As I walked into my office today, I heard news that has become far too common.
Amidst the typical emails, appointments, and projects to complete was a message from a seminary friend. He had just received a campus-wide communication that his favorite professor had been removed from his post. The reason? I’m guessing you already know. Another high profile leader in the American church was removed from ministry for sexual immorality. This breaking story of a respected pastor and revered seminary professor in my community is sadly similar to so many others.
We say that a leader “fell” into sexual immorality. This seems to imply a one-time speed bump that was unexpected––like getting into a car accident. The reality, however, is that no one wakes up completely healthy one day and falls into sexual immorality the next. The news of their behavior or infidelity may send unexpected shockwaves through a community or a church, but in all likelihood the reality of their choices, and the isolation they feel as a leader, has been propelling them in this direction for years, if not decades.
What truly breaks my heart is the rigid, religious system we have created that does not allow a leader to be real. We have elevated leaders––pastors, authors, professors, and presidents––to lofty places. The interviews and auditions that land them these critical positions focus on credentials, past accomplishments, and theology. A few questions are asked about character––habits of Bible study and names of accountability friends––but an assumption of purity in the life of the leader is typical. For someone to be so godly and mature, we assume, they must not struggle with such things as lust, pornography, or inappropriate relationships.
In this assumption of leadership, what we fail to recall is that every leader is first and foremost a human being. As a fellow human being, every leader has a story and a past that continues to create their present struggle for holiness. As a human being, they need a safe place to be real, to be honest, and to face their weaknesses. However, the message we send to our leaders is to go and do that somewhere else. The community they lead is not the community where they can be real.
I know this truth: for over a decade, I played the part of the perfect pastor. I preached all the right sermons. I was “honest” about my weaknesses in all of the socially appropriate ways. I was applauded for my humility as a husband and father, all the while hiding the truth of my addiction to pornography. I thought I could control it in private, because to expose it in public would certainly mean the death of my career. And yet, in a sad irony, it was this private, isolated struggle that nearly brought an end to all that held dear.
By the grace of God, and His sovereign timing, I was rescued from myself by my spouse and a few select friends, who encouraged me to get real and to get help. Were it not for this timely introduction to a healing community, I would soon have joined the unhappy throng of leaders who “fell” into sexual immorality.
Yet, another leader has played the part. He did the dance and sang the song, and we all fell for his charm. His preaching inspired us, his teaching mentored us, and his faith led us. But under it all, he was dying with secret sins and no one to tell.
Is this the kind of church that Jesus envisioned?
Did Jesus imagine a place where leaders would be forced to hide their struggles from all, caught up in the charade they had learned to play so well? Or did Jesus imagine a community where leaders, like the people they were called to lead, could be vulnerable and real, even about their sexual brokenness and sin?
The church––the community of believers––must become a place where even leaders can be real and find redemption for all their issues, or we are no church at all.
So what can we do? What aspects of church culture and our leadership paradigm should we change in order to stop the tide of fallen leaders limping away in disgrace? Here are four ideas I submit for the conversation:
More often than not, we still appoint a leader who is the most gifted and skilled. And in this appointment, we assume spiritual and emotional maturity is present. But what if leadership was less about being the most spiritual person in the room, and more about being called? As it is, leaders feel pressure to continue to appear as the most spiritual person in the room, or else their appointment may seem unjust. However, if a person is called to leadership––and gifted by God for it––then we can approach leadership with the assumption that spiritual growth and maturity will still be a process. Someone may be called and gifted to lead, yet still need healing of the soul in their sexual brokenness. It is possible for them to both lead and to be working toward sexual and emotional health. The two are not mutually exclusive.
If someone can preach, teach, and write books about the Bible, surely they must be mature! If someone can lead other leaders and create a worldwide conference for leaders, surely they must be mature! But are they? Is skill in one area ever enough to compensate for immaturity in our emotional or sexual health? No. More often than not, competency in one area as a communicator or theologian may be a cover up for unaddressed immaturity in another. Maturity must be a holistic view of life that includes physical, spiritual, emotional, and sexual health.
The sad reality for many churches and spiritual communities is that our leaders must be superhuman. We want to believe that someone else has this spiritual life dialed in, and if we just follow them and sit under their teaching, we might figure it out too. Entering into the mess of their human condition, and allowing them to be real with us, sounds difficult and uncomfortable. So we remain in our pretense, with leaders who pretend to be mature as we do our best to act like we are, too. We need leaders, elders, deacon, fathers, and mothers who stand up and say, “Let’s not play games here. Let’s be real. We are community of the broken who have been redeemed by a wonderful Savior!”
I love how Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it in his book, Life Together:
It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. 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!Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
Could we create such a culture where everyone––including the
leader–is able to be this real?
Leader, how are you doing? Are you able to be real about ALL your issues––including sexual brokenness, lust, and temptation? If you are a leader and you find yourself in a culture where it isn’t safe to be real about these darker corners of your soul, get help now. Don’t convince yourself one day longer that you can maintain the facade long enough for these issues to resolve themselves. Our hidden issues don’t magically go away. They grow in seclusion until they derail a career or a life. Find a space where you can begin to address the reality of your brokenness. A Pure Desire group or counselor would be a wonderful place to start.
Follower, how are you doing? Are you expecting and assuming that your leader––a pastor, professor, or boss—has it all figured out? Or do you encourage and help create an environment where vulnerability and honesty are valued? Do we assume that spiritual and emotional health is a private matter for our leader to address on their own time and in their own way? Does not our call together as believer in Christ and co-heirs of the Kingdom call us to take an active role in the health of our brother or sister in Christ? I’m not telling you to be pushy or invasive of your leader’s privacy. But I am imploring you to care enough about their calling that you walk alongside of them in a way that cultivates transparency in the life of your leader.
There will be another mighty leader who “falls” into sexual immorality. It will happen. And when it does, we will all shake our heads and wonder how it could have ever happened to him or her. They seemed so mature!
But will we do something about it? What if we all decided that something has to change? What if we got real, even as leaders, until all our secret battles were brought into the light? And what if those battles were the very thing God wanted to use to touch the lives of others?
I pray that this paradigm shift will happen, and that you and I will be part of the change.
Nick is the Executive Director of Pure Desire Ministries. He has been in leadership for 15+ years. He was in Pastoral Ministry at East Hills Alliance Church in Kelso, WA for 14 years. Nick is the author of Setting Us Free and Safe: Creating a Culture of Grace in a Climate of Shame.