How to fall in ministry

And what to do when it happens

February 21, 2019

The scenario is depressingly common by now—word of another ministry leader having his hypocrisy and hidden life exposed. An addiction here. An affair there. An abusive exercise of power and narcissistic exploitation of position. I don’t know if pastors fall at a higher rate today than they did, say, 30 years ago, but our social media age certainly makes it seem that way.

Each time it happens, we get less adept at incredulity, less inclined to outrage and distress. We’re not happy about it, of course, but we are, sadly, getting used to it. Then the backward troubleshooting begins, the diagnosing of sicknesses long after the deaths. Ministry post-mortems tell us so much, but it would be great if we could see the falls coming.

But can’t we?

How you can fall in ministry

Looking back over the wreckage of so many disgraced pastors and failed ministries, what are some common denominators across the landscape of impurity in the pastorate? If you wanted to fall, what would you make sure you’d do?

First, you’d let the power of success (or just the position itself) go to your head.

You don’t have to be a glad-handing type-A leader to fall into the rut of egocentrism; you only have to be a pastor who enjoys approval and accolades. You could be a small church guy who enjoys being your congregation’s functional messiah—available 24/7 for the needs in your church and open to their every religious whim or command. Before you know it, you’re stressed, tired, and feeling either a little entitled or a little resentful (or both). And this combination of fatigue, stress, and stewing bitterness, over time, is a recipe for moral failure. Pushing yourself to these limits makes you extremely vulnerable for increasingly serious temptations from the evil one.

Secondly, you’d stop investing in your marriage.

For pastors blessed to have families, one of the quickest ways to vulnerability in temptation is nurturing neglect of your wife and justifying it at the same time as “the demands of ministry” or something else similarly self-aggrandizing. After a while, you may even come to see your wife not as your primary ministry but as an obstacle, an impediment, a preventer of your ability to flourish in ministry. The bitterness takes root. She doesn’t understand you, she doesn’t “get” you. And then guess what happens when you come along someone who does—or at least seems to?

Thirdly, you’d isolate and obfuscate yourself.

This is a surefire way to sabotage your ministry. Ministers have a variety of ways of removing themselves from real companionship and the accountability that often comes with it. You may find the best way is to exploit the leadership structure of your church or even tamper with it so everybody answers to you, and you answer to nobody, or nobody but “yes-men.” Or, you simply retreat further and further away from team dynamics whether emotionally or physically.

Almost every one of the pastors I’ve known personally who lost their ministries to moral failings would say later that they had no real friends. Nobody knew them. This has implications for accountability and also general emotional wellbeing. Not every lonely pastor falls morally, but they are all vulnerable to it.

But for those who don’t feel isolated from others in structure or position, there is still the real danger of obfuscation. In other words, they aren’t honest or confessional. They arrange things so no hard questions about their lives can be asked, and if they are, they just lie. The truth is seen as more costly. But nothing is more costly than investing in your not being known until the truth busts out through the debris of a moral train wreck.

Finally, you’d make a routine of neglecting communion with Christ.

This really sets a course for moral failure. Out of all the traits common to pastoral falls, this is in my estimation the most common of all—neglect of devotional life. Falls are different and so are the routes taken to them, but as soon as you commit, even if unintentionally, to not nourishing yourself in the Word and boasting in the weakness of prayer, you are deciding you are smart enough and strong enough to do life by yourself. This is a great way to plan for a spectacular failure.

When Jesus went into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, he fought the enemy off with Scripture, and he was ministered to by the Spirit and the angels. If Jesus needed that wisdom and protection, who do you think you are that you don’t?

So now you’ve put all the plans in place. You’ve bought your own hype or acquiesced to cultural or programmatic demands to center the ministry on yourself. You’ve sacrificed your family on the altar of success. You’ve isolated yourself emotionally and spiritually from others, living a life of hidden struggles and sins among others. And you’ve gone stale in your devotional life, pouring yourself into things more readily efficient or immediately practical.

Then you crash and burn.

Now what?

What to do when you fall

Well, pastor, once you’ve fallen, stick the landing. And by that, I mean that once you’re laid low, stay there. For a long time. No, not in your sin. Not in self-pity or wallowing. Repent of your sin and all the excuses for it and whining over it, but don’t jump back up to pretend everything’s fine. Listen to those you’ve hurt. Submit to those who know you. Remember that vocational ministry is an honor, and it’s nobody’s right. You are
not entitled to a ministry position.

And what about grace, you say? Well, grace means that a repentant sinner can be restored to the fellowship. And grace also means that no fellowship should be subjected to unqualified leadership.

Can you ever be restored? Perhaps. I take from Christ’s restoration of Peter that it’s not just to the fold but to the feeding that fallen shepherds can be shepherds again. But I do not take from Christ’s personal restoration that haste would be prudent. We read in 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5 that pastors must be qualified. In those qualifications we see nothing of the aspiring pastor’s ambition or preferences. We see character issues, spiritual aptitudes, and well-developed reputations for relational and communal integrity. These do not exist for the pastor who has disqualified himself. It does not mean they can never exist again, but they cannot exist right now.

You cannot tell if someone is a good manager of a household the first time you meet him. You see the witness of his family life over time. Similarly, when a guy cheats on his wife, you don’t determine he’s a good family man soon after the revelation. It will take more time, given the offense, to see him walk in repentance, to gain that reputation back.

This is the case with any point of disqualification, although some levels of discernment can occur more quickly than others. It is not an immediate thing for a pastor disqualified for a long pattern of verbal abuse or coarse jesting to gain a reputation as a gentle, peaceful man. It is probably less still for a pastor disqualified for a pattern of alcohol addiction or sexual immorality to gain a reputation as sober-minded or a “one-woman man.”

This is parallel to the biblical qualification of “not being a new convert.” Obviously we are speaking to a (presumably) Christian person who is newly repentant, but the underlying principle is the same. Repentance is an immediate re-entry to the fellowship, but re-entry to the pastorate takes the testing of time.

This is not graceless. It is how Christ protects his church and, incidentally, how he protects repentant sinners from rushing too soon back into the same pressures that revealed their undeveloped character to begin with.

So what you do, pastor, is lay low. I know it is difficult; I know it is embarrassing. But Christ and his church are bigger than you and your aspirations. The kingdom will not perish without your leadership—and, though it’s hard to face, neither will you. If you love Jesus and want to serve his church, do so out of the spotlight. Detox from the need for power and approval. Walk daily with Jesus in quiet ways over a long period of time. Let qualified shepherds feed you.

You may imagine that the bigness of grace is shown in the rushing of a fallen minister back to ministry, but the opposite is true. If you will stay low, humble yourself, and serve Christ and his church from the shadows of obscurity, you will discover just how satisfying grace actually is.

This article originally appeared in Light Magazine.

Jared C. Wilson

Jared C. Wilson is the Director of Content Strategy for Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Managing Editor of For The Church(and host of the FTC Podcast), and Director of The Pastoral Training Center at Liberty Baptist Church in Kansas City, MO. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24