An Appeal for Honesty in References

I’m appealing to all our readers to be honest and forthright in the references we provide. What prompts this appeal? An unforgettable experience does. Some years ago our church called a new youth pastor. He applied for the position at our church, and he supplied several references from the church he was serving. After he arrived, everything went fine for several months; however, after he made a trip to scout out a summer mission project, our church’s financial secretary raised some questions about his spending. A CPA served on our church’s Finance Committee, and he performed an audit on the youth pastor’s financial reports. He discovered a number of anomalies, and the youth pastor was fired.

After all that transpired, our pastor called the person who gave the man a glowing reference. He explained our church’s experience. At that, the person exclaimed, “Oh, yes, he did the same thing here.” Our pastor asked, “If that is true, why did you give him such a positive recommendation?” To which the person replied, “Oh, that’s simple. We wanted to get rid of him.” On reflection that person’s actions were both dishonest and hurtful to a sister church. As Christians we have a duty to be honest in our statements and considerate of others. Surely, the Golden Rule applies here.

When I served at Southern Baptist Seminary, I participated in the orientation of the new students who were beginning their studies in the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism. At every orientation I advised the students to do two things. First, I challenged them to maintain their daily devotions. It is easy to become spiritually dry while at seminary. Second, I advised them to make a good impression on their professors. During my time at Southern Seminary, I received a reference request from a church about once a week. So, I told the students: “Start making a good impression now because I won’t lie when a church calls me. If you want a positive reference, demonstrate admirable qualities.”

Now, it is easy to understand why we are reluctant to say negative things about someone; still, those seeking information deserve an honest assessment of the person. If you are hesitant about providing a reference, then just decline. I’ve found over the years that those requesting information are grateful for honesty. Once, I received a call from an IMB field leader. He was inquiring about a missionary applicant. I told him that the person under consideration was a really nice person, but he had not proven effective in his service. The field leader said, “Oh, thank you. We get so few new missionaries; we cannot afford to make a mistake.” What is true for mission agencies is true for churches as well. We cannot afford to make mistakes. We need accurate, trustworthy information.

To those who need to enlist people to provide a reference I make these suggestions. First, ask the person for permission to list their name and address. Second, ensure that the person knows you well enough to provide information. While at Southern Seminary, I received a call from a pastor search committee member. She informed me that a former student had listed me as a reference. That was news to me! I could not remember the student, so I asked her to call me back later that day. I looked up the student in our old student directories, and I checked with the registrar’s office. It turned out that the student took one class with me ten years before. When the lady called back, I answered candidly and said, “I can affirm that he studied here, but I can’t remember anything about him. I can’t help you.”

Now, over the years I’ve provided lots of positive references for former students and coworkers, and I was glad to do. I’ve also provided a few negative one. It grieved me to do so, but I believed the inquirers deserved the truth. What has been your experience? Have you and your church been “burned” by references that were less than candid?



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