Dec 07, 2023
Over the years, I’ve helped quite a number of churches, ministries and nonprofits navigate the confusing maze of communicating the news of a fallen pastor or leader to the congregation, ministry partners, donors and the general public. During that time, I’ve discovered a particular pattern of behavior from leaders who fail. I’m not a psychologist or counselor, so I’m not addressing all the issues that lead to a moral collapse, but particularly in the case of church and ministry leaders, there are six types of risky conduct I’ve seen played out repeatedly. These behaviors can sometimes go on for years, but I’ve noticed that at least one of them is almost always in play at the time of his or her fall.
- Abusing alcohol and/or sleeping pills. As a ministry leader, I can give you many reasons never to drink. I don’t believe the Bible prohibits alcohol, but it does clearly warn against getting drunk. The problem is, with booze, you don’t have to be drunk to do risky and stupid things. Sleeping pills can often be worse. Early in my career, after a long film shoot, my doctor prescribed Ambien to help me sleep on an international flight. And when we changed planes, it was all my poor wife Kathleen could do to drag me off the plane. That was my last experience with sleeping pills.
- Crude or sexualized joking with staff members. Years ago, I consulted with a large church, and during a staff meeting, the pastor started trying to guess what color underwear the female staff members wore. I pulled the executive pastor outside and asked him what in the world just happened. His response? “Oh, everybody knows the pastor is just a joker. It’s not a big deal.” But it was a big deal. He was forced to step down within a few months because of adultery.
- Spending too much time away from a spouse. There are many red flags pointing to a deteriorating marriage, but a big one is too much time apart. Too much time alone usually leads to spending too much time with someone other than your spouse. And, of course, one thing leads to another…
- A fascination with pornography. In today’s digital, social media age, porn is everywhere. It’s online, incredibly easy to access, and impacting younger kids more than ever. I don’t know if it’s similar with pastors and ministry leaders, but I do know that far too many are watching this stuff regularly—and many are doing it right in their church or ministry office.
- Really stupid decisions. Who thought it was a good idea for a nationally known Christian apologist to own a chain of massage parlors? To “be more productive,” one pastor had his female assistant move into his and his wife’s home. Another started picking up women in local bars after preaching at other churches. Really Stupid Decisions (or RSD) can happen to anyone, but they seem to happen more often when a leader has power, money, little-to-no transparency, and/or lots of control. And RSDs are more prone to happen when …
- No one can question the boss’s decisions. Yes, there are actual churches and ministries where the pastor or leader’s decisions are rarely if ever, questioned. More often, I see cultures where no one questions the leader out of genuine respect. Respect is good, but something is wrong when the team feels uncomfortable questioning a leader’s decisions. Either way, these cultures are ripe for abuse, whether sexual, financial, spiritual or otherwise.
Certainly, far more people than pastors and ministry leaders experience personal failures, but my life has been spent working with those inside the church. And in retrospect, it’s remarkable how certain behavior patterns are consistent in so many cases. This means that if we could at least keep these six areas in the back of our minds, we’d be quicker to notice situations that could be averted or avoided—before severe damage is done to both victims and the members of the congregation.
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