No matter your religious background, it’s nearly impossible to ignore the tremendous legacy of Billy Graham. As the world received the news this week of his passing, his influence permeated every news feed, including my own on Facebook.
Reports say that Graham spoke in front of live audiences totaling almost 215 million people in his lifetime. He was the pastor to Presidents and some would say the entire United States at pivotal times of distress and decision.
His simple message and contagious passion for Jesus affected spiritual transformation in millions of people. And yet, throughout his life and ministry, there wasn’t a controversy or scandal that sidelined or marginalized his ministry or impact.
Graham’s power and influence came because his message matched his mandate; he practiced what he preached in word and in deed.
As we reflect on Graham’s life, we need to be reminded of the unmatched importance of integrity and character.
You just can’t fake it
We’ve all heard it, and for years I said I believed it: character matters more than competency.
And yet in the past, there have been times when I have promoted a rock star speaker or leader to a level of leadership that their character either didn’t match or simply wasn’t ready for. The end has always been a downright catastrophe.
This is the simple but painful lesson I have learned: influence plus character brings fruit. Influence minus character brings disaster.
So, how can we facilitate the better equation? Not merely through education. Humility, grace, trustworthiness, and integrity cannot be taught. They are forged in patterns and rhythms of a growing disciple who understands that the ministry and mission are more important than themselves.
In this way, you just can’t fake it – character matters more than competency.
Learning from Billy
So how did Billy Graham live a life above reproach? How did he keep morally clean in a morally unclean world?
In their book, The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham, Harold Myra and Marshall Shelley outline three of Graham’s convictions that led to his lasting influence.
The starting point of these convictions lay in Billy’s belief that “spiritual enthusiasm does not make you immune to greed, pride, lust, and ambition.” With that in mind, Billy and his entire organization committed to living out these three safeguards:
1. Shady handling of money
Graham and his team knew that emotional appeals work. With the massive crowds Billy spoke to, the inherent temptation would be to wring out as much money as possible from an audience.
However, Graham refused to go down this road. Instead of looking at the audience to help his ministry continue, he created a fundraising plan beyond his speaking ministry to finance the mission. This method was unheard of at the time as other traveling evangelists would simply pocket the money for their personal use.
Graham ensured that the offerings given during his events were not the sole provider for his financial needs. Because of this, his team continually downplayed the offering to ensure it was not a distraction or hindrance from the gospel message he presented.
2. Sexual immorality
Graham knew that with being widely known and celebrated came sexual temptation.
In order to combat this issue, Graham and his team pledged to live above reproach with members of the opposite sex. He said, “We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have been even the appearance of compromise or suspicion.” This meant that they wouldn’t be in the same room alone with a member of the opposite sex other than their wives.
As faith leaders, we must do more than not play with sexual temptation – we must flee from it. Scripture doesn’t leave much room for interpretation when it comes to the gravity and consequences of such sin.
Graham knew this and led himself and his organization to flee from any appearance of sin.
3. Exaggerated accomplishments
Graham knew that there were no small sins. Therefore, he decided to put procedures in place to promote truth-telling. For example, instead of exaggerating the size of an audience, Graham and his team accepted crowd estimates from the police and other officials, even if they believed there were more people in attendance.
This is a lesson needing to be retaught in our social media age in which optics seem to matter most; where we can angle our pictures in such a way that our gatherings seem fuller than they are; and when we drop names and numbers purposefully to tell people how successful we are.
When we exaggerate our accomplishments, we erroneously believe the lie that we are what we do, and in so doing, tether our identity to our work. When this happens we ride the rollercoaster of our success’ and failures, instead of finding our identity in Jesus’ work.
Graham warred against the tendency to show himself to be more successful than he was because he wanted to show how great God was, and not himself. We need to do the same.
Character or competency?
Brad Lomenick, former Catalyst leader said, “Talent and ability may help you get to the top, but it takes character and integrity to stay there.”
Do you believe this?
As leaders, we need to not only develop skill and acumen but sharpen every ministry and leadership tool we can, just never at the cost of character.
Billy knew this, lived it and proved over the course of his ministry. And it was because of this integrity that God immensely blessed and anointed his ministry.
And that’s why his legacy and his influence will be remembered forever.