Listening In: Jeff and Terra Mattson

WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith. And today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with Jeff and Terra Mattson. They have a new book called Shrinking the Integrity Gap. The book focuses on the gap between what leaders say they are and who they really are.

The stories are far too common. Christian leaders with great gifts rise quickly to positions of influence and even celebrity status in the evangelical world. Then something happens—perhaps it’s a moral failing, perhaps a sexual scandal, or maybe there are financial problems or other abuses of leadership. It’s only then that we discover that significant competence that allowed the leader to rise was not matched by the character that allowed that leader to withstand the temptation, stress, and pressures that their leadership position placed on them. My guests today, Jeff and Terraa Mattson, have studied leaders who derail. They say that the cause of these derailments is an integrity gap. And while the word integrity includes the person’s character, it also includes more than that. The Mattsons’ research and experience tell them that abusive leaders have often experienced trauma themselves, and they hide that trauma behind performance. That performance both hides who they are, but also generates great focus and success. That success though becomes a house of cards and the bigger it becomes, the harder it falls. Their new book Shrinking the Integrity Gap focuses on why leaders derail and how to shrink the gap between what these leaders preach and who they really are. Jeff and Terra Mattson live in Oregon, and I spoke to them via telephone from there. I was in my home studio in Charlotte, North Carolina.

I guess I just want to start with some basic questions, some first principles, if you will. The first one is what is integrity and what is the integrity gap? 

JEFF MATTSON, GUEST: Well, thank you for having us. Integrity is really a way of being. We think of it as a lifestyle rather than an event or something that you decide you’re going to have or do. It’s the choices that you make every day and throughout the days to try to live with congruency. That involves your thinking, the words that you use, the decisions that you make, your relationships, your heart, your soul, your whole being. 

SMITH: Now, why is there an integrity gap or what is an integrity gap?

TERRA MATTSON, GUEST: Yeah. So, over time, all of us have an integrity gap. Nobody does this perfectly except for Christ. But it is a noble pursuit to be able to shrink the gap between what we say, what we preach, and how we actually live and our humanity, our stories, the struggles that we have over the years of leadership start to play a role. And it’s really about paying attention. Being a healthy leader is about awareness and the things that we are struggling with in our real life and our private life and streaking the gap so that it’s consistent.

SMITH: Well, Terra, you introduced a word in your answer there that I want to also drill down on a little bit, because it’s a word that you guys take some pains to define early in the book and that is the word leader. It’s a word that I think all of us probably think we know already what it means and your definition was not super earth shaking, but I thought it was really clear and focused. Can you guys talk about what a leader is?

JEFF: Yeah. We just define a leader in the clearest sense that we can think of, and that is anyone with a following. So, if you have someone looking to you as a follower or someone that’s being influenced by you, you are a leader and how you live and lead matters. So if we’re talking about, you know, parents leading the most important organization on the planet, the family unit, you’re a leader and how you lead matters. If we’re talking about CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, of course they’re leaders and everything in between. If you have a following, you’re a leader and it’s good to pay attention to what’s happening in you from a character and a competency standpoint.

SMITH: Jeff and Terra, I wanna ask a little bit more about this word integrity, because you know, we’ve been talking about integrity in a fairly specific sense here, or let me say it a different way. I think when we talk about integrity, we often talk about character. And I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that. There’s no question that integrity is a part of that, but you guys broaden the sense of integrity, it seems to me. And just use a quick example, we sometimes speak of a bridge having integrity. That a bridge that has integrity is a bridge that doesn’t collapse. It doesn’t disintegrate. And in some ways that’s what you guys are talking about when you talk about integrity in a leader. You’re talking about someone who is what he says he is, what he projects to the world is what he is in private, in his innermost being. That obviously includes character, but it really includes a more holistic health in the heart, mind, and soul. Do I have that right? Is that what you guys are getting at?

TERRA: Absolutely. We really see a disconnect often in the church and in church leaders, particularly, between what we think and believe. We kind of live above our heads and don’t sink into our bodies and our hearts and what we’re feeling even what we’re doing with our bodies, or honestly, the stress of what we take on over the years plays a huge role. And so we define integrity as every single part of who you are: your mind, your body, your soul, and your relationships are all moving in the same direction. And hopefully in a God-oriented way, in a spirit-led way. And it really does take a lot of vulnerability, honesty, and just being real with our own humanity. I mean, God has said he wants us to love him with all our minds, our hearts, our souls, and our strength. So, yes, integrity. I love that bridge analogy. That’s an excellent connection.

