I had been in ministry long enough to hear the stories. It’s a familiar narrative these days: pastors disqualified from ministry due to moral failure. For years I had listened to devastating tales of infidelity and broken families in the lives of fellow pastors. My immediate reaction, in all honesty, was typically swift judgment. I mentally distanced myself from such pastors, believing I was cut from a different sort of spiritual cloth than such sinners. How on earth could this happen? How could anyone, let alone a pastor, ever do such a thing? These stories, while far too commonplace, were quite removed from my immediate life and church world. I couldn’t imagine any of my pastoral peers ever experiencing such a fall from grace.
Then it happened. I remember the phone call vividly. A dear friend, a fellow pastor, called me to confess his infidelity and ask for prayer amid the consequences he was going to face from the leadership of his church. As he talked I felt numb. The shock of the moment gripped me in a way I had never experienced. I knew this man. I thought I knew him well. All of a sudden, I found myself living in one of those distant stories.
A few days later we met. My friend shared his grief, his pain, and his overwhelming sense of guilt and shame. I listened. As he continued to share his heart, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the conversation. Not uncomfortable in the way you might imagine. I didn’t squirm at the details of his sin. Rather, something in what he shared struck a chord in my own heart. I couldn’t conveniently distance myself from his sin.
As he talked about the dynamics that contributed to his infidelity, at the forefront were pride, status, and grandiosity. While there were unhealthy dynamics in his relationship with his wife, his hunger for power had played a large part in this painful and tragic saga. He recently had been promoted to a significant leadership position and was being showered with the affirmation and accolades that went along with it. The recognition and status he had received emboldened an already unhealthy desire for power and a vision for pastoral life informed by his own grandiosity and quest for significance. In recent months he had incrementally given himself over to such things, and as a result was doing ministry apart from dependence upon Christ. As he invited me into these deeper channels of his heart, I found myself all too familiar with the current. I knew the temptations of status and recognition. I was well acquainted with the hunger for power he spoke of and the temptation to craft a false self, worthy of praise. I could not distance myself from such a “horrible sinner” because I could see the ingredients of such behavior in my own heart.
During my tenure as a pastor in the last decade, I have had a front-row seat to witness the beauty in the church. I have seen lives transformed, relationships healed, and the outcasts of society loved. However, my years in the church have also given me enough time to see abuse. I have seen leaders in the church destroy the careers of other staff members because they viewed them as threats to their authority. I have known pastors who focus their energy on the members of the church with money and influence while neglecting the rest of the congregation. More importantly, I have felt the weight of the log in my own eye. I have seen my thirst for power driving my ministry. I have viewed other pastors as competition and the church as a means of self-glory.
Fortunately, it isn’t easy for a pastor to be fired. Often the cause is something similar to the moral failure of my friend. We are familiar with a cultural idiom that speaks to the worldly temptations that confront us, temptations that challenge our moral convictions as followers of Jesus: money, power, and sex. It is “sex” that will get you fired. Interestingly, we have decided within the church that moral failings in the areas of money and power are not nearly as serious. Perhaps most noticeable is our utter disregard for toxic, narcissistic and controlling forms of power in our leaders. In fact, we often herald this kind of power as a virtue in our spiritual leaders, enabling them to get things done and make things happen. We turn a blind eye to their anger, competitive spirit and pride. However, Scripture takes a different view. We read in Mark 7:21-22, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness” (ESV). Jesus places pride alongside murder and adultery. We read in Galatians 5:19-21a, “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (ESV). It turns out sex isn’t the only serious sin, but “fits of anger” and “rivalries” are as well. Scripture views the form of power we embrace in ministry as profoundly important. Our call as pastors is not merely to do Kingdom work, but to do it in a Kingdom manner. It is a call to embrace power in weakness for the sake of love (2 Corinthians 12:9).
It was that sobering conversation several years ago with my friend who had committed a clear “moral failure” that exposed my own moral failings, and for that I am deeply grateful. God used it to expose my broken and warped posture of power. We as pastors must recognize that we are all leading from a certain posture of power. It is either the way of Jesus marked by the fruit of humility, meekness, love, and gentleness, or it is the way of evil marked by control, autonomy, pride, and manipulation. It is imperative that we prayerfully consider our own posture of power. It is critical that we have open and honest dialogue with one another as pastors about these realities. If we wish to be faithful shepherds of Jesus’ flock, we must embrace the way of our Chief Shepherd, who “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8b ESV).
This article is adapted from the new book, The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb, by Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel.