do all they can to walk in the light” (1 John 1:7).

My hope in this column is not to commend the leadership of the Renovaré Institute, but to urge you, dear reader, to proactively cultivate the rhythms of God connection and relentless transparency that will make you a credible witness for others. Guaranteed, there are Carries in your life who desperately need to see a lover of Jesus who can say, without irony, Follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

Originally published in Faith Today.

Photo by Jyotirmoy Gupta on Unsplash

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