Why Pastors Fall Into Moral Sin
I first wrote this post over a year ago, but in light of all the stuff swirling around right now about Bishop Eddie Long, I thought I’d repost it. Obviously, we will assume Long’s innocence until proven guilty. That said, I think this provides us a good chance to stop and reflect on how stuff like this happens to, if not Eddie Long, plenty of other mega-pastors. People wonder, “How does this happen to guys who started off so well in the ministry? And what steps do you take, at the Summit, to make sure it doesn’t happen to you?”
The short answer is that there are no “magic steps.” Sin can overtake us all, and our hope is not in a system. Our hope is in God’s grace. Jesus taught us to pray every day, “Lead me not into temptation.” If we could have come up with a system that would have made that prayer moot, he would have given it to us.
That said, the problem (as I see it) with many megachurch pastors is that they live in isolation. They are separated from their other staff, who treat them like they are some kind of super-human authority. They have no local accountability, and become answerable only to themselves. Sometimes they have an “accountability” board who live around the country but, as I explain below, I don’t think that is nearly sufficient or anything like the community and accountability God intended for a local church to provide. As David Powlison says, “Things in a secret garden always grow mutant.”
Even if the allegations against Bishop Long turn out to be false, which I SINCERELY hope is the case, I think there is still reason for concern over a generation of pastors who see themselves as unaccountable superstars.
Here is the post from a year ago.
“Better is a neighbor nearby than a brother far away.” Prov 27:10
Last month at our monthly all staff meeting and we spent a long time discussing moral failure and what we can do, before God, to help keep any of our pastoral team from doing that. In the last couple of months, a couple of really heart breaking stories about well-known and well-intentioned pastors have come out…By God’s grace, so far at the Summit Church we have been spared.
Offering any advice on that matter is not the purpose of this blog.
However, I want to offer some perspective to some of you guys going into church planting, and try to persuade you to construct your ministry so that you live on the same “plane” with all the people you lead and that you live before them with a great deal of transparency. (To note: This is not an attack on anyone, and if you think I’m referring to someone in particular, I’m not. I am speaking more about a trend. And, I’ll also acknowledge that I have some godly friends whom I respect a great deal who don’t see eye to eye on me on this.)
It has become very popular among quickly-growing churches to have no real, internal board of elders to whom the pastor is accountable. A board of that type is seen as cumbersome… the perception is that lay elders can’t understand some of the questions of professional ministry, and so being submitted to them would impede our ability to lead the church. Does IBM have a non-professional board of “lay”-directors overseeing all their decisions? Furthermore, lay elders can’t really hold the pastor morally accountable (as they’ll not be knowledgeable enough or courageous enough to challenge the pastor), and if they do, they’ll probably do it in wrong times and in wrong ways… I’ve heard it said that “sheep aren’t supposed to shepherd the shepherd.” And if the other elders are staff members, then the senior pastor can control them anyway. Thus, the senior pastor should report to a group of other pastors, around the country, who serve like an advisory board of directors.
OK, so I will lay all my cards on the table. Though submitting only to an independent board of other pastors is certainly “efficient,” I think it is a gloriously bad idea. In the case of Ted Haggard or Gary Lamb, this “remote board” was the system they were under. The system did have some clear benefits they offered in the post-adultery healing: the situation was efficiently dealt with, and the pastor was taken care of. The board was able to offer some great counsel to the church.
The problem in both of these situations, however, as I understand it, was not in the follow-up to the sin but in the leading up to it. Prior to his falling into adultery, no one who was “close” to the pastor was really “close” to the pastor. The lead pastor, a kind of mega-superstar, kept a distance from other staff and lay people. He lived on a different, executive-level plain, and his authority and stature were unchallenged. To anyone physically near him, he was “unknown.” He didn’t have real friends in the church. Thus, no one could see the patterns developing in his life.
