Falling Pastors

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Thursday, May 16, 2013

Falling Pastors

One city.

Three senior pastors of megachurches.

And in just a six month period, three moral failures.

Believe it or not, it just happened in Orlando, Florida.

Isaac Hunter, lead pastor of Summit church, resigned in December after admitting to an affair with a staff member.  Sam Hinn, pastor of The Gathering Place Worship Center, stepped down in January after admitting to a relationship with a member of the congregation.  Then, just a few weeks ago, David Loveless resigned from Discovery Church after admitting to having an affair.

Three megachurch pastors in a single city all resign within a six-month period for extramarital affairs.

Sorry, but “wow.”

The inevitable question?  “Why do so many senior leaders give in to sexual temptation?”  Because it’s not just these three but many more like them in cities around the country and around the world.

Here are three reasons that come to this fellow pastor’s mind:

1.       Emotional Depletion

Many pastors are running on empty emotional tanks.  You might have thought I would say “spiritual” tanks, but it’s the emotional fuel gauge that gets us.

A few years ago, my wife Susan and I were part of a mentoring retreat with about a dozen couples, all well-known leaders of large and thriving churches.  We started off with an open-ended question: “What are your key issues right now?”

As we went around the room, the recurring answer in each of their lives was “emotional survival.”  We shared our stories about the hits and hurts that come our way in ministry as occupational hazards, and how they tear away at our souls, sapping our enthusiasm, our creativity and our missional stamina.  We were open about how they leave us creating dreams of finding ourselves on a beach with a parasol in our drink - permanently.

The emotional hits and hurts that come from ministry are legion:  failed expectations, hard work, continual output in terms of teaching and leadership, always “on display” as a public figure, the stress of finances – both personally and in the church – the unexpected departure of staff, the pain of letters/emails that criticize your ministry, the pressure of people who want to redefine the vision, mission, or orientation of the church, the relentless torrent of expectations, and the agony of making mistakes.

But the heart of the drain is also our passion:  people.  We are shepherds, and to push the metaphor, sheep are messy.  Unruly.  Cantankerous.  Smelly.  They can be a chore to care for.  And they can hurt you more than you could imagine.  In particular, through the relational defections of those you trusted, and the crushing crises from those who throw you into crisis mode.

Why does this matter?

When you hurt, if you don't find something God-honoring to fill your tanks with, you'll find something that isn't God-honoring. Or at the very least, you’ll be vulnerable to something that isn’t.  I am convinced it’s why pastors struggle with not only pornography, but enter into affairs.

They are emotionally depleted, and therefore, vulnerable.

2.       The Lack of Sexual Fences

A second reason why so many give in to temptation is because few leaders build the sexual fences around their life that are necessary for protection.

For example, fences around their thought life in relation to such things as pornography through accountability software or computer placement.  Then there are the fences needed in terms of raw interaction with people, such as the need to:

Watch out how and when you are alone with someone of the opposite sex;

...watch how you touch people – being careful with your hugs and lingering touches;

...watch out how you interact with people – not visiting someone alone, at home, of the opposite sex;

...watch out for that long lunch alone together, or staying late and working together on the project.

This is just common sense, but very few build common-sense fences.

And here’s the last 5 percent:  even those with fences are tempted to rationalize taking them down when they find themselves attracted to someone.  Or their spouse does something (or doesn’t) that they can point to that they feel justifies them looking around at those that might act differently.  Suddenly we start looking at fences as for the weak, the immature, the unjustified; we tell ourselves we can handle it, or even deserve it.

It’s often the last moment before the fall.

3.       Spiritual Deception

The third reason so many pastors, particularly of large churches, fall prey to affairs is a deep infection of spiritual deception.

Why is our immune system so weak?

Let me tell you something that you may have never heard before:  Ministry is spiritually hazardous to your soul.  If you haven’t found that out by now, you will.

First, it is because you are constantly doing “spiritual” things, and it is easy to confuse those things with actually being spiritual.  For example, you are constantly in the Bible, studying it, in order to prepare a talk.  It’s easy to confuse this with reading and studying the Bible devotionally for your own soul.

You’re not.

You are praying – in services, during meetings, at pot lucks – and it is easy to think you are leading a life of personal, private prayer.

You’re not.

You are planning worship, leading worship, attending worship, and it is easy to believe you, yourself, are actually worshipping.

Chances are, you’re not.

When you are in ministry, it is easy to confuse doing things for God with spending time with God; to confuse activity with intimacy; to mistake the trappings of spirituality for being spiritual.

Another reason why ministry is hazardous to your soul is because you are constantly being put on a spiritual pedestal and treated as if you are the fourth member of the Trinity.  In truth, they have no idea whether you have spent any time alone with God in reflection and prayer over the last six weeks; they do not know what you are viewing online; they do not know whether you treat your wife with tenderness and dignity.

They just afford you a high level of spirituality. 

Here’s where it gets really toxic:  you can begin to bask in this spiritual adulation and start to believe your own press reports.  Soon the estimation of others about your spiritual life becomes your own.

This is why most train-wrecks in ministry are not as sudden and “out of the blue” as they seem.  Most leaders who end up in a moral ditch were veering off of the road for some time.  Their empty spiritual life simply became manifest, or caught up with them, or took its toll.

You can only run on empty for so long.

I had a defining moment on this in my life when I was around thirty-years old.  A well-known leader fell; one who had been a role model for my life.  I was devastated.  But more than that, I was scared.  If it could happen to him, then I was a pushover.

It didn’t help my anxieties that I was in a spiritual state exactly as I have described:  confusing doing things for God and time with God; accepting other’s estimation of my spiritual life in a way that made it easy to bypass a true assessment of where I stood; I was like a cut-flower that looked good on the outside, but would, in time, wilt dreadfully.

I remember so clearly the awareness that I could fall; that no one would ever own my spiritual life but me; and that I needed to realize that the public side of my life was meaningless - only the private side mattered.  This was not flowing from a position of strength; it was flowing from a deep awareness of weakness.

So the gun went off.

I began to rise early in the morning for prayer and to read the Bible.  I began to take monthly retreats to a bed-and-breakfast in the mountains for a more lengthy immersion in order to read devotional works, pray, experience silence and solitude, and to journal.  I entered into a two-year, intense mentoring relationship with a man who had many more years on me in terms of age, marriage and ministry.  There was more, but you get the idea:  I was going to be a public and private worshiper; I was going to be a student of the Bible for my talks and for my soul; I was going to pray for others to hear, and for an audience of one.

I hope you hear my heart on this.  It’s not to boast, it’s to confess.  I have to do these to survive.

Maybe you do, too.

Or maybe…you need to start.

James Emery White

 

Sources

“Discovery Church pastor resigns after admitting to affair,” Jeff Kunerth, Orlando Sentinel, May 6, 2013, read online

James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You In Seminary (Baker).

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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