SMITH: Talk about what a wholehearted leader is and that contrast between the two. 

JEFF: Well, a wholehearted leader doesn’t mean that they’ve arrived. It’s a journey as any healthy leader would say. And what is a healthy leader? Is a healthy leader or someone that’s really got it all together? No, it’s that they’ve been attentive along their journey, trying to grow and develop. In other words, not seek to get their needs met through other people and through unhealthy ways. That really is a differentiator between what we would say is leaders with large integrity gaps and those that are pursuing wholehearted leadership. So, a wholehearted leader is committed to the day to day. When something comes up where they see their integrity gap, they are working to shrink that. They’re attentive to it. They’re inviting others, a few that they would be in trusted relationships into that picture that know them, that can speak into their life, that they can receive constructive criticism and feedback from and really aren’t in those relationships to try to do things in an unhealthy way, but to receive and to grow. 

SMITH: Early in the book, you guys come out with a startling statistic that I’m wondering if you can unpack it just a little bit. You say that 70 percent of leaders do not finish well. On the one hand, I was sort of disheartened and stunned and shocked by that number, but then whenever I thought about it a little bit, I was sad to say that, you know, actually that number kind of makes sense. Is that y’all’s experience? Where does that number come from? And in what ways do leaders derail that start out well? 

TERRA: Yeah, you know what, it’s a startling number and it is discouraging. Hence the book. Jeff and I actually are optimistic. We believe deeply in the best of people and yet what we’ve learned in the confidential places in our own stories and our own walk is that it’s hard to finish the race well. So that statistic does make sense if you’ve been around for awhile. But honestly, it’s the years and years of a compounded trauma. We believe that a lot of high capacity leaders are trauma survivors. And healthy leaders actually worked through their story. They’d have compassion for their pain. They’ve integrated that, and that allows them to really take on and the stresses on leadership in a healthier way. And then there’s, you know, the unhealthy leader who keeps compartmentalizing and over the years, if you’ve been in leadership over time, there’s intense, decision-making constant stress is coming at you, trying to figure out why did you even start this road in the first place? Where’s your first love with God? Relationships get strained. There’s so much that gets impacted by leaders. And so it was Dr. Robert Clinton that came out with that specific criteria of how a leader finishes as well. And it was 70 percent of leaders that don’t finish well. And there’s other research that shows that. But it’s why we wrote book in the first place to say, I think that we can finish. There’s 30 percent that are finishing well. And we want to grow that statistic. We’d love to see a movement of leaders that aren’t really giving into all of the pressures that come into play, where we start to lose our posture of learning and growing and our character wings. And we lose our convictions and we fall behind and forget what we’re contributing to the world and what God called us to in the first place. And we start really actually losing track of our first love for the sake of tasks at hand, and honestly starting to believe our own press in many ways.


SMITH: Welcome back I’m Warren Smith. And today you’re listening in on my interview with Jeff and Terra Mattson. Their new book is Shrinking the Integrity Gap. Let’s get right back to that conversation. 

Jeff and Terra Mattson, in the first segment, we kind of unpacked some basic principles. What is integrity? What is a leader? This idea that that competence or some ability will often cause a leader to rise but it’s often character that causes that leader not to finish well. And one of the things that you talk a good bit about in the book is this notion, Terra, that you introduced to us sort of at the end of the first segment, and that is this notion of trauma, childhood trauma, in particular. Can you say more about that? Why is unresolved childhood trauma, often in high functioning individuals, something that shows up much later in life to derail that person? How is that possible? Sort of unpack that for me.

TERRA: Yeah. It’s a bit surprising to think about, but often trauma has two responses. The first one is a victimization where we end up losing our trust meter, and we’re not able to discern who to trust and who not to trust. And some of us remain in that victimization role and others of us become over-performers. We find a way to not be vulnerable. And so often trauma survivors will end up achieving and performing to kind of numb out the pain, or they get a lot of praise. And Jeff and I aren’t exempt from this, but over time, trauma teaches us to compartmentalize. We have high capacity for intensity, and it makes for a really great high capacity leaders because we don’t always know our limits and we just keep climbing the ladder and taking on more and more and more. And at some point, we’re all going to come face to face with the pain that we had collected over the years. Again, we can process our stories and what that does is it creates a greater compassion and empathy and a more congruent of integrity, if we’re all going to face our stories. 

