In 1888, George Butler had been president of the General Conference for a total of 11 years, eight in his current term, and three previous years from 1871-1874. During his tenure the membership of the church had nearly doubled, and many new conferences had been organized all over the world. The church organization he had been overseeing had been set up 25 years earlier for a relatively small church with few institutions. At that time a few leaders, but mainly James White, could oversee the entire operations.
But by the fall of 1888 George Butler had been suffering from a recurrent burnout for about four years. And as the episodes of depression and nervous exhaustion intensified, he often felt that death would be a relief. The church had entrusted him with the highest leadership position, but this responsibility had become too much for him or for any one person. The responsibilities had consumed him.
Of course, what made his work difficult and exhausting by then were not only the numerous committees he needed to chair, or the unmanageable number of annual camp meetings and conference administrative sessions he needed to oversee. He also felt conflicted over heterodox theological developments some pastors on the West Coast were advocating, developments that seemed to be endorsed by some of his closest friends, even by Ellen White. His level of exasperation was very high.
In this state of mind Butler, suffering from total exhaustion, wrote a long letter to Ellen White in which, among other things, he announced his resignation from his leadership roles. All of them. It was either that, he thought, or certainly die within a few months.
As he explained his decision to Ellen White, he reflected on his leadership character. His words are soulful. He told her that he would “retire with no morose or bitter feelings.” Yes, he thought “things look dark in the cause,” and he even imagined “the shaking time for which we have been looking” to be happening. But, not abandoning his confidence in God, he would not “murmur nor complain,” or leave his functions “in despair or crying for sympathy.” He would seek to be brave and not give in to fear.
Part of that experience that always followed him was his integrity, uprightness, and unswerving love of the church.
Then he wrote, “I have tried to do my best. I have committed no crimes, or disgraced my name or reputation, or taken a politic or underhanded policy, but have tried to leave a record I would not be ashamed to meet. My work seems wholly unworthy of the blessed master. I cannot tell you how much I wish it were better, but I have tried to be faithful to God and the cause.”1
This was a typical letter for Butler, the kind of honest and sincere personal reflection he wrote to Ellen White as his mentor and spiritual confidant. He valued her opinion and input, even if at times he did not understand her intentions or counsels.
What stands out in these words is Butler’s understanding of personal integrity. In his responsibilities as a church leader he had committed himself to being the kind of person people could trust. Butler was a respected church leader, even when people disagreed with him.
Trusting church leaders, whether they be lay or church employed, requires people to perceive them as reliable persons of integrity and uprightness. This, we could say, is about the morality of leadership.
A number of Scripture passages speak of the integrity and good reputation of the leaders of God’s people. Solomon said, “A good name is better than fine perfume” (Eccl. 7:1, NIV). Paul also remarked to the Corinthians, regarding the generous offering he and his colleagues were taking to Jerusalem, and wishing to avoid any criticism, “For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of man” (2 Cor. 8:21, NIV).
Integrity. Doing what is right. Uprightness. These are the qualities of people we can trust.
Writing to a brother who seemed to have been caught between the world and his desire to serve God, Ellen White noted, in 1878,
“A man may not have a pleasant exterior, he may be deficient in many respects, but if he has a reputation for straightforward honesty, he will be respected. Stern integrity covers many objectionable traits of character. A man who steadfastly adheres to truth will win the confidence of all. Not only will his brethren in the faith trust him, but unbelievers will be constrained to acknowledge him as a man of honor.”2
Along with a leader’s personal integrity, trust is also encouraged when the church’s organizational structures are themselves transparent. Upright and trustworthy leaders will make sure all church decision-making processes are clear and understandable for the benefit of all church members.
Few things can undermine confidence in church leaders and in church institutions as much as the withholding of information or the diversion of church funds for private gain.
In spite of all his faults, his proneness to overextend his authority, and his guarded attitude toward doctrinal diversity, George Butler was a trusted church leader whose experience was valued and sought after. People knew he was a devoted follower of Christ. After many years of rest on his Florida farm, and taking care of a sick spouse until her death, Butler, at the age of 67, was elected president of the Florida Conference. Making no bones about it, Florida church members congratulated themselves “that they are so favored as to have one whose long experience so fully qualifies him to act as their leader.” Part of that experience that always followed him was his integrity, uprightness, and unswerving love of the church.3
Church members will trust upright and reliable church leaders who themselves value integrity, honesty, and fairness, and who will in turn fulfill their responsibilities with transparency and collegiality. These are the people you can trust.
Denis Fortin is a professor of historical theology and former dean of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He is also a teaching pastor of the One Place Fellowship.