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Another week passes, and another painful story about a prominent pastor surfaces. The details vary, but I’ve noticed one common theme. It seems that the very traits that cause a man to rise to prominence invariably lead to his demise. The personality traits that allowed him to climb the mountain of ministry, and do so with relative success, often push him off the mountain on the other side.
A new pastor longs to do something great for God, and he does ‒ but then this drive causes him to base ministry success on how prominent he feels and how big of a platform he has created. Another pastor’s charisma allows him to engage a new culture with ease ‒ but then this charm fosters an improper relationship with a woman in the church. Or, a pastor is a savvy leader, knowing how to put money and people in play in a way to maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses ‒ but then this ingenuity leads to underhanded financial practices that disqualify him from ministry.
It seems that this trend does not merely apply to those who have achieved some national level of fame. It’s not just those who preach to big crowds, write bestselling books, or are sought-after conference speakers. Countless other pastors and ministry leaders crash every day. We’ll likely never hear of them, but I’d guess the process is much the same in every case.
And, the same is true for those who are not pastors ‒ all people face the same temptation to allow their greatest strengths to lead to failure.
So, what do we do? There’s no shortage of answers, and in the wake of each pastoral scandal, all sorts of finger pointing ensues. Certainly, we could, and probably should, question our definitions of success or our defining ministry philosophies. My goal is much more meager.
I’m afraid that if I’m not careful I could fall off the mountain too. My gifts are more modest, and my platform, well it’s barely off the ground. But, I’ve been a pastor for fifteen years and, as of today, I still am one. The Spirit has gifted me in certain ways and used them to bring fruit from my life. If my theory is correct, then it is in these very places that I am most prone to failure. It’s in those areas that I have to protect me from me.
I’ve been wrestling with this issue for the last few weeks. What can I do to maximize my strengths and use them for kingdom purposes, while militantly assessing these God-given gifts in order to guard them from sin?
I’m certain about one thing ‒ I’m hopeless to be able to do this alone. I like my strengths. I enjoy working in areas of my perceived gifting. I’m lulled to sleep by the siren call of success in the areas in which I can actually be successful. I know a cliff is out there somewhere, but I have no clue how close I actually am to falling off.
I don’t know my danger unless someone warns me. I’ve got to have people in my life who know me well enough to know when a strength has gone too far and when I’m poised for a crash.
Don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not accusing any pastor of living outside of community. I’m not assuming that any one person’s sin can be traced back to a deficit of true friends. But I am saying that this has often been true in my own life. The danger is that we all tend to attract people who are a lot like us. We work well with others who share our passions and preferences.
We enjoy being with those who affirm our strengths. In time, we find that our inner-circle friends are all like us and, for that reason, are often prone to the same failings. To compound matters, we tend to build churches that take on our personality and affirm our strengths. The cultural ethos fast-forwards our pace toward the cliff without our even knowing it.
The only corrective, at least as I see it, is to surround myself with three people.
First, I need someone who is radically different from me who is not prone to the same sin as I am. If you struggle with a lust for more, then you need an introverted, contemplative friend. If you are an aggressive leader, then you likely need someone around you who is a faithful, plodding shepherd.
Second, I need someone who is not impressed with me. I need someone who is bold enough to call me out when they notice me creeping toward the edge of the cliff. We all need friends who can say, “I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, but you’ve become a total jerk” (I imagine they’d probably say this in a less jerky way). You need someone who is willing to risk hard conversations in order to confront you before it’s too late.
Finally, I need someone who is exactly like me but who has lived longer and matured enough to see the evil underbelly of our common personalities. I need someone who’s fallen off my mountain at the same place to warn me of what lies ahead. I need someone who, with tears in their eyes, can testify to the pain that they’ve experienced.
I’m certain that this is only a part of the answer to the problems facing pastoral ministry, and Christian moral collapse in general. But, it seems like a good place to begin.