JEFF: And I’ll just say that if you don’t do that work, you’re leaking, even if you don’t know that it’s that that’s what’s happening. And many high capacity leaders are really in tune with what’s going on in their bodies where trauma is actually stored from a clinical perspective. And so they would say, and it would be not uncommon for male or female leaders in high capacity and high influence roles, to minimize their past. How was growing up? Great. I had a great childhood. But Terra sat in the seat of a clinician for 20 years, working with these types of leaders and unpacking a little bit about what was great suddenly realized well, my dad was an alcoholic and he beat my mom and my siblings were dealing with depression and were cutting and so on and so forth. So, you know, it’s getting to that space where you can understand trauma. You’ve got to really take a hard look at it and that can’t be rushed.

SMITH: Well, you say that if you don’t deal with it, you leak. And I think what you mean by that, Jeff, and correct me if I’m wrong, is that the abused person, the person that has experienced trauma becomes someone who starts inflicting that abuse and that trauma on other people, sometimes without even knowing it or if they know it, they don’t care. Am I sort of understanding what you mean when you say they start leaking?

TERRA: Yeah. You know, exactly what you’re saying is that we could definitely be a part of abusing and continuing a trauma cycle. But it doesn’t mean that all of us with unresolved trauma will become abusers. It just means that you might have abusive type behaviors, but also all the other things that leak. We start to see high levels of anxiety, depression, PTSD. So, even if you’re not perpetuating that trauma in your system, you’re probably still in a trauma system and reliving those unhealthy relationships.

JEFF: Yeah, through negative coping strategies. So, yeah, that’s where addiction can come in and leaders are very vulnerable to the hiding space. And because they’re isolated, the trauma of leadership that exists just in being a leader is a real thing.

SMITH: Jeff, you tell a story sort of early, mid in the book that kind of incarnated some of these ideas. And brought you face-to-face with some of them personally. And that’s the story of Rich, who was on staff at a church where you serve early in your career. Can you briefly tell that story?

JEFF: Rich was a leader. He was my immediate boss as the church administrator. And I was under his leadership for a little over a year. Rich was the first to show up in the morning and the last to leave at the end of the day. He taught courses on integrity. He was the church administrator. So he handled all the business functions of the church and so on. One day, Rich didn’t show up for work. And all of us were concerned. He was dealing with some health issues and obesity. We thought maybe he had a heart attack. We contacted his wife. She didn’t know where he was. So, we sent out a team to travel the highway and his route from his back to his house. And when my colleagues got to the house, they found his wedding ring on the dresser. And that began to reveal a plan that Rich had set in motion years before. Turns out, Rich actually was a professional embezzler, had done this work before in California. Five years to my arrival at the church, he had showed up, and had gifts. He was a charismatic person. He was good at administrative, the numbers. He groomed, essentially, the pastor and the other team members to get into his role. He married a single woman in the church. Just sort of set everything up very strategically. And one day, disappeared, robbing the church of all of its old money. At the time I arrived there, the church population was largely inner city. Only a couple core families left, but the church had an over a hundred year history. So he forged the senior pastor’s co-signature and left and split to Vegas. And that was a rude awakening, a welcome to ministry. And also an example of welcome to leaders leading in the wrong direction.

SMITH: Yeah. Well, Jeff, a couple of things emerged for me when I read that story. Number one, was that there were a lot of victims there. It wasn’t just the people in your church victimized financially, which of course they were, but it caused a tremendous breach in trust. The kids that you dealt with, you portray a very poignant moment where you have to tell the kids what happened and they get this feeling like, who am I ever going to trust again? I thought I could trust these guys.

JEFF: Yeah, the children and our youth group, we had a small group. It was about 14 kids. 12 of those 14 had English as a second language. They were from the international district of Seattle. And many of them came from already trauma experiences in their journeys and their family systems. Most of those homes didn’t have a father present and, yeah, trust already was an issue for those kids. So that morning when I had to share what had happened, it was a crushing blow. And, unfortunately, Rich wasn’t around and so those kids they projected their hurts on me. I asked God for the shoulders to be able to take some of that with him and worked hard to try to mirror and validate empathize with where those kids were and what they were feeling to the best that they could get those out. And it was a tough go. Trust, in some cases, could not be rebuilt and it did impact systemically not only those kids, but their families, their engagement with our church going forward. A lot of hits there. 

