Church•Healing • 14 minutes to read
On December 23, 2020, sexual misconduct by the well-known Christian author and speaker Ravi Zacharias was confirmed by an independent investigation. Reverend Zacharias is not the first Christian leader to be publicly exposed for sexual misconduct. And he won’t be the last. Why does this happen? And more importantly, what can be done about it?
As I sat in my parents living room in Helena, Montana, at our family’s Christmas gathering, I read the sad news that the allegations of sexual misconduct against Reverend Ravi Zacharias had been confirmed. (See article here.)
The official report released by the RZIM (Ravi Zacharias International Ministries) Board of Directors included this statement from the investigative team:
“…we have found significant, credible evidence that Mr. Zacharias engaged in sexual misconduct over the course of many years. Some of that misconduct is consistent with and corroborative of that which is reported in the news recently, and some of the conduct we have uncovered is more serious. Our investigation is ongoing, and we continue to pursue leads.” (Miller and Martin Interim Report posted on the RZMI Website, Dec. 23, 2020. Emphasis mine.)
This story hits close to home for me. Zacharias, in his lifetime, had been ordained by the same denomination that has ordained me. From a young age, I can recall the name “Ravi” being spoken around our circles with a deep tone of respect and reverence. A true spiritual giant had emerged from our ranks, standing alongside A.W. Tozer, as the most influential pastors from our tribe!
Now, his name is being added to another much longer, and growing, list of Christian leaders whose private lives of disordered sexual desires is being widely known: Jim Baker, Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, Tullian Tchividjian (grandson of Billy Graham), Bill Hybels…just to name a few of the fallen giants.
How long does the list need to get?
Unfortunately, this issue of sexual misconduct among Christian leaders is not uncommon. If you type in the search phrase, “Pastor accused of sexual misconduct,” an astounding 4.9 million hits comes back. Granted, many of these are duplicates, but just scroll through a few pages and see if the headlines don’t break your heart, as they do mine. From small churches to large ministries, youth leaders to retired priests, the sexual misconduct of Christian leaders is defaming the name of Christ and undermining their call at an alarming rate.
It occurs to me that each one of these leaders most likely felt, at some point, a clear call into vocational ministry. Each one had most likely been vetted and approved by a board, denomination, or licensing committee. Each one entrusted with significant spiritual leadership only after a thorough and careful process to assess their readiness. And yet, over and over, the secret life of the leader came to light and damaged not only their career, but the countless lives of others, whether of those in their congregations or those who were caught up in the wake of their sexual misconduct.
We want to believe these are isolated incidents. We want to say this is only something that happens “out there” or to a select few. But the data suggests otherwise. In a study done by the Francis Schaeffer Institute over a decade ago, 30% of pastors admitted to having a sexual encounter with a parishioner. According to a Barna Study commissioned by Josh McDowell, 57% of pastors admitted to having a current or past struggle with pornography. Just last year, the Southern Baptist denomination released a report of accusations against more than 380 of their leaders across 20 states. These are not isolated or rare incidents. This is an epidemic among Christian leadership, and it is far past time we stood up collectively and did something about it.
So Why Does This Happen?
The accusations that have already surfaced against Zacharias, and now confirmed by the investigative report, are sad and disheartening to say the least:
- exposing himself and masturbating during massages
- pressuring women to share sexually explicit images with him and engage in phone sex
- using his power and influence to hide and cover up his actions and the accusations
This sort of revelation can be very startling and confusing for us who follow these leaders. We sat under their teaching. We were built up by their wisdom. We admired their life of passion and devotion to the Lord. We had no idea this sort of behavior lurked under the surface. How could we miss it? Some might even beat themselves up over not figuring out sooner the “true nature” of the leader.
Even the Board at RZIM seems to show surprise at these revelations. In their own words:
“This misconduct is deeply troubling and wholly inconsistent with the man Ravi Zacharias presented both publicly and privately to so many over more than four decades of public ministry. We are heartbroken at learning this but feel it necessary to be transparent…”
(Statement from RZIM Board on the RZIM website.)
But can I just say…this is how it works for leaders who are stuck in this pattern! This is the life of a public minister—whether they are known and followed by 50 people or 50 million people. They have grown adept at putting on the good show and performing the role that everyone expects of them, even when their interior person doesn’t line up in actuality. And here’s a truth you might be missing: they aren’t doing this on purpose.* These leaders aren’t trying to live a double life, not most of them anyway. Most of them are trying—desperately trying—to live a God-honoring life, do the ministry they have been called to do, and banish the “deeply troubling and wholly inconsistent” conduct from their lives.
