The scenario is depressingly common by now—word of another ministry leader having his hypocrisy and hidden life exposed. An addiction here. An affair there. An abusive exercise of power and narcissistic exploitation of position. I don’t know if pastors fall at a higher rate today than they did, say, 30 years ago, but our social media age certainly makes it seem that way.
Each time it happens, we get less adept at incredulity, less inclined to outrage and distress. We’re not happy about it, of course, but we are, sadly, getting used to it. Then the backward troubleshooting begins, the diagnosing of sicknesses long after the deaths. Ministry post-mortems tell us so much, but it would be great if we could see the falls coming.
But can’t we?
How you can fall in ministry
Looking back over the wreckage of so many disgraced pastors and failed ministries, what are some common denominators across the landscape of impurity in the pastorate? If you wanted to fall, what would you make sure you’d do?
First, you’d let the power of success (or just the position itself) go to your head.
You don’t have to be a glad-handing type-A leader to fall into the rut of egocentrism; you only have to be a pastor who enjoys approval and accolades. You could be a small church guy who enjoys being your congregation’s functional messiah—available 24/7 for the needs in your church and open to their every religious whim or command. Before you know it, you’re stressed, tired, and feeling either a little entitled or a little resentful (or both). And this combination of fatigue, stress, and stewing bitterness, over time, is a recipe for moral failure. Pushing yourself to these limits makes you extremely vulnerable for increasingly serious temptations from the evil one.
Secondly, you’d stop investing in your marriage.
For pastors blessed to have families, one of the quickest ways to vulnerability in temptation is nurturing neglect of your wife and justifying it at the same time as “the demands of ministry” or something else similarly self-aggrandizing. After a while, you may even come to see your wife not as your primary ministry but as an obstacle, an impediment, a preventer of your ability to flourish in ministry. The bitterness takes root. She doesn’t understand you, she doesn’t “get” you. And then guess what happens when you come along someone who does—or at least seems to?
Thirdly, you’d isolate and obfuscate yourself.
This is a surefire way to sabotage your ministry. Ministers have a variety of ways of removing themselves from real companionship and the accountability that often comes with it. You may find the best way is to exploit the leadership structure of your church or even tamper with it so everybody answers to you, and you answer to nobody, or nobody but “yes-men.” Or, you simply retreat further and further away from team dynamics whether emotionally or physically.
Almost every one of the pastors I’ve known personally who lost their ministries to moral failings would say later that they had no real friends. Nobody knew them. This has implications for accountability and also general emotional wellbeing. Not every lonely pastor falls morally, but they are all vulnerable to it.
But for those who don’t feel isolated from others in structure or position, there is still the real danger of obfuscation. In other words, they aren’t honest or confessional. They arrange things so no hard questions about their lives can be asked, and if they are, they just lie. The truth is seen as more costly. But nothing is more costly than investing in your not being known until the truth busts out through the debris of a moral train wreck.
Finally, you’d make a routine of neglecting communion with Christ.
This really sets a course for moral failure. Out of all the traits common to pastoral falls, this is in my estimation the most common of all—neglect of devotional life. Falls are different and so are the routes taken to them, but as soon as you commit, even if unintentionally, to not nourishing yourself in the Word and boasting in the weakness of prayer, you are deciding you are smart enough and strong enough to do life by yourself. This is a great way to plan for a spectacular failure.
When Jesus went into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, he fought the enemy off with Scripture, and he was ministered to by the Spirit and the angels. If Jesus needed that wisdom and protection, who do you think you are that you don’t?
So now you’ve put all the plans in place. You’ve bought your own hype or acquiesced to cultural or programmatic demands to center the ministry on yourself. You’ve sacrificed your family on the altar of success. You’ve isolated yourself emotionally and spiritually from others, living a life of hidden struggles and sins among others. And you’ve gone stale in your devotional life, pouring yourself into things more readily efficient or immediately practical.
Then you crash and burn.
What to do when you fall
Well, pastor, once you’ve fallen, stick the landing. And by that, I mean that once you’re laid low, stay there. For a long time. No, not in your sin. Not in self-pity or wallowing. Repent of your sin and all the excuses for it and whining over it, but don’t jump back up to pretend everything’s fine. Listen to those you’ve hurt. Submit to those who know you. Remember that vocational ministry is an honor, and it’s nobody’s right. You are
not entitled to a ministry position.
And what about grace, you say? Well, grace means that a repentant sinner can be restored to the fellowship. And grace also means that no fellowship should be subjected to unqualified leadership.
Can you ever be restored? Perhaps. I take from Christ’s restoration of Peter that it’s not just to the fold but to the feeding that fallen shepherds can be shepherds again. But I do not take from Christ’s personal restoration that haste would be prudent. We read in 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5 that pastors must be qualified. In those qualifications we see nothing of the aspiring pastor’s ambition or preferences. We see character issues, spiritual aptitudes, and well-developed reputations for relational and communal integrity. These do not exist for the pastor who has disqualified himself. It does not mean they can never exist again, but they cannot exist right now.
You cannot tell if someone is a good manager of a household the first time you meet him. You see the witness of his family life over time. Similarly, when a guy cheats on his wife, you don’t determine he’s a good family man soon after the revelation. It will take more time, given the offense, to see him walk in repentance, to gain that reputation back.
This is the case with any point of disqualification, although some levels of discernment can occur more quickly than others. It is not an immediate thing for a pastor disqualified for a long pattern of verbal abuse or coarse jesting to gain a reputation as a gentle, peaceful man. It is probably less still for a pastor disqualified for a pattern of alcohol addiction or sexual immorality to gain a reputation as sober-minded or a “one-woman man.”
This is parallel to the biblical qualification of “not being a new convert.” Obviously we are speaking to a (presumably) Christian person who is newly repentant, but the underlying principle is the same. Repentance is an immediate re-entry to the fellowship, but re-entry to the pastorate takes the testing of time.
This is not graceless. It is how Christ protects his church and, incidentally, how he protects repentant sinners from rushing too soon back into the same pressures that revealed their undeveloped character to begin with.
So what you do, pastor, is lay low. I know it is difficult; I know it is embarrassing. But Christ and his church are bigger than you and your aspirations. The kingdom will not perish without your leadership—and, though it’s hard to face, neither will you. If you love Jesus and want to serve his church, do so out of the spotlight. Detox from the need for power and approval. Walk daily with Jesus in quiet ways over a long period of time. Let qualified shepherds feed you.
You may imagine that the bigness of grace is shown in the rushing of a fallen minister back to ministry, but the opposite is true. If you will stay low, humble yourself, and serve Christ and his church from the shadows of obscurity, you will discover just how satisfying grace actually is.
(This article originally published in ERLC's Light Magazine.)