THE PERIL OF THE PLATFORM
by Trevor DeVage
It is easy, and perhaps even appropriate, to criticize, and perhaps even condemn, Jerry Falwell Jr. for his multiple indiscretions that finally led to his departure from Liberty University last week.
Most reports of his resignation also include a few facts about all that Falwell did to benefit the university: the property acquisitions, the fundraising, the endowment building, the enrollment growth. The school’s financial situation is exponentially stronger today because of Falwell’s accomplishments. So I’m pondering who’s really responsible for whatever negative fallout the school will receive because of this scandal. And who is responsible for the scandal itself?
Clearly, Falwell himself must shoulder significant blame. His repeated lapses in judgment and then clear violations of evangelical and Biblical norms leave him without excuse.
While some of these happened in private and the details surrounding some of them are in dispute, Falwell’s missteps have been known for years. Were those responsible for the school unable—or unwilling—to keep Falwell on a proper path?
THE PERSON AND HIS PLATFORM
Falwell is the latest, but certainly not the first, to illustrate a well-worn proverb: “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” It points out that those at the top may have trouble remembering their own limitations and weaknesses. They tend to start believing the praise of those who see only their celebrity. If this leads to public disgrace, the impact affects not only the person but also the institution and its several levels of stakeholders. An apt corollary: “The more prominent the platform, the greater the peril.”
It’s a principle worth heeding by more than nationally known headline makers. While all of us can realize from afar how an attitude of entitlement or an assumption of self-importance has sown seeds of leadership failure, we may not see it at work in ourselves. Every parachurch executive, every business leader, every preacher, every small group leader, every teacher, every parent must watch for and reject the devil’s believable lies: “You’re special.” “You deserve this little pleasure, even if some would say it’s wrong.” “You know more than your critics. Don’t listen to them.” “You know more than your audience. Lord it over them.”
This becomes even more dangerous if we don’t acknowledge the responsibility that comes with our privilege. Falwell assumed his platform with the claim that others should handle spiritual leadership at the school. His job, he said, was simply to increase the numbers: enrollment, endowment, net worth. But today, in spite of the spreadsheet successes, his personal life and reputation are in tatters. To paraphrase Jesus, “What shall it profit a man if he builds a great ministry but loses his own soul?”
THE PLATFORM AND ITS CREATORS
But those at the pinnacle are not the only ones to consider the danger they’re in. Those calling a person to the platform do well to ask, “Why do we want this person?” and “How do we care for our leader’s inner life as well as outward performance?”
This demands the same regular rigor as the leader should demonstrate toward himself. Again and again we’ve seen ministry boards ignore or excuse a leader’s poor behavior with, “Oh that’s just [insert name here] being [insert the name again].” Sometimes this is because the board wants what the leader will produce more than they want the leader himself. (We can hope Liberty’s board is satisfied with their financial success at the expense of the church’s reputation blemished yet again by a morally deficient star.) Sometimes this is because a ministry depends on overextended volunteer members unwilling or unable to sacrifice the time and energy required of a board that does its job. Sometimes board members are under educated or poorly trained to fulfill their responsibility.
Sometimes boards overlook instead of overseeing their leader’s performance because they’re confused about how to relate to him or her. It’s true that the board’s job is not management but mission. But nothing is more crucial to a ministry’s mission than the wisdom and character of its most visible leader. Boards do well to assure procedures or frameworks for helping leaders become the best possible, most God-honoring version of themselves.
A leader’s success, and any ministry’s mission, depend on more than the numbers reported at a regular meeting. Somehow, amid the craziness surrounding Jerry Falwell Jr. for years, those responsible for Liberty’s mission seem to have missed that.