Image management. There’s nothing particularly wrong with those two words, but when you put them together and give them to a ministry leader, it is a deadly cocktail. Image management is what we begin to do when our inner world becomes separated from our outer world. If the outward and inward are not integrated, we literally come apart. And we have seen plenty of examples in recent years of leaders whose lives have disintegrated.
Because Jesus knew the dangers of disintegration, he had zero tolerance for duplicity. He railed more against image management than anything else he talked about and didn’t pull any punches when talking about the image management of the Pharisees. Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels.
To the average synagogue attendee, these ministry professionals looked zealous and committed. Prayer boxes, tassels, and tithes were their trappings, but the problem was not the trappings—these could be legitimate expressions of spiritual devotion. The problem was the Pharisees used them to project the image of a life they had stopped living.
According to Jesus, the Pharisees seemed clean, righteous, and pure, but inwardly they were filthy, impure, and self-indulgent. Paying attention to your outer life while your inner life languishes is like getting a facelift when you have a malignant tumor.
If you’ve been in ministry any length of time, you know what it is to be a Pharisee. We all know what it’s like to prop up an external image that doesn’t match our soul reality. Sometimes the life I preached about on Sunday wasn’t the life I was experiencing Monday through Saturday.
The greatest danger isn’t in projecting a false image; there’s a Pharisee inside all of us, and I suspect we’ll struggle with this as long as we live. The greatest danger is in getting comfortable with it, learning how to “succeed” with a disconnected soul. Over time we can become very adept at playing the image-management game. The truth is you don’t have to have a healthy soul to be seen as a success in ministry.
You are walking in a ministry minefield when your outward success begins to outpace your inward life. In recent years we’ve seen people whose outward success was beyond what their character could handle. Part of what makes this so challenging is that outward success brings strokes and affirmation and applause. It’s easy to put energy in the areas where I feel significant and important.
In the movie Avatar, Marine Jake Sully is a paraplegic whose military assignment is to gather intel by using an “avatar” identity. Even though he was broken, the avatar he lived through virtually was strong, powerful and whole. The avatar everyone saw was radically different than the Jake Sully no one saw. Many of us in ministry feel the need to assume an “avatar” identity.
A Latin phrase on an ancient coat of arms speaks to the tension of image management. Esse quam videri means “to be rather than appear to be,” and those words resonate with my spirit. I don’t want there to be a gap between what I am and what I portray. I don’t want to project an avatar when my internal world is broken. But as the years go by, I have found it easy to function out of my experience and gifting and skill rather than dependence upon God.
Many years ago I lived in Dallas and worked downtown. At the time, downtown Dallas was undergoing a major facelift. Across the street from the old historic First Baptist Church was a dilapidated, boarded-up YMCA building. We heard it had been purchased and a new skyscraper was taking its place. Weeks went by and nothing happened. We’d see an occasional worker go in or come out, but nothing changed. No crews, no machinery, no wrecking ball.
Then we were notified that on a Saturday morning the old building was coming down, so we went downtown to watch. At the appointed time, we heard a muffled explosion. Slowly the walls began to crack, bricks began to crumble, and finally the whole thing fell in on itself in a pile of dust and rubble.
All those weeks when we thought nothing was going on, when nothing was changing on the outside, a systematic dismantling was taking place inside. Weaknesses were being exposed, and skilled demolition experts were working their magic. The end result was a total collapse, an implosion.
This image has served as a warning to me. When I practice image management I am headed toward an implosion.
I remember sitting in Milwaukee a few years back with a group of veteran Christian leaders, talking about spiritual formation. One white-haired man at the table was probably in his upper sixties and had served in ministry with InterVarsity more than forty years. I will never forget the words that quietly but powerfully rolled off his lips: “The older I get, the less concern I have with what I have or have not done and the more concern I have for what I have or have not become.”
The older I get, the more his words ring true to me. They’re a call to pay attention to what’s happening inside. They are a reminder that I have a soul. I am more than simply what I achieve outwardly.
A healthy soul keeps my life glued together (integrated). Neglect of the soul and preoccupation with doing, achieving, and succeeding will inevitably lead to image management.
So, how are you doing with this one? If your life were a building, are you being dismantled from the inside? Is an implosion in your future? Take a risk this week and get together with a trusted friend. Have a gut-level conversation about image management.