SMITH: Yeah, well, a whole lot of victims. And, you know, I think a lot of churches in that situation, or a lot of Christians in that situation would say, well, you know, forgive and forget. God will be the judge. What’s your attitude about that?

JEFF: Well, one of the hard things for us in that example was the police wanted to conduct an audit of the church, but the church had no funds or resources to submit to that audit. They certainly could have. And in order to get after Rich, they found him in Vegas‚ they couldn’t arrest him. So our pastor, who was a third generation missionary from Indonesia, had seen real hardship and Christian persecution. He got played just like the rest of us and we just had to release Rich to God and his perfect judgment and try to survive as a group. And we did. The church is so quick to pour on that idea of forgive and forget. I think that in many ways that is an unbiblical understanding of what forgiveness is when we get into forgiveness. Christ, yeah, he casts our sin as far as the east is from the west, but he works through our stories and it enters into our traumas. And forgiveness is something that you may be able to do, but that doesn’t mean that you need to be reconciled or in fellowship again with someone who hasn’t earned that trust. So there’s a differentiator there that the church I think is beginning to understand better as they warm to what God created in our hearts and our minds and our bodies and how he wired us to experience and survive trauma. And the Bible is full and riddled with trauma. 

SMITH: Yeah. Well, and furthermore the Riches of the world are still out there victimizing others. If we don’t at some point stand up and say, no. Enough. We’re not going to let this continue.

TERRA: Amen. I think that it’s part of what we look back on is they didn’t do any sort of background check with Rich. And we’ve seen that again and again and again, where we just take people at their word and aren’t listening to all the red flags that are coming up. And I felt uncomfortable around Rich for years. And I felt like it was just being judgemental and I wasn’t giving him the benefit of the doubt. But looking back, I think that was the Holy Spirit saying, speak up, speak up. And so here we are, years later. You’ve got to speak up for one another to help the voiceless, to be able to have a say against those that are using leadership for predatory behaviors. Not every leader is a predator, so let’s be clear about that.


SMITH: Welcome back. You’re listening in today on my interview with Jeff and Terra Mattson. Let’s get right back to that conversation.

Jeff and Terra, we’ve talked about a lot of the problems, the pathologies. Jeff, your example, well, both of your examples, because you both were involved in that church with Rich. Let’s talk solutions. Let’s talk hope. Let’s talk what churches and individuals can do to move forward. And I want to get you guys to answer this question in a particular context. And that context is we live in an era where we have a lot of celebrity pastors that often they’re in non-denominational churches, so there’s not a structure of accountability around them. That’s kind of a new historical phenomenon. And in the last chapter of your book, you guys are scrupulous about saying that you don’t want to name names. But I’m not as scrupulous as you guys are. I mean, I can name a lot of names, because that’s kinda what I do is write about these stories. I mean, everyone from most recently, I’m sad to say, someone that I knew personally, very well, Ravi Zacharias, and, you know, Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill Church in the Northeast where you guys are. James McDonald in the Chicagoland area. Bill Hybels. I mean, these are all examples of men, at least in this case, I’m sure there are women as well, who started off well. I’m sure they didn’t, in some cases say, I want to dishonor the gospel or dishonor God, and yet that’s what happened. How can we guard against that? How can we prevent that? What can we do individually in our lives to make sure that we are not those casualties? And as church leaders, what can we do to build hedges of protection around both these leaders and the people in our churches?

TERRA: I think that you’re saying it’s spot on and that most people never start out thinking they’re going to end their race this way. But honestly, it seems so simple. We would say, know your story, do a timeline. In each of the chapters, we have antidotes for a lot of the red flags and symptoms we see in leaders with larger gaps. And it’s really a reference place for us to say, have I done this work? Do I have a small group of people that really know everything about me? Does my spouse and my children? Am I allowing them to give me feedback? And do I hear them? These are the things that are smaller markers in a life of a leader that’s really loved, you know, globally, but who is in your inner circle is really going to give you probably the most honest feedback on who you are and who you’re becoming. And I think that’s God’s heart and desire and grace to give us feedback in our inner circles. Jeff, what would you say?

