5 Reasons Pastors Fail Morally (And What To Watch For in Your Own Life)

Twice this week so far, I’ve heard of church leaders who are moving out of leadership because they had affairs.

Last weekend, another well known pastor had to step down after admitting to having had an affair. Yesterday I got a call from someone about another leader who had an affair and is stepping back.

It’s heartbreaking.

My heart is broken for the pastors and their families. For the church, for their ministries and for everyone who followed them and was impacted by their leadership. My heart is broken for the Kingdom of God.

I don’t know either person in question well, so I’m in no position to comment on the specific situations let alone judge (we should be so so careful of that anyway).

But I do personally know a few pastors who have had to leave ministry because of some kind of moral failure, and I’ve sat down and had some heartbreaking conversations with people who have experienced a moral failure or been on the other side of a moral breakdown.

I also know my own heart and the strange mix of grace and sin that makes us human.

So, once again, I ask myself

Why does this happen?

Why does it happen so frequently—not just to preachers, but to many business leaders, politicians and other people in the spotlight?

What do I have to watch for in my own life?

I don’t think for the most part pastors and leaders who fail morally set out to fail.

They didn’t begin in leadership by hoping “one day I hope I have an affair/steal money/destroy my family/ruin my church/disillusion many/lose my soul.

In the beginning, most pastors and leaders have excellent motives…and then something happens.

While I’m sure the pattern varies between people and situations, I’ve seen some patterns I’ve learned to check in myself.

I share them in the hopes they can help every leader before they get into an even slightly compromising situation, let alone an affair or other morally tainted situation.

pastors moral failure

5 Signs I Might Be Headed for a Moral Failure

So, as I reflect once again, here are 5 reasons I think pastors fail morally and reasons that might push me or you past the edge.

I write them in the first person (as awkward as it sounds) because this post is intended to help those of us still in leadership, not to judge those who have fallen out of it.

So because the person whose spirit I most need to watch is mine, I phrase things personally. I also realize that even talking about the fact that this could happen to any of us is one more guard rail against it happening in my life. And I pray it never happens.

So with that in mind, here are the conditions that perhaps set up a leader for moral failure.

1. I’ve chosen isolation over community

Sin usually happens in secret. And the only way to keep secrets well is to cut yourself off from true community.

Isolation can be a very natural drift in leadership. But as I’ve argued before, loneliness and isolation are not inevitable; they are choices.

I have to make sure someone in my life knows what’s really going on. And just because not everybody needs to know what’s going on in your life and in your thought life doesn’t mean no one needs to know.

Solitude is a gift from God. Isolation is a tool of the enemy.

To live transparently with handful of people who know who you are, where you are and what you’re inner life is really like is difficult, but it’s far easier than picking up the pieces after your life has fallen apart.

Who really knows what’s going on?

And if you don’t have anyone you’re talking to, you can hire someone. Telling a counsellor is far better than telling no one. And counsellors have helped me so much over the years.

Here is how I’ve developed my inner circle, including a group that knows the ups and downs of what I’m carrying in my life.

Bringing darkness into the light breaks its power.

2. I’ve stopped confessing my sins

I am convinced that confession is a lost art.

As a leader, I have to make sure that I continue to confess my sins before God daily.

When I confess my sins, I need to not only look for the obvious, but for the cracks. For small sins that could become much bigger. For motives that aren’t pure. For thoughts that run off in dangerous directions.

I need to bring it all before God.

If you want more on why we don’t confess our sins, I preached recently about it in Part 3 of the Pursued Series, which you can watch here.

In the meantime, ask yourself: when was the last time you confessed your sin before God?

Admitting your tendencies to God and even weeping over them is much easier than explaining to your wife and kids what happened one day.

Confession is designed to stop what sin starts.

3. I’m not thinking of the consequences

When you sin, you desire the action but not the consequences.

But sin always has consequences. Often horrible consequences.

Keeping the consequences in mind can be so so healthy.

I can’t imagine having to explain to my wife, my kids, our elders, our staff, our team and to the hundreds (maybe thousands) of others who trusted me how I betrayed their trust.

The fear of having to have those conversations can be very healthy and quite motivating. It should be motivating.

I just would never want to betray the trust of the people I love the most and many others who would perhaps lose their faith because of a moral failure on my part.

Thinking about the consequences of a sin is a great way to ultimately avoid committing of a sin.

4. I think the rules don’t apply to me

Perhaps this is why leaders fall more frequently than others.

You begin to think the rules don’t apply to you, or that they shouldn’t apply to you.

So you ignore them, skirt them, rewrite them or spit in their face.

This is so, so dangerous.

Leaders who avoid accountability still eventually have to give account for their actions—when they get caught.

Isn’t it better to give account for your actions daily than to simply give an account for your actions when you get caught one day?

Accountability and transparency are vital in leadership. And if you cultivate a great inner circle (point 1) you will be a far better leader day to day.

