• Ben Disney

The Alsman Affect and What It Means in Ministry

Poor Ralph Alsman. By all accounts he was a decent, hard-working responsible citizen from Brookville, Indiana in the 1930’s. Unfortunately, Alsman bore an uncanny resemblance to John Dillinger, notorious bank robber, murderer and violent criminal on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Alsman could have been Dillinger’s doppelganger. They even shared similar moles next to one eye and matching scars on their left wrists.

Because they looked so much alike, Alsman was arrested 17 times — and shot 11 times. Although he was released after each arrest, he endured repeated interrogations and lived in constant fear that a law enforcement officer or overzealous citizen would kill him before he had the chance to prove his real identity.

Alsman’s ordeal finally came to an end when Dillinger was gunned down by federal agents on July 22, 1934. Because of his resemblance to Dillinger, Alsman was offered movie contracts, but he chose to end his 15 minutes of fame and turned them down.

A classic case of mistaken identity. It begs the question, “How do you prove you’re not John Dillinger when you look exactly like John Dillinger?”

So, what’s the Alsman affect, and what does it have to do with ministry? In case you haven’t noticed, some people already mistake you for being someone else. Once they discover you’re a clergyperson or church leader many have already convinced themselves they know who you are and what kind of person you will be.

A recent Gallup poll has found that less than half of Americans believe that clergy members are honest and have high ethical standards. The poll, titled "Americans' Ratings of Honesty and Ethical Standards in Professions," has revealed that trust in the clergy has declined from a high of 67’% in 1985 to its lowest rating of 42% in 2017.

Gallup attributed the decline of trust in religious leaders to scandals.

"If views of a certain profession have changed, it usually has been a function of scandal surrounding it. The Catholic priest abuse stories from the early 2000s helped lead to a sharp drop in Americans' ratings of clergy, a decline from which the profession has yet to fully recover," Art Swift, Gallup's managing editor wrote. He also noted prominent mega church pastors and repeated stories of corruption and immorality as a contributing factor in the decline in trust by the public.

In our current culture many clergy start out with a skeptical public and people who already view us in a negative light. They hear the reports or experience firsthand corruption and ethical failures in the church, and they assume that all clergy and church leaders are like that.

Which begs a second question, “How do you convince others you’re not like other clergy when you look exactly like other clergy?

Of course, there are no easy answers. Anyone in a relationship knows the only thing more difficult than building trust is rebuilding trust after it’s broken.

Here’s a few thoughts to consider when you’re suffering from a case of mistaken identity as a clergy or church leader:

1. Don’t put yourself on a pedestal or allow others to do it for (to) you.

Acknowledge up front you’re far from perfect. Be genuine and authentic. Humility is not only a virtue it’s a necessity. The essence of the gospel is that we are all broken sinners in need of God’s grace. There’s a reason pride (and ego) top the list of the seven deadly sins. If the subtle message is convincing people to follow you because you’re a perfect role model. you missed the point of who we’re really supposed to be following.

2. Get out of the pulpit and office.

Often there’s a disconnect between clergy and congregations. If the majority of people’s experience with you is primarily from the pulpit and in the office, it’s not enough. Real trust, real credibility is built in countless moments of one-on-one interactions like hospital visits, sitting with a grieving family, taking the time to sit with someone who pours out his/her heart to you, writing a personal note of encouragement and appreciation, being physically present in a crucial moment of their lives, walking with people in their pain and hearing & knowing their stories. Normally it takes at least three years, doing the seemingly little things that matter most, to build that kind of trust and credibility.

3. Say what you do. Do what you say.

Integrity matters. Keeping promises and honoring commitments are essential. When you fail - and you will fail - own up to it, take responsibility and ask for forgiveness. If you’re clergy or a church leader, there is an inherently higher level of expectation of who you are. You can’t always live up to people’s expectations but it’s essential you try.

4. Start with the worst assumptions and prove them wrong.

Remember, some people are already convinced church leaders are untrustworthy. Start with the assumption and deal with it directly. When people say all the church cares about is money you better have an answer. The better answer is that generosity and stewardship are essential parts of what it means to live a life of grace and faith. It’s not about what the church needs in terms of money, but what all of us need in terms of perspective and how we’ll use the resources God gave us to change lives. When people assume you have a political agenda, work hard to prove them wrong. Instead of partisan politics, talk about the bigger issues of justice, equality and the call to care for the least the lost and the last.

5. Point beyond yourself

Everything you do or say in ministry should point beyond yourself and lead people to Jesus. It sounds obvious but it’s easy to forget. You’re a follower first and then a leader. You can’t disciple others until you first become a disciple. And that requires submitting to an authority and power greater than yourself. It’s not about you. Never has been, never will be.

The Alsman affect is very real. If you don’t want to be a victim of mistaken identity, its best to start working on your own identity and discovering who you really are. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).