Reflections From the Baylor Scandal: 7 Warnings Signs Your Culture Is Damaged or Corrupt

How could this happen?

This is the question we ask every time a scandal is uncovered. Baylor University is the latest institution accused of corruption. But it’s certainly not the first.

So, why do scandals continue to shock us? Maybe we know institutions and organizations aren’t inherently corrupt.

Broken, yes. But not corrupt.

This distinction is important. People often say the church is broken. And my response is, “Absolutely.” All organizations and institutions are broken because broken people lead them. Every human on earth is broken. And it’s important to recognize our brokenness, especially as leaders.

This realization leads to humility, and humility is a powerful antidote to corruption.

People start businesses, churches and universities because they want to improve the world and equip people for something noble. Learning from institutional scandals is important. When you examine widespread cultural scandals, you realize corrupt cultures don’t just happen. And many of them share common warning signs. I want to share a few of these. Whether you’re a leader, volunteer or member, I pray you will take these points and do some healthy analysis of your culture. We can’t avoid broken cultures, but we can prevent brokenness from escalating into corruption.

Here are seven warning signs of a damaged, corrupt culture.

1. There is little to no accountability, especially among leaders.

Corrupt cultures are segregated and isolated. Accountability is harder than to find than the money egg at the family Easter egg hunt.

If your church or organization doesn’t encourage accountability and collaboration, raise a red flag. If leaders appear untouchable and removed from the larger group, raise another red flag.

Even the greatest leaders are broken and should prioritize accountability, even more so for leaders with power. This isn’t to say one person can’t be the primary visionary or figurehead of your culture. It does mean this person values “checks and balances” and recognizes his or her limited perspective and susceptibility to making poor decisions.

2. Fear is the primary motivator.

Fear is the backbone of corruption, feeding status quo mindsets and the dehumanization of certain individuals or groups.

Because cultures are built from the top down, fear usually flows downward from insecure, control-hungry leaders. These leaders often are described as intimidating, and if your paths happen to cross, their demeanor will only feed this intimidation.

In America, intimidation is often championed. But, as I read the Bible, I never get the indication Jesus values intimidation. Quite the opposite, in fact. He comes as normal dude, an average Joe. His stature isn’t imposing and his demeanor isn’t overbearing. He doesn’t separate himself from the group. He spends time with all types of people, listening and being truly concerned about their well-being.

3. Status quo is normal and expected.

Failure is demonized in a corrupt culture. People rarely take risks or try new things. If you mention the word “collaboration,” everyone will look at you like you’re speaking a foreign language. If you mention the words “creativity” or “innovation,” everyone will look at you like you open-handed their mom. When you ask them about their job, you will hear responses like, “It pays the bills.”

Damaged, corrupt cultures lag behind the rest of the world by 20 or 30 years because creative risk-takers is literally an act of congress. Literally.

4. Leaders are not transparent and often hoard information.

In a damaged, corrupt culture, leaders quickly silence and most likely remove anyone who raises red flags or challenges unethical practices.

When leaders speak, you never feel as though you received the whole story (because you didn’t), and any conversations about more transparency or authenticity are quickly are dismissed under the banner of institutional health and protection.

5. Everyone plays the blame game.

In a corrupt culture, you won’t hear phrases like “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong.” Confession is a curse word, much like “fiddlesticks” and “shut the front door” are curse words in Christian culture.

Blame passing is the preferred cultural pastime. Leaders quickly respond to questions or justification about a particular decision with a laundry list of past accomplishments and good works, from the number of people baptized under this leader’s watch to the amount of money given to charity.

6. The most important values aren’t driving the organization or group.

When a culture is corrupt and damaged, the most important thing isn’t driving the cultural train. In the case of Baylor, the most important thing is character formation and academic excellence, not numbers on a scoreboard. Even in the midst of the scandal, the most important thing was definitely plastered on the school’s websites and probably emphasized during student orientation.

But the most important thing wasn’t driving the train. Let’s not pick on Baylor, though. All of us, myself included, face this temptation every day. As Christians, the most important thing is the gospel. Finances, quarterly reports and attendance numbers are important, but they should never drive the train.

Is the most important thing driving the train in your church, business or organization?

7. Protecting the organization’s name and reputation is more important than protecting the people.

In a corrupt, damaged culture, people have an unhealthy allegiance to organizations. It becomes their identity, part of who they are and where they find hope. People turn a blind eye to moral and ethical failures because the institution has become an idol.

And idols don’t fall easily.

If you follow Jesus, your first and greatest allegiance is to God. Personally, this means I don’t pledge allegiance to America, a church or a political party. You might say think this attitude is disrespectful and dangerous, but I would argue the opposite. Pledging allegiance to Jesus allows me to see organizations and institutions for what they are. I can be involved in institutions and support governments without placing my hope in them. This also helps me guard against bitterness and cynicism that inevitably come when your hope is in something flawed.

I’m proud to be an American. I love the local church. But I also believe it’s more important to love my neighbor than my local church and my country.

I’m not encouraging you to adopt these views. I’m not even encouraging you to agree with them. But I am asking you whether Jesus is your first and greatest allegiance.

If you’re a leader, cultures are built from the top down. Even if your church shows warning signs of corruption, you have the power to change it. If you’re not a leader, you can still be an agent for change. Elevate human dignity and don’t allow institutional power to disrupt your moral compass.

I would love to hear from you.

What are some warning signs of a damaged, corrupt culture?

Leave a comment below. Let’s continue this conversation.

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Frank Powell
Frank lives in Jackson, TN with his amazing wife and two boys. He loves black coffee and doing stuff outside like golf and running.