It's refreshing news to hear of pastors taking a leave of absence not over sexual or financial misconduct, but over pride. Such was the case with John Piper last year, and this week with C. J. Mahaney. Mahaney has been president of the church planting network Sovereign Grace Ministries, which according to its website now includes "about 95 churches," mostly on the East Coast. He is the founder of the megachurch Covenant Life Church, which he handed over to Joshua Harris after pastoring there for 27 years. He is also one of the leaders of the Together for the Gospel Conferences, and one of the most popular speakers in the neo-Reformed circuit.
The story behind his leave of absence is still unraveling. But he has publicly acknowledged that he has succumbed to "various expressions of pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment, and hypocrisy."
It's an interesting list of sins—ones that pastors all over America commit week in and week out. This is not to excuse Mahaney or to take such sins lightly. It is to suggest that the state of the modern American pastorate has been shaped so that these sins—especially pride and hypocrisy—are impossible to escape. For this reason, our pastors need not our condemnation, but our prayers. They are in a profession that is about as morally risky as they come.
Bigger and Better
The modern American church is very much a product of its culture—we're an optimistic, world-reforming, busy, and ambitious lot, we Americans. In business, that means creating a better widget, and lots of them, and thus growing larger and larger corporations. In religion, that means helping more souls, and along the way, building bigger and better churches. Alexis de Tocqueville marveled in the 1830s how American Christians seemed so blasé about doctrine compared to their enthusiasm for good works. Religious busyness will be with us always, it seems.
Translate that into church life, and we find that American churches exalt and isolate their leaders almost by design. Our ambitious churches lust after size—American churches don't feel good about themselves unless they are growing. We justify church growth with spiritual language—concern for the lost and so forth. But much of the time, it's American institutional self-esteem that is on the line. This is an audacious and unprovable statement, I grant, but given human nature (the way motives become terribly mixed in that desperately wicked human heart) and personal experience, I will stick to it.
With this addiction to growth comes a host of behavioral tics, such as a fascination with numbers. The larger the church, the more those who attend become stats, "attenders" to be counted and measured against previous weeks. Pastoral leaders are judged mostly on their ability to enlarge their ministries. It's not long before we have to rely on "systems" to track and follow newcomers. It is the rare church now that can depend on members naturally noticing newcomers, or on their reaching out to them with simple hospitality. That has become the job of a committee, which is overseen by a staff member. With increasing size comes an increasing temptation to confuse evangelism with marketing, the remarkably efficient and effective if impersonal science of getting people in the doors.
With the longing for size comes a commitment to efficiency. No longer is it a good use of the head pastor's time to visit the sick or give spiritual counsel to individuals. Better for him to make use of his "gift mix," which usually has little to do with the word pastor—or shepherd, the biblical word for this position. Instead, he has been hired for his ability to manage the workings of large and complex institutions. The bigger the church, the less he works with common members and mostly with staff and the church board. To successfully manage a large church, one must be on top of all the details of that institution. This doesn't necessarily mean directly micromanaging things, but it certainly means to do so indirectly. The large church pastor may not personally tell the nursery volunteers to repaint the 2–3 year-old room, but when he notices a spot of peeling paint as he passes by, the pastor will tell someone who will tell someone, and it will get done in short order.
This is not because the senior pastor is a control freak—or if he is, the church wants him to be. Churches on their way up the growth curve like to know that someone is in charge, that someone is attending to the details, that someone is getting things done. That's why they've hired this dynamic, forward looking, administratively savvy leader. They enjoy being a part of a humming, efficient organization. It reminds them of the other humming, efficient organizations our culture admires, from Google to Apple to Disneyland. It makes them proud to be a part of such a church. That the pastor has to take a heavy hand now and then—sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly—is a small price to pay.
(I use the masculine pronoun to talk about pastors precisely because the vast majority are males, and men are particularly vulnerable to these realities. I also speak autobiographically here, having been a pastor for ten years.)
What makes the pastor's job even more spiritually vulnerable is the expectation that he also be the cathartic head of the church—someone with whom members can identify and live through vicariously. Someone who articulates their fears and hopes, someone to whom they can relate—at a distance. This is key, because the pastor has time to relate to very, very few members. Thus it is all the more important that he be able to communicate in public settings the personable, humble, vulnerable, and likable human being he is.
Thus, preaching in the modern church has devolved into the pastor telling stories from his own life. The sermon is still grounded in some biblical text, and there is an attempt to articulate what that text means today. But more and more, pastors begin their sermons and illustrate their points repeatedly from their own lives. Next time you listen to your pastor, count the number of illustrations that come from his life, and you'll see what I mean. The idea is to show how this biblical truth meets daily life, and that the pastor has a daily life. All well and good. But when personal illustrations become as ubiquitous as they have, and when they are crafted with pathos and humor as they so often are, they naturally become the emotional cornerstone of the sermon. The pastor's life, and not the biblical teaching, is what becomes memorable week after week.
