Early this morning, the former president of Oral Roberts University, Richard Roberts, was arrested on a DUI charge. He was released on an $1,100 bail just a few hours ago.
Richard, who served as president of ORU for 15 years, resigned his post in 2007 amid charges of corruption and misuse of the university’s assets. It was a dark season for ORU, but by all accounts it seems the university has responded with aplomb, now healthier than ever.
I graduated from ORU back in the spring of 2003. ORU was a mythical place to me in my childhood. Growing up in more or less rural Wisconsin from a more or less pentecostal/charismatic church, “Tulsa, Oklahoma” was to me practically what Jerusalem would have been to a Jewish kid born in Babylon during the exile: a place of lore and legend, with people and institutions that represented the best of our self-understanding. So it was with a fair amount of enthusiasm that I moved to Tulsa to attend ORU in the fall of 1999.
Disappointment almost immediately set in. And the disappointment was not so much with the school as such (great classes, great professors, great students), but with the leadership. I had every reason to believe in the Roberts family, Richard and Lindsay in particular. As time when on, those reasons eroded. Before long, trust had been replaced with cynicism. It was the “skeletons in the closet” stories (stories both past and present, all of which abounded) that created a real sense of disconnect between what I saw of the Roberts family and what was pretty clear was going on behind the scenes. “Duplicity” was not a word I used often, but it certainly described my sense of what was going on. It was clear to me that the unhealth of the institution and the unhealth of the family that led it were intimately connected.
So when the scandal(s) that ultimately led to Richard’s departure hit back in 2007, I remember actually being happy for the Roberts’ family, and for the institution. ORU is a great place with a lot of potential. To see a new wave of clear-minded leadership come in was a really hopeful thing.
But even more than that, I was legitimately happy for Richard and Lindsay, for the burden now lifted off of their shoulders. “What an opportunity,” I thought “for them to get out of the limelight, lay aside the pressure, and rediscover the simplicity of walking with Jesus, together, among his people, journeying toward health.”
Ministry, after all, can be a pure delight. It can also be a soul-crushing burden. More still, it can become a place that aids and abets and exacerbates our brokenness. And when our health and wholeness (“singleness of heart” is how the prophet Jeremiah might have described it) is not up to the level of (or beyond) the weight we carry, trouble is sure to follow.
So I was happy for Richard and Lindsay back in 2007, and I’m really sad today. A DUI is not necessarily a sign that a person is finding wholeness. I’m sure it’s a pretty dark day in the Roberts household.
So, what we do with this? A few things…
– We refuse cynical commentary. “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice” (Pr 24:17) says the writer of Proverbs. Richard is perhaps no one’s “enemy” in the sense intended by the sage, but it applies all the same. It is a sign of our own sickness that we gloat and snark over things like this. When the scandal of 2007 hit, predictably I suppose but sadly, much of the ORU alumni community went on the offensive with destructive, cynical, sarcastic commentary. Paul says that love “keeps no record of wrongs.” It “does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Co 13).
Love always protects… It is a sign of how unlike our Father in heaven we are that we can’t muster up the will to protect and build up the Roberts family (or anyone for that matter) through this. Rise to the occasion ORU alumni.
– As a corollary, we refuse to be morbidly fascinated with scandal and failure. I have observed moral failure both up close and from afar, and what is always true, especially in a society that worships its heroes as much as ours does, that when leaders fail, the public becomes morbidly fascinated. People can’t stop talking about it. I’m not totally sure why that is. I know it’s weird.
Perhaps, I might suggest, it is evidence that we don’t have very robust “selves” that we so easily find heroes to worship, which is why we crucify them when they fail – they threaten the fabric of our self-identity, so we need to distance from them. Maybe, I might suggest, our longing for transcendence falsely expresses itself in our living vicariously through celebrities and leaders that have seemingly broken free of the earth. If all of this is the case, then we are guilty of breaking several major commandments (“you shall have no other gods before you…” ahem, ahem), and its effects on our sense of self and our health as a people are palpable.
We need to do better. Observe failure, pray for restoration, and then move on. Our addiction to celebrity worship is destructive both to ourselves and to those we worship.
– We refuse to make soul-care subordinate to the other concerns of our lives. This is perhaps especially important for people in vocational ministry, but it applies to all of us. The old word for it was “integrity”, which didn’t necessarily refer to “honesty” (though it included it), but to the whole of a person’s constitution. In architectural terms, if a building has “structural integrity”, we know that it safe to live and work in. If that integrity is compromised (the foundation cracks, or there’s a termite problem), we know that the building will eventually not support its own weight; say nothing of the weight of others in the building. It is unsafe.
And so it is with us. We seek to make sure that our “structural integrity” is sound, and getting sounder. If and when we fail to pay attention to that integrity, sooner or later our unsoundness will express itself, and chances are, people will be hurt. This is why intentionality in our own spiritual formation is so critical.
The big trouble with ministry, of course, is that it encourages us to pretend that all is well. Our ambition for seeing the institutions we lead succeed causes us to subordinate the concerns of our souls to the concerns of our ministries. That is exactly backwards. The problem is, oftentimes our gifts and talents (our capacity) outpace our character, which means that we can get away with it. For awhile.
I remember being on a several week fast back during my college days. During one of the days of the fast, I expressed in prayer some frustration that it didn’t seem like a lot was happening in my life. I remember the Lord saying very clearly to me, “Don’t despise the seasons of quietness. You need to allow my Spirit to do a deeper work of faith in you (during these seasons) so that your character will be able to sustain you in the places your giftedness will take you.”
That has always stayed with me. I want there to be MUCH MORE to me, my character, who I am, than what anybody sees on Sunday. But even more than that, I want the capacity of my character to always outpace the capacity of my gifts, otherwise I’ll never be able to hold the opportunities (and challenges!) my gifts bring my way. Still more, I never want ministry to be something that’s fundamentally separate from who I am. That is precisely the place that ministry becomes duplicitous.
That is why soul-care, the work of spiritual formation, is so important. We want “selves” that are “structurally sound”, rooted and planted in Christ Jesus, so that our lives may be a blessing and a strength to the world around us.
My prayer for the Roberts family is that the Spirit would continue to lovingly lead them in the journey towards wholeness… “shalom”… everything in its place, just as God intends.
Make it so Lord God.