Nothing is harder for a church than when a leader has a moral failure that compromises their influence.
Sadly, we have experienced too many of these over the years and 2018 has seemed to usher in a host of them.
The first time I remember experiencing a public ministry leader falling was Rob Bell. Rob Bell was a cutting-edge pastor who had an incredible gift to communicate Scripture in a unique way that was both memorable and impactful. His Nooma videos are still some of the most creative and unique video Bible teachings out there. His live events including Everything is Spiritual and The God’s Aren’t Angry drew hundreds of people who came to hear him unpack biblical truths by looking deeper at biblical context, culture, and modern science. His books such as Velvit Elvis and Sex God challenged the standard approach to Scripture and sex.
But then, in 2011, Rob Bell came out with a book that shocked the Christian community. Love Wins became a hot topic of conversation as Bell denied the biblical concept of hell and used Scripture overtly out of context to argue that a loving God could not execute eternal judgment. The premise of his book was that eventually all people would be drawn to God and live eternally with him. His argument was a major detraction from basic Christian doctrine and embraced a Universalistic approach to spirituality. Needless to say, it was clear that Bell had gotten way off track theologically at some point and this book was his treatise describing his true theological convictions.
I can remember how devastated I was by this because I had looked up to and admired Rob Bell. It hurt that this pastor that I trusted and learned a great deal from had compromised on the essential doctrines of Christianity and, in my mind, could no longer be trusted as a communicator of Scripture.
The second time I experienced the pain of a leadership failure was Mark Driscoll. Driscoll’s passionate preaching and insights into Scripture helped me grow as a young adult in profound ways. I developed a hunger for Scripture and learned doctrine in a way that I never had before by listening to his sermons and reading his books. I admired Driscoll and his ministry so much that I even took a couple trips out to Seattle to see him preach live.
But in 2013 Driscoll was forced to step down from his position as lead pastor at Mars Hill Church. Pride, mistreatment of staff, and a domineering attitude were cited as reasons for Driscoll no longer being qualified to lead at the church. Literally, within a few months the once famous Mars Hill Church was no longer in existence.
I was heartbroken and saddened when news of this broke. Again, a leader that I had admired and emulated had fallen.
In a world that is more connected than ever, when the moral and spiritual failures of prominent church leaders are made public and even those who follow at a distance are shaken up by these things.
Again, the failure of Mark Driscoll hurt, but it would not be the last time that I would experience.
It is one thing when a leader falls and you witness it from afar, it is another thing when ministry failure comes to the front door of your own church. Whether it is an affair, dishonesty with finances, theological compromise, alcoholism, abuse of power, or anything in between, the pain and the hurt takes on a greater intensity.
It is heartbreaking when a person in ministry falls. Reactions and responses are mixed when this happens, but I think that as Christians there are four responses that we should consider.
1. Remember that Leaders Are Just Human’s
There is a temptation in all of us to idolize leaders and put them on a pedestal. Leaders can become idols that we love when things are going well but hate when they let us down. We have to remember that leaders are just humans. They have struggles like all of us and they are not to be idolized and worshiped. No leader, however great they are, can fill the place that Jesus must hold in our heart. Jesus is the only leader that deserves sole allegiance and Jesus is the only leader that we can place our full trust in and know that he will not let us down.
2. Show Love and Empathy
When a leader falls it impacts that leaders family, church, and influence circle. It is never a happy day when a leader falls. Yet Christians are often quick to critique, malign, mock, and draw attention to the leader’s failure. The better posture is to empathize with the leader and those around him/her who are impacted. Love should be shown and prayer should be offered. This does not mean that the leader's actions should be condoned or that they should retain their position, what it does mean is that as believers we should bear the burdens of one another. Galatians 6:1-2 speaks to this: "Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch over yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ."
3. Savor the Positive Things You Gained From Their Influence
Just because a leader has fallen it does not mean that the messages they preached, the material they wrote, or the things that you learned from them are all hypocrisy, heresy, or must be thrown out. While this could be the case with a small contingency of fallen leaders it is not the case the majority of the time. Remember, God uses fallen human beings to communicate truth. Just because a leader has fallen it does not mean that you have not gained incredible things from their life and ministry. Savor those things and thank God for them.
4. Use Their Failure as a Warning for Your Own Life
Every leadership failure is a warning and wake-up call for all believers to assess their own personal lives. Are you keeping the proper boundaries with the opposite sex? Is there an attitude that you have adopted that is leading you into a dark place? Do you have accountability around you? Are there idols that you have allowed to stand in your heart? Any one of us is susceptible and a moment away from falling. 1 Corinthians 10:12 speaks to this: "Therefore, let anyone who things that he stands take heed lest he fall."
Leadership failures are incredibly difficult, but as long as we live in an imperfect world, unfortunately it will be something that we will have to learn to walk through. If I could do one final thing for ministry leader's who have fallen that have had an impact on my life it would be to thank them.
To Rob Bell, I would say, "Thank you for teaching me how to be creative and think differently about Scripture as it relates to the context of the times."
To Mark Driscoll, I would say, "Thank you for instilling a love for theology and doctrine in me that is still alive today."
To other leaders who I have known, I would say, "Thank you for believing in me and calling things out of me. I will learn from your mistakes, but I will hold on to the good things I gained from you."
And finally, I would pray for them.
I would pray that they would allow God's healing to work in their lives.
I would pray that they seek true repentance and deal with the root issue behind their failure.
I would pray for their family and all those who are impacted by their decisions.
And I would pray that even in this that God would use it and work it out for His good purposes.