This insidious virus has the power to dampen your ministry's
creativity and risk-taking. It causes team members to conceal their
shortcomings rather than continually strive to improve. It breeds
anxiety and alienation among your valuable volunteers. Most
damaging of all, it can become an obstacle to kids' experience of
Holy Spin is a Trojan horse virus. It's transmitted through the
air, packaged inside virtuous-sounding phrases such as "It's God's
will," or "I'm bearing my cross," or "My life is in his hands," or
"God has a purpose for all things." Each phrase is good, true, and
for millennia has been the childlike response of the faithful in
the face of adversity and loss. The worth of these responses is not
The problem comes when the Holy Spin Virus (we'll call it HSV)
hijacks these pious sayings for self-serving purposes. For example,
we've all watched someone play the "It's God's will" card when
fired from a job-when it's clear to observers that the person
simply wasn't doing a good job. We've all heard someone lament
having to "bear their cross" in a relationship with an estranged
spouse. Meanwhile, we're privately certain the person drove the
spouse away with a dysfunctional or abusive style. In each example,
the speaker sounds saintly but is slyly pinning the blame for his
or her faults on God. Each person is invoking God's name-but not
his presence-as part of a personal public relations game.
What makes us susceptible to HSV? For starters, we live in a
culture that encourages us to measure ourselves against a merit
system of our choosing. In his book Searching for God Knows What,
Donald Miller theorizes that we approach life as if we're all in a
lifeboat sizing up each other to see who should get thrown
overboard in case a heavy storm threatens to capsize the craft. We
spend enormous amounts of emotional energy proving our worth to
others and ourselves. Over time, we train ourselves to embrace
those who are productive and talented-while judging or ignoring
those who don't bring anything of worth to the table (in our
opinion). We're all born into this cutthroat way of systemic
relationships. It's part of our human makeup.
Four Symptoms of the Holy Spin Virus
We lose intimacy in our friendships. One side
effect of HSV is that we go through life maintaining a stiff-arm
pose to keep observers at a distance so they can't get close enough
to see our sins and blind spots. Our relationships become
contaminated with superficiality, and we become quietly certain
that if people really knew us and who we really are, they'd walk
We become arrogant and judgmental. A life of hiding faults leads
to forgetting we have faults at all. This was the sin of the
Pharisees in the gospels. They were so committed to seeing
themselves as faultless that they invented the sinner class made up
of immoral people as well as those who worked in occupations they
condemned. For example, they wouldn't allow any shepherds to
testify in the court due to their reputation for gypsy-like morals.
Theologian Miroslav Volf describes this as "contrived innocence,"
artificially establishing one's own innocence by condemning certain
groups of people. For M. Scott Peck, author of People of the Lie,
this militant self-righteousness is the very definition of
We stop taking risks. Holy spin demands that we
protect the current status quo. Risk allows for the possibility of
failure-and failure is fatal when trying to maintain status. Rather
than taking chances, we become like the servant in the parable who
buried his talents out of fear of disappointing his master-except
our masters are the people we imagine to be judging us.
We rob ourselves of grace. Perhaps the most tragic
consequence of HSV is that we keep ourselves from experiencing the
grace we so deeply need. In his book Falling Upward, Richard Rohr
writes, "In the divine economy of grace, sin and failure become the
base and raw material for the redemptive experience itself." Our
unwavering need for grace constantly nudges us back to God's
When infected with HSV, we become like the older brother in the
parable of the prodigal son. Rohr writes, "His very loyalty to
strict meritocracy, to his own entitlement, to obedience and
loyalty to his father, keeps him from the very 'celebration' that
same father has prepared, even though he begs the son to come to
the feast." When we present God our merit and not our weakness,
it's impossible to be mature in Jesus, and it's impossible to allow
God to be our loving parent.
We cope with living on this lifeboat by shielding our faults from
the limelight. We instinctively believe that if our character
flaws, sinful patterns, addictions, or professional weaknesses
become apparent, the good people we share the boat with will
respond by voting us "most likely to be tossed overboard." We've
all learned sleight-of-hand tricks to make ourselves look good. We
minimize our flaws, blame others, or draw people's attention to the
more significant faults of others. We get so good at performing
these illusions that eventually we trick ourselves. We stop
believing we actually have faults-at least ones that matter.
