If Everyone Else is on Steroids …

We just finished a rather long series of posts focused around the examples and issues raised in the new book by Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age. The final post Tuesday What Makes a Leader? looked specifically at the characteristics of evangelical leaders and role played by the informal process of anointing at work in the culture. Many of these same factors play a role more broadly within our society – the evangelical culture is not unique. The strategies that yield success are the same strategies used by successful politicians, successful civil rights leaders, successful leaders in many other areas of endeavor and influence.

This topic makes a nice connection with a post Pragmatics vs. Faithfulness Scot linked a few weeks ago. In the original column on Huffington Post Tim Suttle raised the question of the pragmatic approach vs. the faithfulness approach.  It also makes a nice connection with the post Sunday Galli Defends the Chaplain and the two follow-up posts, Tod Bolsinger Responds to Galli, and Galli, Bolsinger, and Now Michael Mercer.

I don’t buy the idea that we must choose between church growth or discipleship (pragmatics vs. faithfulness), or between visionary leadership and compassionate mentoring. I do think we often set the wrong goals and priorities and these are motivated by the wrong factors because we’ve asked the wrong questions. I also think that sometimes competition and ambition contribute to the problem – we’ve not only asked the wrong questions, but we have the wrong values. This is true in all areas of life – and all professions. It is certainly true in science, where we have our own set of famous examples. I will elaborate after the jump.

Are pragmatism and faithfulness really opposing principles?

How do we set the right values and goals?

I am a scientist and read and think about both my specific discipline (chemistry) and the field of science, especially academic science, more broadly. This is an interesting community and a competitive environment. Competition in all of its forms can lead to problems in the effort to maintain a competitive edge.

There was an incident recently where a Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel committed academic fraud in his research in social psychology, investigating such things as hypocrisy, racial stereotyping, and the influence of advertisements on self-perception. You can read about it in the NY Times story from early November and in a report in the scientific journal Nature, Report Finds Massive Fraud. This isn’t a lone incident. In fact, a somewhat less clear-cut case was reported earlier in the year when Marc Hauser resigned from Harvard following a finding of scientific misconduct. Nor is psychology the only field affected – there was a spectacular case at Bell Labs in materials science and I could list others. These incidents don’t undermine science per se, the checks and balances exist and are getting better. Science is an empirical undertaking and experiments must be consistent and results reproducible. But they do point to a rather serious problem that must be faced. Perhaps the NY Times story puts this most clearly:

“The big problem is that the culture is such that researchers spin their work in a way that tells a prettier story than what they really found,” said Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It’s almost like everyone is on steroids, and to compete you have to take steroids as well.”

But not only must the story be prettier – it must also be unexpected or in some fashion sensational. Outright fraud like that committed by Stapel or Schön is rare. But the competitive pressure that rewards hype, charisma, and sensationalism is a real problem. Later in the NY Times story:

In a survey of more than 2,000 American psychologists scheduled to be published this year, Leslie John of Harvard Business School and two colleagues found that 70 percent had acknowledged, anonymously, to cutting some corners in reporting data. About a third said they had reported an unexpected finding as predicted from the start, and about 1 percent admitted to falsifying data.

The rewards for cutting corners are significant when one paper in Science or Nature is worth more to a career, to prestige, to access to resources, and to one’s paycheck, than five or six solid and significant papers in lesser journals. There is a strong temptation to hype, to sensationalize and to “smooth” the results or cut corners.

When “everyone else” is on steroids (or at least some of those who are the most successful), to compete you may have to take steroids as well. When the rewards are structured to value sensationalism, when ambition is given the driver’s seat, when the goals are wrong … we will always have problems. Those who are more reserved, more careful, and less willing to hype (or overhype) their work will always be operating at something of a disadvantage. I live in this world, and it is not always easy. It isn’t a question of trading integrity as a scientist for success and recognition, one can certainly have both (and many do) … but the environment presents a real temptation and this plays out along a continuum.

So what does this have to do with faithful leadership? You may feel that this post took a rather strange twist, maybe even an incomprehensible twist. But there was a comment on my post last Tuesday that started me thinking along these lines. Science isn’t the only place where “It’s almost like everyone is on steroids, and to compete you have to take steroids as well.”

As a young man who feels called to ministry and would like to be a, at least moderately, influential Christian leader this kind of stuff is depressing. It seems that even if one is sincere one is still required to self promote and use manipulation to gain authority. I don’t know if I’m supposed to suppress my ambition, or let it run wild.

I don’t know how things could possibly change, but it seems our system too often rewards selfish ambition and self-delusion. I know and have seen men quickly rise to positions of authority simply because they had charisma. Some of these men also have other great qualities that do qualify them for ministry, but because they rise so quickly they may never have to learn things like submission and humility. Furthermore, a person like me is left to feel like I must not be anointed since I don’t seem to have the charisma these other men have.

I am not as cynical disillusioned as the comment seems – and  I doubt if the commenter is quite this cynical disillusioned either. The comment was in response to a particular post, and should be read in context. But there are temptations in Christian ministry and in church leadership – as there are in science, business, and every other field. We live in a culture that rewards ambition, self-promotion, charisma, manipulation to achieve a desired result. If the “competition” is on steroids, or seems to be, there is a temptation to take steroids as well.

Is there a real temptation to “cut corners” to be competitive in ministry?

How do you set goals and guard against temptation?

What advice to you have for a young Christian? Especially for one who feels called to ministry?

How about advice for Christians in other fields?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

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