I can’t help but wonder how significant that was in their falls. But wasn’t being “known” by the board of directors” enough? It’s certainly better than nothing, but these guys are all far away, and with their own churches to focus on. They can’t know when you’re paying a lot of attention to one girl in particular. They can’t see when you start slipping out of the office unaccounted for. They can’t pick up when you seem distant from your wife. They can’t ever ask you in a meeting who you are text messaging. In other words, they aren’t in a place to see when the adulterous relationship begins… and these relationships for a pastor don’t begin by suddenly getting
naked. They begin innocently. You begin to show special attention to, and delight in, a woman not your wife. And the whole time you’re justifying to yourself that the attention you are showing that person isn’t really harmful. They’re just a friend.
And then it leads to sexual flirtation. And when you are finally in a place where immorality has begun or is about to begin, your flesh will have kicked in enough that you’ll probably just lie to the guys who live 100 miles away when they ask you “the accountability questions.”
God never intended any of us to live alone. Deep friendships with people you live and work and go to church with is a part of discipleship. The shepherd is still a sheep.
Hebrews 3:13 says we should “exhort one another DAILY, lest any of us become hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.” There is a continual “hardening” (greek: sclero) that takes place in the heart of all of us, naturally, on a continual basis. The writer of Hebrews says we need daily, not weekly, and certainly not “quarterly,” accountability questions, to keep us from that. As the pastor’s heart “hardens,” no one is close enough to challenge them, and by the time someone asks him about it, he is already so “hardened” that he lies about it… maybe not even consciously, maybe he lies to himself about the state of his heart.
Now, I’ve heard the “board of directors” system defended, in each case, by saying, “But look how efficiently the overseeing board dealt with the problem!” Great. Seriously…that is no small matter. But I would much rather have a less-experienced board have to NEVER deal with the situation in the first place. I’d rather them NOT have to pick up the shattered pieces of my family and ministry at all than to pick it up with dazzling effectiveness.
We try, for these reasons, to have a culture of transparency here at the Summit. I never lock my office. Several people have passwords who can get into my inbox if they so choose. My wife or my assistant knows where I am every single second, and my assistant can tell any of our executive team who asks. Is that annoying sometimes? Of course. But not as much as looking at my little girls and telling them mom can’t stand to live with me anymore.
Furthermore, I am accountable to a group of men, our elder team, which is made up of both staff and “lay” men. They, as Hebrews 13:7 says, really “know my way of life.” They know where I live. They observe my marriage. They can, and do, stop by my house. We eat dinner together. Our kids play together. I know them and they know me. They watch out for me because I need watching. I am just a man and greater men than me have fallen. I am still a sheep, and sheep need other shepherds.
Does all this sometimes create tension? Of course. Does that mean there are times the “lay elders” seem “behind” in their thinking… and since they don’t live in the “professional” Christian world that sometimes they are not as ready for the changes I want to bring? Yes. But if I’m worth anything as a leader, shouldn’t I be able to convince these godly, mature men of what I’m seeing and persuade them to follow? If I can’t convince THEM, how can I ever expect to be able to convince the church of what I see? Is my ministry all about unchallenged executive power?
I’m not saying we have a perfect system here at the Summit or that it, in any way, guarantees that I or the other pastors will always remain faithful. Our sinful, conniving flesh can always find a way to cheat the systems, even the best ones.
I just know that it is not part of God’s plan for me to live without friends before whom I humble myself, to whom I am “submitted,” and who can observe and speak into my life. And these should be the people who see me and go to church with me. As wise King Solomon says, “Better is a neighbor nearby than a brother far away.” (Prov 27:10) In other words, better a non-trained lay-elder nearby than Billy Graham in another city.
I submit to our elders. I lose votes sometimes. And that is the way it should be. I am not God’s hope for the Summit Church. He works through His body, not just me.
Please know… I feel like our system has enough holes in it that I don’t feel really confident criticizing anybody else’s. These are just some of my concerns… I’m sure I have a lot to learn.