I am not sure if it is a good thing or a bad thing but I am no longer shocked when I hear of a pastor/church leader falling into serious sin. Whether it is the hubris of pride and arrogance, sexual sin, and/or financial impropriety, I take it that church leaders do fall. Why am I not easily shocked? Maybe I have been around the block a few times and have seen this too often. Or maybe I am more aware of the darkness in my own soul. Or maybe it is because I understand why church leaders are so vulnerable. Here are some predisposing factors.
1. Pastors and church leaders focus more on the doing of ministry than in nurturing their own walk with God. Public ministry can be seen. Spiritual disciplines are done in secret. It is so easy to let the latter slip. In time, our spiritual life could be wanting but masked by our external life of ministry. Nobody knows until it is too late.
2. Pastors and elders are often plagued by fatigue. We find it hard to turn down requests for ministry and there is always more that needs to be done. Ministry is a black hole. If leaders do not live by a healthy rhythm of work and Sabbath, we end up tired and, when tired, are wide open to temptation. Ironically it is usually the committed leaders who are prone to this.
3. Pastors and church leaders are some of the loneliest people I know. All their connections with people are for ministry. And when they get home they are too tired to connect with family. People look to leaders as ministry providers. Many think they have no needs because they are considered to be spiritually mature. As a result many leaders have no relational safe places where they can share their stories, find grace, receive help, and be reminded of their humanity. They become easy pickings for the enemy.
4. Many church leaders also suffer from a lack of accountability. Sometimes it is the fault of the leaders. They are too proud to seek accountability, fooling themselves by thinking that they are only accountable to God when in fact they are not accountable to anyone. Sometimes it is church members who fail their leaders by not lovingly requiring them to be held accountable. In the on-going trial of key leaders of City Harvest Church on charges of criminal breach of trust, former City Harvest Church investment manager, Chew Eng Han, said:
No one does due diligence on his spiritual father, the senior pastor . . . Perhaps I should (have), he said (Neo Hai Chin, “I could have done more due diligence: Chew,” Today, Thursday, 29 January 2015, 26.)
I am not here commenting on the case itself. I am pointing out the fact that many share the former church investment manager’s sentiments.
5. Coupled with the lack of accountability is the lack of encouragement. The church leader is expected to encourage others, but leaders are left to struggle with their own discouragements on their own. Discouragements are particularly potent when combined with fatigue and loneliness. Temptations of money, sex and/or power promise feel-good fixes, which in truth are no fixes at all and, like illicit drugs, lead to addiction and destruction.
6. Leaders who are visibly successful are particularly susceptible to temptation. They are the ones that God has gifted with obvious, public success in their ministry. Paradoxically their success makes them even more prone to the other factors that predispose a leader to fall — focusing on public ministry rather than on spiritual formation; fatigue; loneliness; lack of accountability; discouragement. Indeed, after awhile, successful leaders may begin to believe their own press and begin to think that the usual rules don’t apply to them. I am deeply impressed that some key leaders at the peak of their ministry careers, like Francis Chan, have chosen to walk away for their own spiritual health.
So, no I am not surprised when I hear of church leaders falling into serious sin. I am very sad but not surprised. I also want to say that with Christ, the last word is grace. If we acknowledge our sins and repent, He does not condemn. But He also says go and sin no more (John 7:53 – 8:11). But preventive medicine is preferable. We can and should do much more to prevent leaders from falling. The reasons that predispose Christian leaders to fall into temptation have long been recognised. We have little excuse for not doing more to protect our leaders. And because we have not done enough, their failure is also our failure. Let us be wise.
Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith… (1 Peter 5:8 – 9a NIV)