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.
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.
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!