Plumb Line #11: Discipleship Happens in Relationships

Back in 2007, I sat in a conference filled with ministry leaders, listening to a prominent pastor share some sobering statistics:

  • In the U.S., 1500 pastors leave the ministry each month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout, or contention in their churches.
  • 50% of pastors’ marriages will end in divorce.
  • 80% of pastors feel unqualified and discouraged in their role.
  • 50% of pastors are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could…but they have no other way of making a living.
  • 70% of pastors constantly fight depression.
  • Almost 40% of pastors polled said they had an extra-marital affair since beginning their ministry.
  • 80% of pastors’ wives feel that their husband is overworked.
  • Over half of pastors’ wives surveyed said that the most destructive event that has occurred in their marriage was the day their husband entered the ministry.

Not long ago, that same pastor—the one who had warned us about pastoral burnout and moral failure—was removed from pastoral leadership. He had abused his pastoral authority, shut out any attempts to hold him accountable, and pursued inappropriate relationships with a couple different women.

I know this man loved Jesus in 2007, and that he loves Jesus today. And I know he sincerely believed what he told us in that conference. But that didn’t prevent him from becoming one of the statistics he dreaded.

People love to speculate about why these pastors fall the way they do. You’ll hear theories about theology (“They were too conservative!” “They were too liberal!”) or church size (“See! I knew megachurches were just like that!”) or, most often, personal boundaries (“Well, that’s why I never get in an elevator with a woman”).

I’m all for good theology and wise personal boundaries. Those decisions are vital. But in every case I’ve seen, there’s one thing in common—isolation. The difference between those who persevere and those who fall often comes down to this: close community around them.

And it’s not just true for pastors, either. We all need godly community, and godly community near us. As Solomon put it, “Better is a neighbor nearby than a brother far away” (Proverbs 27:10). Your “brother” may be your closest friend, the guy you can share anything with. He gives incredible counsel and always looks out for you. But if he’s 100 miles away, he’s actually not as valuable as a guy you met six months ago in your small group.

Discipleship happens in flesh-and-blood relationships. I am incredibly thankful for my friends around the country, but they simply can’t speak into my life like the people here at the Summit. That’s true for all of us. You may really like the preaching of Pastor So-and-So on the other side of the country, but he’s not your pastor. He can’t help you figure out if you’re dating the right person. He won’t notice if you’re texting with someone a little too much. He won’t see if you’ve been depressed for a couple weeks. He can’t pick up on when you seem distant or angry or scared. The only way someone can see those things is if they’re in your living room, your gym, or your office.

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. You can read a thousand books about Christian discipleship, but nothing can replace the insight of someone who knows you. The people you “do life with” will be Jesus’ hands and feet to you—warning you when you’re making foolish decisions, comforting you when you’re hurting, and encouraging you when you’re doubting. A neighbor who is nearby can apply the gospel like no one else.

At the Summit, we’ve often said that we want to grow small as we grow big. We want to see more people in our small groups throughout the week than we even have attending on the weekend. Because as much as I love seeing our attendance numbers grow, God didn’t call me to build an audience. He called me to make disciples, and discipleship happens in relationships.


Plumb lines are a series of short, pithy statements that we, at the Summit, use as rallying points—both for our staff and for the entire church. They are a way to encapsulate our ministry philosophy in short, memorable phrases. Be sure to check out our entire list of plumb lines.