Again, this is not because the pastor is egotistical. It's because, again, we demand this of our preachers. Preachers who don't reveal their personal lives are considered, well, impersonal and aloof. Share a couple of cute stories about your family, or a time in college when you acted less than Christian, and people will come up to you weeks and months later to thank you for your "wonderful, vulnerable sermons." Preachers are not dummies, and they want approval like everyone else. You soon learn that if you want those affirmative comments—and if you want people to listen to you!—you need to include a few personal and, if possible, humorous stories in your sermon.
The inadvertent effect of all this is that most pastors have become heads of personality cults. Churches become identified more with the pastor—this is Such-and-Such's church—than with anything larger. When that pastor leaves, or is forced to leave, it's devastating. It feels a like a divorce, or a death in the family, so symbiotic is today's relationship between pastor and people.
No wonder pastors complain about how lonely and isolated they feel. The success and health of a very demanding institution have been put squarely on their shoulders. They love the adrenaline rush of success—who doesn't? But they also live in dread that they may fail. Wise pastors recognize that unique temptations will assault them, and some set up accountability structures to guard their moral and spiritual lives. They try to have people around them who can speak truth to their power. But in reality, since this is an accountability structure that they have set up and whose membership they determine, in the end it can only have limited effectiveness.
And so we have a system in which pride and hypocrisy are inevitable. The situation for the pastor is impossible. He retains his biblical vision, but the system he finds himself in makes him waver between humility and arrogance, hope and cynicism, patience and anger, love and hate. The pastor has to increasingly downplay these tensions or any serious shortcomings, moral or administrative, to play the part that is expected of him. He must learn to doubt his moral instincts, so he starts believing that efficiently running a large, bureaucratic institution is "ministry" or "service" rather than what it often is: mostly managing and controlling people. He and his congregation justify his heavy-handed leadership and his lack of time for individuals—the very antithesis of his title, pastor or shepherd. His sermons are increasingly peppered with himself as much as the gospel, and even his self-deprecating humor turns against him. Now people praise him for his humility, which only goes to his head, as it does for any human being.
The morally serious pastor will be aware of much of this—even if he can't admit it to anyone—and he will strive to keep himself in check. But he will find that his left hand always—always—knows what his right hand is doing. He has become incapable of carrying out his ministry in simple freedom and trust in God's grace. He began running the race of ministry with holy ambition, but he now finds himself on a treadmill of "various expressions of pride."
Every profession has its secret sins and habitual vices—believe me, we have plenty in journalism. We all need prayer in our callings. And no more so than pastors, whose spiritual leadership makes them most vulnerable to the sins that Jesus most severely condemned: hypocrisy and pride.
Is there hope? Of course. Pastors aren't the only people who find themselves trapped in a social milieu where it is impossible not to succumb to sin. It is for habitual and trapped sinners—like pastors, like us—that Jesus died. The hope is not that we can find a perfect church environment in which we can eradicate pastoral pride. The hope is that Jesus loves and uses repentant sinners despite our pride.
This does not mean Jesus doesn't want us to change the way we do church. I sometimes wonder if he's allowing us to reap the fruit of our churchly ambitions—with many pastors burning out or becoming cynical, or resigning in one form of "disgrace" or another—so we will discover anew why the word pastor or shepherd is the name he gives to the church's leaders. That very name suggests that perhaps the church should not be about growth and efficiency, but care and concern, not so much an organization but a community, not something that mimics our high-tech culture but something that incarnates a high-touch fellowship. By God's grace, there is a remnant of such churches alive and well today, with leaders who really are pastors.
In the meantime, do not condemn your pastor when he succumbs to pride and hypocrisy. He's stuck in a religious system from which few escape unscathed. Pray for him. And remind him that grace covers a multitude of sins, and that neither life nor death, nor angels nor principalities, nor the contemporary North American church can separate him from the love of God in Christ Jesus, the Great Shepherd of the church.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today and author of God Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Why the Good News Is Better than Love Wins (Tyndale).
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Previous SoulWork columns include:
What Faith Is: Accepting Conditions | Eternity is inevitable, one way or another. We may want to get used to it. (June 9, 2011)
What to Do with Aunt Julie | Harold Camping and our problem relatives. (May 26, 2011)
Rob Bell Is Not a Litmus Test | What one thinks about 'Love Wins' is no test of faith. (May 5, 2011)