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The Growing Hunger for Authenticity: Let It Fuel Your Ministry’s Mission

by Michael Martin, ECFA President

In an age of filtered photos and “fake news,” people are desperate for authenticity. Even so-called reality TV is not real (no shocker there!).

As one scandal after another has plagued corporate America, politicians, and the media, trust has eroded into a major deficit. Sadly, even among nonprofits, only one in five Americans say they highly trust charities that are dedicated to serving the public good.[1]

A 2019 Pew Research report includes the headline “Americans’ struggles with truth, accuracy and accountability.” The same study goes on to explain the sobering reality: “Many think America is experiencing a crisis in facts and truth, and they believe this problem ties into the current state of distrust people have in institutions. . . . At the same time, Americans admit they at times have trouble distinguishing the truth from falsehood from certain sources.”[2]

Clearly, the needle on trust is moving in the wrong direction. As ministry leaders, what can we learn from these troubling accounts? How can we earn back trust and be more effective in fulfilling our God-given missions?

The growing hunger for authenticity

Authenticity has always been critical. But in a world devoid of trust, the hunger for authenticity is growing—especially among Millennials and Gen Z.[3]

Slick imaging and spin on the issues that were once accepted as the norm are now being rejected outright. As people crave connection to what is true, even the hint of phony is a trust breaker.

These trends show no signs of stopping. When ECFA asked givers several years ago to rate the single most important quality they desire in a ministry, it wasn’t the popular answers you might expect, such as keeping administrative costs low, saying thank you, or avoiding political causes. Instead, in a group of over 16,800 respondents, nearly half of older givers and 56% of Millennials overwhelmingly rated honesty as the top attribute they seek in a ministry today.[4]

Ministryleaders have focused on maintaining certain integrity standards over the years as the key to building trust, and rightly so. High moral, financial, and other standards are a must—and they remain the expectation of givers today.[5] Biblically based stewardship standards including sound financial management, independent board oversight, and appropriate transparency remain the basic building blocks necessary to leading a healthy church or nonprofit ministry.

However, it’s easy to see now that upholding high standards will not single-handedly build trust. We must also tap into authenticity—another dimension of integrity—to flourish in these low-trust times.

What is authenticity?

Authentic is defined as “genuine or real.” Authenticity, the state of being authentic, is being “true to oneself or to the person identified.” Furthermore, when something is authentic, it is “entitled to acceptance or belief because of agreement with known facts or experience; reliable; trustworthy.” The opposite of authentic is false.[6]

Packed within this powerful, layered meaning of the term, the need for authenticity is evident. If we want our churches and ministries to be accepted and trustworthy, we must be genuine, real, and true.

We can learn so much about this attribute from Jesus who was the ultimate example of authenticity. People were drawn to our Savior because he spoke openly and honestly; he was a humble leader who demonstrated true compassion to all. At the same time, Jesus was authentically bold and not afraid to expose hypocrisy. He directly confronted the religious leaders of His day who were obsessed with the outward appearance of perfection but were rotten on the inside. In a sense, one could argue that the Pharisees were so busy striving for a certain degree of outward “integrity” that they lost their authenticity and effectiveness in ministry.

Perhaps at no other time in His ministry did Jesus better model authenticity as a leader than the moments leading up to His crucifixion in the Garden of Gethsemane as described in Matthew 26. As the Son of God, you might expect that Jesus would want to give the impression of a leader who was strong and had it all together, particularly in the midst of this challenging Heavenly assignment with the eternity of billions of souls resting on His shoulders. Yet, Jesus was open and honest about the real struggles He was facing while staying true to the mission the Lord had set before Him.

How can our churches and ministries demonstrate authenticity?

It’s clear that authenticity is a must these days for leaders and organizations to build trust. But where do we begin?

Consider these five practical starters—drawn from scripture, the latest research, and yes, even lessons learned the hard way by others in the midst of a shifting culture.

  1. Model authenticity from the top. Dr. Stephen Macchia puts it so succinctly: “As the CEO goes, so goes the ministry. And as the soul goes, so goes the CEO.”[7] When leaders live authentically, it spreads throughout the organization and becomes part of the culture and DNA. On the other hand, when leadership lacks authenticity, it corrupts the organization, and it’s just a matter of time before public perception will catch up.