5. I see failure as my best escape

When I first started out in ministry, I met with a pastor who had just had to resign because of an affair. He was 20 years my senior, and we met for lunch.

I asked him why he had an affair, and he told me in part it was because he couldn’t handle the pressure of ministry anymore but couldn’t find an easy way to get out. The affair forced him out.

Years later I would discover the pain of burnout personally. Nine years ago I burnt out (a burn out triggered by physical and emotional exhaustion).

I was so burnt out an escape from my life looked appealing. By the grace of God, I knew enough to keep my head in the game even though my heart had stopped working. As a result, during my darkest months, I kept saying to myself “whatever you do, don’t do anything rash—don’t cheat on your wife, don’t quit your job and don’t buy a sports car.”

And again, by the grace of God, I didn’t cheat, quit or buy a sports car. (Although as Perry Noble and I discuss in this interview about how we both burned out, the sports car option still looks attractive….maybe one day.)

The bottom line is this. If you’re burning out, an affair or a rash, irresponsible decision is NOT the only way out.

Nor is it even a good way out. There are many other, healthier options.

If you’re looking for more resources on burnout, Perry Noble and I put this page of free resources together to help church leaders. You can survive, and even thrive, again one day.

What Are You Learning?

What are you learning about temptation, leadership and moral failure?

As to the comments section, just so you know, self-righteous, judgmental comments will be deleted. As I wrote when Mark Driscoll’s controversy broke last year, no one write or prays with clean hands.

No one. Not me. Not you.

But with the aim of helping people and seeking grace before a fall happens, not just after, what are you learning? Scroll down and leave a comment!

16 Comments

  1. BunchaCrunch on April 7, 2018 at 2:59 am

    I just think they shouldn’t have become pastors in the first place. Lack of self awareness and not knowing the consequences for their actions is linked to intelligence.

  2. Thomas on March 1, 2018 at 4:13 pm

    I see so much of this on the male side of things. I have a question that I have yet to see covered anywhere on the web. What about the pastor that pays too much attention to someone else’s wife? A pastor is in a special place in the western church, sometimes its viewed as a place of authority – the place only a husband should have. If it’s brought up – people say that you’re imagining things, however – I’ve seen the results of pastors “grooming” women in the church. How do you approach this without offense?

  3. Shaundes Wilcox on February 12, 2018 at 7:56 pm

    Wow, this was so valuable to me! I am a young minister in training and I thought with much moral failure happening often, it would be best for me to learn and grow from people who have experienced this hardship and have helped others navigate through this.

  4. Mitch McQuinn on December 27, 2017 at 9:23 pm

    In a session geared to young ministers, they had some pastors that had failed speak about what led them to their failure. One minister said that the reason he felt the rules didn’t apply to him was something that he picked up from always being told to go to the front of the line etc. It was almost as if he allowed the church to convince him the rules didn’t apply to him because he was the pastor. Everyone else had to wait their turn. Humility and refusing some of the perks of pastoring just might save our souls.

  5. Michelle on December 8, 2016 at 11:49 pm

    I was facilitating a ministry at my church. Prior to my walk with Jesus and this ministry I was involved with a man. I had broke off the relationship to go into o the ministry. Well, the man I had been involved with came back around when I injured myself and was vilnerable.
    After the close of the session he led me astray.
    Being convicted I pleaded for the Lord to forgive me. I then shared my lapse in judgement with my pastor and told him Jesus had already forgiven me.
    Since then I have been asked to step down from the ministry and our small circle keeps growing.
    I feel it has gotten out of hand.
    Jesus blood wiped us all clean. I have turned from that son and will son no more.
    Any thoughts on this? Should I keep having the go over the pain? I am ready to begin the healing.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 9, 2016 at 2:02 pm

      Hi Michelle. That’s a tough one. I think every circumstance has it’s own story, and I would think people around you are best to discern what’s best. I would think an in depth conversation with Christian people who know you, know your situation and so an would help carve a sustainable path to restoration.

      • Michelle on December 9, 2016 at 2:17 pm

        Yes I am working with a team and I am trying to heal from a unhealthy ungodly soul tie. I am going through the process right know for deliverance from this un godly soul tie.
        Please pray for me.

  6. Ray Zaffke on July 15, 2015 at 10:56 pm

    Great thoughts on the subject. Thanks for thinking out loud!

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  9. Shawn on June 26, 2015 at 9:49 am

    No one prays with clean hands. Good word Carey, thanks for your love for the church

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  11. Dale on June 24, 2015 at 7:14 am

    Thanks for the post Carey…I think I’d add “I am experiencing success and begin believing that God is okay with my sin because I haven’t been caught” So for example, I face temptation in an area and give in to sin a few times without experiencing any consequences…it’s not long before I convince myself that God is giving me a pass on my sin because of my success.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on June 24, 2015 at 7:20 am

      Dale…that’s so accurate. Thank you! I think you helped some leader with that insight.

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