Regrettably, faith communities aren't immune to "lifeboat living."
We simply employ holy spin to dress up our deception in God-talk.
One of the most obvious symptoms of an HSV infection is that we
place the blame for our misadventures firmly on God's
Mike Stavlund, pastor and the author of the soon-to-be-released
memoir A Force of Will observes: "Our tendency to blame our
failures on God is a kind of displacement. We outsource our fears
and worries and pains onto God, because God is a handy scapegoat."
He goes on to say, "We need to get over our imagined sense of
personal perfection and take responsibility for our choices."
Stavlund goes on to say that when we spin life's bad times or our
own shortcomings and put it on God's shoulders, we're in essence
assuming God is perpetuating our pain. Rather than turning to God
for comfort and as a guide, we use him as a scapegoat. And as we do
this to maintain our place in the lifeboat of life, HSV attacks,
and its effects grow evident.
What does all this introspection have to do with our children's
When HSV infects a children's ministry, the ministry's
effectiveness suffers. In a culture where it's not safe to be
vulnerable, mistakes are best covered up and minimized. When
progress does occur, it's usually the work of a lone ranger trying
to secure his position within the status quo. A culture infected
with HSV is an environment where it's unsafe to admit limits, make
honest mistakes, and come equipped with a sin nature. Friendships
among team members are surface-deep. As a result, ministries never
realize their true potential.
But there's hope. HSV is a curable disease, and you can prevent it
from spreading throughout your ministry. The following is a
prescription for personal growth.
Protecting Your Ministry From HSV
These steps will help shield your team and kids from HSV.
Normalize failure. Living with a holy-spin
outlook makes our view of failure catastrophic. Meanwhile,
Proverbs' definition of righteousness accounts for human frailty,
failure, and resiliency: "The godly may trip seven times, but they
will get up again." Martin Luther, the pillar of the Reformation,
advised that we should "sin boldly." He wasn't inviting us to be
sloppy with our holiness. Instead, he was inviting God's children
to take big chances knowing that God's great grace will catch us.
So publicly praise the team members who gave an honest effort at a
ministry initiative but fell short. Tell your families the stories
of the patriarchs in Genesis who managed to follow God while
messing up at home at the same time. The message isn't that your
sin is okay-but it is that God doesn't wince at it.
Practice the spiritual discipline of "going
second." In her book Permission to Speak Freely, Anne
Jackson recounts sitting across the table from a young lady she
suspected struggled with an addiction. She wanted to help the
woman, but was unsure of how to broach the delicate subject. She
took a chance and shared her own struggles with addiction. By the
end of the evening her friend responded by opening up. Anne writes,
"So when you go first, you're opening up this amazing opportunity
for trust; you're saying, 'I'm broken.' That trust carries so much
power with it. It can give people the courage to go second."
Offer reality-based evaluations. Hold regular
debriefing meetings after every event and annual evaluations of
your ministry systems. By creating routine and safe places for your
volunteers to take an honest look at their performance, strengths,
and weaknesses, they'll become less anxious about being authentic
Share times you've fallen short. Years ago, when
preparing to take our elementary kids on a retreat, I told the
story of being their age and pranking the girls' cabin with shaving
cream. I shared how I got shaving cream on a counselor's Bible and
ruined the leather finish. Worst of all, the Bible had belonged to
her mother who had passed away from cancer. I wanted to stress the
importance of them not engaging in mischief over the weekend. A
surprising thing happened: For the next six years, the kids
demanded I retell the story. It became a tradition. I'm convinced
it was born out of our kids' need to have adult role models who
mess up, find forgiveness, and move on. So dig through your history
and find a story or two that's safe for kids. You'll be giving them
a template to imitate when they find themselves falling short.
• • •
The Holy Spin Virus is insidious, but you can confront it. And the
good news is, the only real way to overcome this virus is through
grace. God has an unlimited supply and wants to share it with
Larry Shallenberger is a pastor and the author
of Lead the Way God Made You: Discovering Your
Leadership Style in Children's Ministry. Connect with Larry at
his website: larryshallenberger.com.