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Holy Spin

Larry Shallenberger


Holy Spin.
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 God's grace.

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 in question.

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 away.
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 evil.

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 love.

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 shoulders.
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 ministries? Everything.
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 over time.

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.

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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 us.

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:

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