All pastors are sinners, just like the rest of us. But some pastors sin in particularly brazen ways. These sins sometimes stay hidden for a certain period of time, but sooner or later, the truth will come to light. And when that happens—when a pastor is caught in deception and overt sin—trust is shattered:
- The sheep no longer trust their shepherd. How could they? He has been standing before them, preaching the Word of God, exhorting them unto faith and righteousness, administering the Lord’s Supper, baptizing… and all the while, lying and deceiving them by living in a hypocritical manner.
- Other church leaders no longer trust their fellow church leader. Why should they? He has been with them at meetings, ostensibly working hard to administer the Lord’s resources to people in need … and all the while, stealing from the church (misuse of time and money).
- His wife no longer trusts him. His children no longer trust him. Every person he has ever advised in his career of ministry no longer trusts him because he has preyed on and abused a vulnerable young woman in a counseling session. She no longer trusts him. And she is also now struggling to trust God.
Caught in the firestorm of their own making, many disgraced pastors simply resign and run as far away as possible from the people, families, churches and denominations they have loved. This response is tragic for two reasons:
- The pastor loses out on the opportunity to demonstrate what godly repentance looks like; to bear up underneath the consequences of his actions (relationally, professionally, financially, criminally, ecclesiastically); and to do the hard work of making restitution, rebuilding trust, and restoring relationships with the people he was called to love.
- The people he has wronged lose out on the opportunity to pray for their pastor, do good to him, bless him, and forgive him just as in Christ they have been forgiven. They also lose out on the opportunity to help the pastor grow in his sanctification through redemptive church discipline and ongoing accountability.
It is possible for a disgraced pastor to be forgiven and restored—maybe not to the pulpit, maybe not to an ordained position—but restored to God, family, and community. The blood of Christ was shed for pastors too! And in that, we rejoice. But we also rejoice in the countless pastors who have taken wise steps to avoid these temptations and guard their churches from the utter destruction that often befalls the church when a pastor has been taken captive by sin.
To encourage everyone involved (the pastor, his family members, his fellow leaders, and all church members), we would like to focus the balance of this article on the three most prevalent areas of temptation that pastors give in to and then how these destructive sins can be avoided:
- Telling untruths (often to defend the need to be proven “right”).
- Misuse of church funds (commonly a personal expense account that is abused for arguably “righteous” reasons).
- Sexual sin (use of pornography or prostitutes, at the extreme; or very commonly, a pastoral counseling relationship that turns inappropriately intimate emotionally and then physically).
The latter temptation is such a huge topic, we really want to save its treatment for an entire post of its own. But let it suffice to say that because God has created us as sexual beings for his good purposes of fulfilling the creation mandate and providing intimate human companionship, any sexual release or relationship outside of the marriage relationship is both a heinous sin against one’s own body and one’s spouse, and also against the Lord because it flaunts his law. Surely, no Christian pastor stands on his own wedding day, vowing to be faithful to his wife, but secretly thinking:
“One day, when I’m tired and lonely and feeling ostracized and unappreciated; one day when a beautiful woman sits across from me in my church office, hanging on my every word, affirming me as being brilliant and caring and handsome and witty; one day, I will cross a line emotionally with her. And the next time, I will cross another line…a physical one. Until, one day, in a fog, blinded by my sinful heart, I find myself in bed with her. I will keep up the charade of preaching. I will lead Bible studies and tuck my children into bed at night. And all the while, I will violate my wife and join my body with another.”
No. No pastor ever expects to say those things and do those things—but every day, pastors sin in this way. This dysfunction leads to profound wreckage in the lives of the many. That is why we must help to guard our pastors and do all we can to protect their marriage relationships. (More on this topic in a later post.)
The other two areas of prevalent sin for pastors also reflect a dysfunction, but in a more subtle way. The deceit is just as harmful, however, and thus, church members and leaders must take steps to guard their pastor from these temptations by creating a culture and environment where boundaries have been carefully set and communicated. In doing so, they will serve the pastor and the church well, and they will help to protect the reputation of Christ and the church.
Money issues, particularly those dependent on the discretion of a single person, require careful monitoring. While most churches provide a pastor with a church credit card for his use, failure to establish clear spending guidelines (limits and categories) can lead to unintended misuse, confusion, and even a temptation to “push the envelope” that frequently leads to accusations of pastoral greed and deceit. Wise church leaders put in place a system where a monthly audit confirms appropriate use and requires the pastor to personally reimburse the church for any questionable expense. “Trust but verify” is appropriate in this matter because the temptation “for the sake of convenience” (“I knew the deacons would authorize this expense but they were unavailable when my decision had to be made”) has led to the dismissal of many pastors. Unfortunately, some pastors may feel undercompensated in their positions and will thus “justify” spending money from their expense account on personal pleasures in sort of a hidden way to “make up for” their sense of being underpaid. This area of temptation, all areas of temptation, reveals a misplaced sense of identity as a pastor and as a Christian, and misplaced trust. Pastors are called to be examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:2-3) and what they model should be and will be viewed from a strict perspective.
The temptation for many pastors to be “right” drives some to telling less than whole truths. We have never met a pastor who has admitted to outright lying. Many, however, have had to confess they were less than completely transparent and forthcoming with every aspect of the truth. This form of pastoral temptation is deceit that is grounded in pride. Unfortunately, many churches create such an “ivory tower” mentality around their shepherd that for him to fail to live up to their high expectations is tantamount to an admission of failure. The need to always be right brings evidence of trust in self and not in the risen Christ; again an issue of misplaced identity. Church leaders and church members must be realistic about what a fallen human being can and cannot do, even one called and ordained to the role of pastor. Pastors are frequently lonely people simply because they, too, even though set apart for the special calling to be God’s voice in our midst, need compassion, friendship, intimacy, and the freedom to be wrong from time to time.
Peter, writing of what sort of people we should be as we await the “Day of the Lord,” asks, “What kind of people ought you to be?” (2 Peter 3:11). His answer comes a few verses later:
Make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. 2 Peter 3:14
Making such effort means, of course, first finding ourselves totally unable to do that what is called for. Only as we are “in Christ” (that is, our identity and trust is not in self or any other person) can we meet the call to “make every effort.” The same holds true for your pastor so be wise and compassionate as you make that effort to guard and encourage your pastor’s marriage, protect him from the temptation of money by paying him a salary that is worthy of “double honor” (1 Timothy 5:17), and creating a realistic church environment in which pastoral freedom to be wrong promotes truth telling to the fullest extent. We do that best by remembering we are all part of God’s family walking through this life as “aliens and strangers on earth” (Hebrews 11:13) longing for our true home. We do that best in respectful partnership with each other as we honor one another as image bearers of the One who has called us.
-Dave Edling and Tara Barthel
(This article was originally published in 2012.)