Five lessons recent church leadership failures can teach us


(RNS) — Earlier this week, retired pastors and staff of the African Methodist Episcopal Church brought a class-action lawsuit against church officials over the loss of more than $90 million in retiree pension funds. A month ago, the AME church halted retiree payments over concerns about financial mismanagement. That a religious institution lost such a staggering amount of money is mind-boggling.

This betrayal of retirees and church members comes on the heels of another failure involving the leadership of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, a separate denomination. As RNS’ Adelle M. Banks reported on Jan. 25, “Staccato Powell, the former president of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church’s board of bishops, was federally charged with fraud and conspiracy connected to allegations of mishandling the properties of congregations in California and fraudulently gaining millions of dollars for personal use.”

There are clear reasons why our leadership is not performing to the standards we should expect. Here are five reasons behind the problem:

We aren’t talking correctly about integrity. Integrity gets bandied about in leadership courses in business schools. It’s more than a course module however: It’s a requirement for leaders. Nothing worthwhile can be sustained without integrity. Integrity is living in private who we say we are in public. It is holding ourselves to the highest standards of moral and ethical conduct. It is aligning our private lives with truth and godliness. Followers on social media or money in the bank are no substitute or measure of integrity.

RELATED: More than $90 million missing from AME pension funds, claim class-action lawsuits

There must be checks and balances for high-ranking elected leaders. The baffling thing about the AME retirement scandal is the apparent lack of an oversight body ensuring retirees’ funds were properly handled. It shouldn’t take a crisis of this magnitude to appreciate the need for multiple layers of protection. As journalist Roland Martin of the Black Star News Network conveyed, “leadership is responsible for leading.” We must move from uplifting those we like to installing those who are expertly qualified and then ensuring they are delivering as expected. Even then, there must be checks and balances to protect the individual and the institution.

We never get beyond right and wrong. In my book “First and Only: What Black Women Say About Thriving at Work and in Life,” I note that we never get so established in our lives or careers where we don’t have to choose — no matter how much good we have done, how many people we have helped or how many accolades we have racked up, the potential to ruin our legacy with a poor decision is always there. Anyone can fail if they stop examining decisions with this in mind. 

The African Methodist Episcopal Church's annuity investment department location in Memphis, Tennessee. Image courtesy of Google Maps

The African Methodist Episcopal Church’s annuity investment department location in Memphis, Tennessee. Image courtesy of Google Maps

We need courage. Courage enables us to tell the truth, even when doing so is risky. Courage enables us to decline a position because we don’t have the bandwidth to do it well, even though the money and status the position affords are alluring. Courage enables us to vote against the political party of our parents and friends if that party or elected leader doesn’t align with our belief system and values. Anyone who seeks to lead well must have courage.

Power and money can be dangerous. Not everyone has the moral character, experience and integrity to manage significant sums of money and immense power well. We should not set people up to fail by putting them in positions for which they are not qualified.

Women breaking through to top roles in Black churches

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Anyone can fail, however. The real question is what to do after a mistake. The first step is to turn away from the problematic thinking or behavior. The next is to apologize to the people we have harmed.

Once we’ve apologized, privately and perhaps publicly, depending on your position or the situation, we can seek to make amends. Saying “I’m sorry” without repairing the harm is insufficient. We should also remove ourselves, at least temporarily, from any situation where we might be liable to fail.

If people of faith cannot be trusted to do what is right when people are and are not watching, how can we be a beacon of hope in a world in desperate need of it?

(Jennifer R. Farmer is the author of “First and Only: What Black Women Say About Thriving at Work and in Life.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)


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