JEFF: Well, it’s very disheartening to see one leader after another, especially after decades of preaching the gospel and having such tremendous influence over so many lives in the next headline. And that’s really the angst behind this book to make a dent in that, to see less of that. And where does that begin? It begins with emerging leaders and that’s our prayer is that the young millennial leader that’s there right now and their children and their children’s children will be able to work on shrinking their integrity gaps, doing the hard work now to know their story, to get their baggage down to carry-on size is what we say so that they aren’t seeking to get their needs met, psychological needs met, in unhealthy ways through others. Some of the symptoms that we’re talking about in this book that leaders are vulnerable to that deepen and expand over time are isolation, hiding, the negative strategies that leaders use to get their needs met in unhealthy ways. After just reading yesterday, the CT article about Ravi, he describes how and said to those that he perpetrated sexual abuse on that he needed this and all the work that he played for all those decades took its toll. And he reframed and justified, and even said that God was okay with his sexual appetite as a means of balancing out all that he was given and had given over so many years. That’s just a lie. And that’s not okay. And I’m happy that we, as Christians, can look at that and say, yes, there were wonderful things that he did and others did, but that’s not okay. And there is no biblical reframe for that kind of behavior. Abuse has no home in Christianity.

SMITH: Well, Jeff, I agree. First of all, let me just actively affirm that. I absolutely agree that it is not okay. And there is no place for it. I’ve got to also tell you though that I see it over and over again whenever I’m in my reporting of leaders who fall. And it causes me to wonder something that I’d like you guys to react to, and that is that, yes, the leaders bear a huge amount of responsibility for not being aware of their own stories, for not putting themselves in situations where they might be tempted to fall, for actively putting themselves in situations where they’ve got accountability and structure. But what role of responsibility does the church itself bear? You know, we create these celebrities. We seem to love them. We seem to want them. We seem to need them. And it’s becoming increasingly apparent to me that human beings are not designed to be idols. We’re not designed to be gods and that whenever they put themselves in that position, or we put them in that position, we almost inevitably create that result. Am I reading too much into this? 

TERRA: Oh no, that’s absolutely right. And it’s a greater systemic problem. And we think we’re all shocked by abuse, but we’re all participating in this abusive system where nobody’s speaking up. There’s, I think, an epidemic of teaching the church to be codependent, which means I get my needs met when you are okay. And so we spend our whole time trying to make others feel okay and losing really disconnect to what we think, what we feel. And the celebrity phenomenon that we have right now, again, at some point we’ve got to really stop and say, why am I following somebody? Am I getting my needs met for them? Or am I going to Christ? And do I have a community and real life relationships? And if I don’t, that’s a major gap right there. Right there. This phenomenon is really something that is a huge siren for the church. And it’s just going to keep perpetuating more and more abuse if we don’t stop and take a left turn. We’ve really got to shift. 

JEFF: And I would just say that, you know, Jesus, the scriptures say that Jesus didn’t trust himself to men for he knew what was in the heart of men. So it doesn’t mean that he didn’t have relationships that were interpersonal. I mean, the 12 disciples were very close, but he did not entrust himself to them. And there’s wisdom behind that. I think all of the rest of us need to be thinking about as it relates to this tendency that humans have for hero worship. Christ is the only one to assume that place of worship and we need to shrink our integrity gaps between what we say, of course, Jesus is the only one that’s worthy of our worship, and actually how we live with the affinity that we have and the attraction to care charisma and how we accelerate people into leadership roles and give them a pass and assume the best. And we see it time and time again. And so do you, Warren, and your investigation of these different accounts where followers who were abused would say, well, how could they do that? They were my Sunday school teacher. How could they — we’d never guessed. They were a great neighbor, fill in the blank, right? And the more power and influence and authority that a person has, actually, the more important it is for us to be mindful of that tendency to place them on the pedestal that only Jesus belongs on.

SMITH: Well, Jeff and Terra, let me just say kind of in closing, as we get ready to kind of land this airplane, so to speak, that I really found your book very nourishing and I think it really speaks to a need. And if I could kind of bottom line it, I would say this: that the goal of this book, the goal of your life in ministry is to shrink the integrity gap between who we really are as people and this image that we try to project to the world, let that image that we project that the world be the reality of who we are. Number one. And number two to the end that we might finish well what we began for God’s glory and for the sake of his kingdom. Do I have that right? Is that a fair assessment of what you guys are trying to get at here?

JEFF: That’s right. And how we do that is like him, serving others and helping them and not really trying to get our needs met in unhealthy ways, but being in a place where we can give the best of who we are for God’s glory and for the benefit of others.

SMITH: Well, Jeff and Terra Mattson, thank you so much for being on the program today. I’m really grateful and godspeed and God bless you with this book and your ministry.

TERRA: Thank you, Warren. 

JEFF: Thank you, Warren.

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