*Author’s Update: This blog was originally written before the full investigative report on Ravi’s behavior had been released. It is amply clear from the full report that by the end of his life, Ravi WAS purposefully intending to do these things. He was living a life of secrecy, abuse, manipulation and duplicity. His actions should have been halted, and Ravi called to account, years ago. In this blog, however, I am making a case about leadership in general, and stating my belief that this is not where most leaders start—encouraging us to focus our future efforts on dealing with the “ROOTS” long before they become “FRUITS.” In Ravi’s case, we will never know if his trajectory could have been changed had he received help in his 30’s or 40’s. For him, it is too late. But for millions of other imperfect leaders heading into ministry, how can we help them establish sustainable, healthy ministry careers?
Now, to be perfectly clear, I am not in any way trying to justify, rationalize, or minimize the behaviors and the choices these leaders have made. I am not defending them. What I am attempting to do is change the paradigm of how we view the fallen leader. We often see them as a corrupt leader who willfully leads a double life and is trying to use their position to secretly engage in as much erotic and inappropriate behavior as possible. In my opinion, this is rarely ever the case.
Why do I say this? Because I know this life. Before I found healing through God’s grace and the ministry of Pure Desire, I lived this life for nearly a decade—a pastor who struggled with pornography all while becoming a senior pastor at age 26 and leading a growing church. And now, for the last 10 years, I have been working with other leaders who seek Christ’s transformational work in the depths of their sexual brokenness. Our ministry helps hundreds of pastors a year. Their hearts cry out to do the right thing. Their soul longs for real freedom. But a deep rut of sexual dysfunction continues to trip them up and take them to places they never meant to go.
I find it deeply ironic, now, that Ravi Zacharias is the person most frequently attributed with this quote:
Sin will take you further than you meant to go, keep you longer than you meant to stay, and cost you more than you ever meant to pay.
I wonder, now, if Ravi didn’t speak these words as an echo of his own broken soul. He was, I believe, a man who wanted to honor God with his life. But he was also a man in whose heart sin had wreaked all kinds of havoc and he had nowhere to go with it.
You see, this is a common pattern for many leaders today. They enter into ministry as normal men or women with flaws, sin patterns, and areas in need of sanctification, just like anyone else, only they feel a sense of call into full-time work. Then, we train them to understand and exposit the Bible, to lead the church, and to build the ministry. And, along the way, we assume their personal, emotional, and sexual health are growing at the same pace as their ministry capability.
We ask a few questions up front, and leaders know the right answers to give to pass the interviews. But at the end of the day, the truth remains that their soul—like all of ours—is still desperately in need of being discipled and trained into wholeness and holiness. The only catch is, for the leader, this permission—this pathway—does not exist. Once the leader is in place, we expect him or her to have it all together and to lead us well, and certainly not struggle with sexual sin. And if they do? Well then, at this point, the easiest thing to do is hide it or lie about it. The environment we have created in Christian ministry inadvertently encourages the leader to perform well and hide the negative issues of their personal life.
This is the soil for sexual misconduct in Christian leaders. This will keep happening.
What Can We Do?
We tend to put the responsibility for change on the leader—and rightfully so! To a degree.
Yes, leaders are 100% responsible for their own behavior. At the same time, however, let us consider how the culture and environment we are creating, and sustaining, as the church today is contributing to the problem.
“Hold leaders more accountable” sounds good, but is the wrong answer. Holding people accountable is an adversarial relationship where one party—the one in authority—condemns the actions of another—the leader under their authority—and demands to know if the action has continued. This kind of relationship only puts more pressure on leaders to be better and shape up, and will only push the leader into a deeper place of hiding or minimizing their issues.
Nearly 100 years ago, German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wisely stated:
“The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners.” (Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 110. HarperOne, 1954.)
Nowhere is this more true than for the Chrstian leader today.
If we want to see an end to Christian leaders in sexual misconduct, we must change the culture of Christian leadership. We say of the leader, “This is so out of character for them!’ Yes, because nowhere do we allow the Ravi Zacharias’s of the world to be broken men who are still seeking the grace and redemption of Christ, particularly in their sexuality. Oh sure, it’s safe to be real about a few select sins like pride, work-a-holism, or even envy. But sex? Lust, pornography, or same-sex desires? Drugs? Alcoholism? No. We assume our leaders are above such vices, and if they aren’t, we remove them. So is it any wonder, then, that a Christian leader’s life has to be in turmoil, or publicly exposed, before these issues can be dealt with? I celebrate when we hear many stories of redemption, but most of these come after the fall.