  2. Embrace a posture of humility. There can be no true authenticity without humility.[8] A prideful leader puts on the public face of perfection, but a humble leader and organization will admit their limits. It seems obvious but is often overlooked: People can relate far better to an organization that they see is imperfect just like them!

  3. Speak openly and honestly about the journey. Adding spin or choosing not to tell the whole story is one of the root causes for the growing distrust in businesses, the government, and other institutions. There is certainly a line of appropriate transparency, but it’s important to be open and honest about the journey and share as many facts as possible with stakeholders who have come to expect it in this information age. Like accountability, authenticity comes with a certain degree of vulnerability, and the reward in trust earned far outweighs any temporary discomfort.

  4. Invite others in. Whenever possible, find ways to invite others into your work. Affirm their voice is heard and matters, and that they are a critical part of your organization’s mission. The most successful brands in business realize this principle and welcome user reviews and feedback about their experience. They also explain how their processes work, not just deliver the glorious end product. Another practical tip for demonstrating authenticity: Share behind-the-scenes photos and videos to create an “insider” feeling among your supporters. Always ask: How can we empower others in our community to realize their important contribution to our ministry—whether it’s through praying, giving, serving, and more?

  5. Be sincere in embracing authenticity. Finally, authenticity is all about sincerity. We shouldn’t strive for authenticity simply because it’s the latest Millennial buzzword or a productive strategy to be relevant in today’s changing culture. We should be authentic for authenticity’s sake. People will quickly sense if a leader or organization has an ulterior motive for suddenly becoming “authentic.”

In an increasingly skeptical world that doesn’t know who to trust or where to turn, integrity remains foundational to leading a healthy, confidence-building ministry. And as we exude authenticity from the deep wells of integrity, we will fuel our missions to even further levels of impact.

As we serve and lead with authenticity, may our churches and ministries turn the tide on trust!

 

 

[1] BBB Wise Giving Alliance, Give.org Donor Trust Report: An In-Depth Look into the State of Public Trust in the Charitable Sector (2018), 4, available at https://www.give.org/docs/default-source/donor-trust-library/give-org-donor-trust-report.pdf.

[2] Lee Rainie, Scott Keeter, and Andrew Perrin, Pew Research Center, Trust and Distrust in America (July 2019), 46, available at https://www.people-press.org/2019/07/22/americans-struggles-with-truth-accuracy-and-accountability/.

[3] Millennials are now many of today’s young professionals and parents around ages 23-38 in 2019 (born between 1981-1996). Generation Z, or “Gen Z” for short, are children, teenagers, and young adults born around 1996 to the present. Michael Dimock, “Defining Generations: Where Millennials End and Generation Z Begins,” Jan. 17, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/01/17/where-millennials-end-and-generation-z-begins/.

[4] The Generosity Project: Full Report (Winchester, VA: ECFAPress, 2016), 4–5. Visit https://www.ecfa.
org/ProductDownload.aspx?ProductID=109.

[5] Ibid. An astounding 92% of respondents to ECFA’s survey agreed that it is extremely important for ministries to uphold specific standards of financial integrity.

[6] See the definition of “Authentic,” https://www.dictionary.com/browse/authentic?s=t.

[7] Dan Busby and John Pearson, More Lessons from the Nonprofit Boardroom: Effectiveness, Excellence, Elephants! (Winchester, VA: ECFAPress 2019), 22. See also Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t (New York: Penguin, 2014), 127, 137 (“So goes the leader, so goes the culture . . . So goes the culture, so goes the company.”).

[8] “The chief mark of counterfeit holiness is its lack of humility.” Andrew Murray, Humility (Radford, VA: Wilder, 2008), 23. In their latest commentary on excellence in board governance, two of my personal heroes and governance gurus, Dan Busby and John Pearson, issue these major warning signals of a leader’s troubled soul: lack of humility and self-interest. See Busby and Pearson, More Lessons from the Nonprofit Boardroom, 23.


This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.

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