Thursday, May 04, 2023

Mastering the Pastor Disaster

Her voice on the end of the phone was shaky. Clearly she was very, very upset about something. But she couldn’t bring herself to tell me what. Her words came out in a kind of extended groan that seemed to swell up from inside the depths of her heart, but could only leak past her lips. Something very bad had happened.

As our conversation continued, I gently drew more details out of her broken responses, and it became clearer. Not only she, but all her friends and her church, had been betrayed. A leader in their circle, much loved and widely admired, had turned the corner of a disastrous course. The first of the news had just broken; and she had called me less to tell me than to seek some kind of soothing for her aching soul.

The scandal would soon become more public, as it turned out. People would choose sides. Those who had residual loyalties would harden against those who had doubts or accusations. Friendships, families, ministries and churches would soon split, and a lasting root of bitterness would develop. Some people would survive the ordeal; but the world of that church group would never be the same again. The wounds would be deep, and for some, the discouragement would persist for decades.

A Predictable Disaster

We saw two weeks ago that the clerical narcissist is a joint production of himself and the congregation. He’s always looking for a place for his ego to bloom, and the local church provides him one. They do this by making two mistakes: firstly, they adopt extra-biblical and unspiritual criteria in seeking leadership, and secondly, they establish an office with the kind of prestige and authority that the narcissist craves.

Really, it’s a mad marriage.

The Formula

Charisma, expertise, vision and youthfulness — the clergyman narcissist has got it all; and with it, the responsibility for the most important part of anyone’s life: the spiritual. Finally, he’s got a job profile he really designs for himself, and he alone knows what he really does with much of his time.

Is it any wonder men like this so often become exploiters? Is it a surprise that so many have embezzled, or gone to bed with congregants, or plunged into wildly errant doctrines and proved impervious to correction? The formula is so conducive to the flesh it is quite a miracle that any of them manage to escape it. And some do; but as you well know, too many don’t.

The Sordid History

Do we have to list the names of all the prominent preachers, teachers and leaders who have been discovered to be abusing their positions in recent days? But such a list doesn’t even include the ones who are caught but not publicly exposed, or those who are local tyrants, exploiters, posers and bullies, but who keep their megalomania to levels just below what people can tolerate before a scandal breaks out.

As you can imagine, for every such leader or pastor who overplays his hand, there are many who manage to keep the lid on things. How many truly good ones there are out there, nobody can really say for sure; it seems just as soon as you trust one that he goes sideways in some important way.

Who Did It?

But the fault is not only with the men who abuse the system; it’s also with the system that allows them to do it. And not just “allows”, either: for it is shaped in such a way as to maximize every susceptibility they may have to spiritual pride, to self-importance and self-congratulation; to attention-getting, control-taking and to an inflated view of their own importance. And when they fall, we not only feel totally betrayed, but wrack our brains for the answer to how such a horrible thing could every happen. Maybe we even blame God for allowing it to happen, and become embittered and disillusioned with the church as a whole. That’s common enough.

But we did it. They did it, yes: but we also did it. We set them up, gave them the power, and then drove events in that direction ourselves. True, we didn’t ask them to betray us; but we put them in a position to do it and told them they could do no wrong. When they went wrong, we were all surprised.

We shouldn’t have been. From the start, we put them in the kind of role that simply should never exist. There is no biblical warrant at all for one-man-at-the-top ministry. The word “shepherd” (“pastor”) in scripture is always in the plural. The Lord has ordained that no man but Christ should ever be the singular authority in the local church: that so far as mere human beings are concerned, the checks and balances of multiple-elder leadership, a collection of “under-shepherds”, should always be at the top of things. In fact, we cannot point to a single New Testament church that was unequivocally ruled by a lone man …

One Example

Oh, check that: there seems to have been one.

The guy’s name was Diotrephes. How he got control of the local church is never explained; but it seems he had found a way to seize the “preeminence”. He’d been so successful that it would take an apostolic visit to counteract his power. He’d begun to refuse the apostles’ doctrine, and to whomp up a membership list to rule out those he didn’t like; and nobody in the congregation was able to stand against him anymore. Nasty man.

So the problem’s not new. But it is predictable, and we should be predicting it. And avoiding it.

Checks and Balances

What do you do when you have an authority structure that’s potentially vulnerable to abuse? The founders of the American Republic knew: you put in a system of “checks and balances” that keep any singular leader from setting himself up as king.

What are the checks and balances God has installed to prevent that happening in the local church? Let me suggest a few:

  1. Scripture — if every man’s word can be checked against the word of God, then his latitude to mold truth to his liking is severely curtailed. But that only works if you have …
  2. Congregational Biblical Engagement — The people within the church must have a strong, independent and ongoing engagement with the scripture themselves if they are going to be able to check the activities of the leaders.
  3. Elder Leadership — Not single-pastor leadership. Any non-elder who preaches or teaches, especially one who preaches or teaches often, must remain subject to the group of elders, and they alone have the mandate to “rule” over the assembly of the Lord’s people. But this only works if they also have …
  4. Elder Qualifications — The Lord has ordained that not just anybody is fit to lead the local congregation. They must all have every specific qualification given in scripture. If you look at these, you’ll see that none of them is particularly difficult: in fact, every Christian should have many of these same qualities, really.
  5. Distributed Authority — More than one or two elders, each of which is on par with every other in terms of authority. The ability of any one leader to push the agenda in his preferred direction, rather than in God’s direction, is inhibited by the presence of other godly men who can modify and correct him.
  6. Division of Powers — So that these leaders can focus on the true elder’s work of attending to prayer and the serving of the congregation through the Word, lesser tasks are immediately delegated to other spiritual, trusted persons who are not elders. The elders must do only elders’ work — not get distracted with financial and practical logistics of any kind. But because they are one step removed from such concerns, they are both undistracted in their main tasks and moderated in their control over them. They must be able to explain to the deacons why they want what they want, and rely on those deacons for the practical enacting of the spiritual goals they articulate.
  7. Equal Giftedness — The very fact that every Christian is actually “gifted” by God for ministry and given to the Church, and that all gifts are to be prized — the “lower” gifts even more than the “higher” ones — is a check on the pride of preachers, teachers and leaders. A good leader prizes every kind of giftedness. He does not magnify his own gifts, but rather cultivates gift in others. A true leader continuously “works himself out of a job”, divesting himself of honor and responsibility by handing it off to those he cultivates so that they can grow into new roles. He aims at total church growth, not the increase of his own power, ministry or importance to the flock.

Are these safeguards for the congregation against the abuse of authority? Or are they protections for people who are in positions of responsibility, so that they are not tempted to become narcissistic? The answer is both. For every congregation that is abused there is a leader who is fallen. Both are tragedies.


So long as we live in a fallen world, the danger of the clerical narcissist will persist somewhere. But we can either impede it or facilitate it, depending on how well we obey the Lord in putting into place the protections he has given us.

And whether or not we do that might be a very good indication of how serious we think the problem really is.

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