What if we didn’t have to wait for the fall?
Today, I want to offer five ways we can be proactive to reinvent the culture of Christian leadership in order to change this pattern of sexual misconduct.
1. We need to rethink our pastoral training and seminary programs. In almost 10 full years of Bible college and seminary training, I spent less than one hour on human sexuality or addressing my own sexuality. I am not aware of a single college-level curriculum for ministry students aimed at discipling them (not their congregation) in the growth, development, and transformation of their sexuality into Christlikeness. We assume this is happening “in the margins” of our study or at a personal level. To a degree, it may be. But what kind of change might happen in the lives of young adult men and women if ministry education included training in our sexuality? Sexual brokenness and misconduct is the single greatest threat to the longevity of any pastoral leader’s career. So why do we leave this as a peripheral issue in our training?
2. We must ask better questions in our licensing and ordination process. The typical licensing or ordination interview will include a few questions to get at the level of maturity in someone’s personal life. Often, these are yes or no type questions.If we ask yes or no questions, and a leader believes their career rests on the answer to the question, they will give the answer that gets them in the door. “Have you struggled with pornography?” “Do you have any addictions?” “NO.” These questions are too easy to avoid. But what if we asked better questions and then had a follow-up plan? These questions need to be specific, and they will be uncomfortable. But when a person’s career hinges on their personal sexual health, they need to be asked. “When is the last time you viewed sexually explicit content?” “How often do you engage in masturbation?” “Who in your life knows everything about your negative sexual history and when is the last time you spoke with them?” Questions like this, and the follow-up conversations they create, would be far more valuable.
3. We should require ongoing emotional and relational training for all Christian leaders. If airline pilots are required to do a certain number of hours in a flight simulator in order to be recertified for their role, shouldn’t we expect leaders to continue to be trained and equipped in emotional and relational health? The longevity of the leaders is as connected, if not more, to their maturity in these areas as the airline pilot’s ability to follow a flight sequence. Rather than requiring this training, we put men and women into leadership and hope—or even worse, assume—everything is going okay. Struggles with our negative sexual health do not get better over time when left unaddressed. The struggle—and the problems it produces—get amplified over time. The need for ongoing training in emotional and sexual health becomes greater as a person ages in ministry, not less.
4. We must offer clear pathways of hope and healing for those who struggle. Far too many Christian leaders labor under an assumption that if their sexually compulsive behavior becomes known, they will lose their role and be black-listed from the ministry. Since this is the one job they are trained, equipped, and called to do, it is obvious why they would be hesitant to come forward and ask for help. This makes the posture of the organization and the supervisors above them absolutely crucial. Christian leaders need to hear loud, clear, and often that there is both compassion and competency to help; compassion meaning they will be shown grace and love, and competency meaning that a proven plan for health and recovery is in place. Pure Desire Ministries offers a plan like this, which is called the PD Leaders Partnership. We currently provide an effective plan of recovery for numerous denominations, student ministries and para-church organizations. Contact us to find out how your organization can get involved and become proactive in supporting your leaders.
5. We need to promote a place of true accountability for every leader. True accountability means that a leader has a safe, trusted group of peers they purposefully choose to go to with everything. This is not “accountability from above” that is placed on them; this is accountability they create for their own well-being and health. In true accountability, a leader makes commitments to be honest, check-in regularly, and follow logical consequences for breaking boundaries. They don’t wait for someone to ask them how it’s going or require authenticity; instead, they choose it as a normal, routine part of their weekly and monthly rhythm. This group make-up could be different for different leaders. A Pure Desire online group is the perfect place for this to happen. This could also be with an elder board (in some ecclesial traditions where the elders are a group of co-equals), a small group of other pastors, or other Christian friends from the community. Who exactly is in this safe community isn’t as vital as the leaders commitment to be in this community regularly. We must create a culture of Christian leadership where honesty and forthrightness is the norm, long before any deep issues become known publicly.
Are we going to continue with the status quo and wait for the next “Ravi Zacharias story” to come to light, just with a different name and location? Or will we take a stand together and say, “Enough is enough.” Our cultural paradigm for Christian leadership must shift in order to change this tide of devastation from sexual misconduct.
I am calling on Christian denominations, church-planting leaders, seminary professors and boards, licensing and ordination committees, Christian universities, para-church ministries, and every individual follower of Christ to take seriously the emotional and sexual health of our leaders, and to see this health as absolutely crucial to the longevity of their ministry.
The future health and effectiveness of the church may depend on it.