A few weeks ago, I groaned as I opened up a social media account to be greeted by a headline about a prominent megachurch pastor who was engrossed in scandal. My first thought was, “Not again.” It seems like every few weeks, we learn about more prominent evangelical leaders who have moved from rise to fall due to toxic leadership, financial mismanagement, or sexual failure. Why does this keep happening?
The right focus on the right leadership gifts
The reason is not profound. It’s quite simple actually. May I suggest that the reason leaders keep falling is because we’ve perhaps overemphasized some aspects of leadership while underemphasizing or flat ignoring others?
Here’s what I mean. We tend to elevate and platform leaders with certain external gifts. We put on a pedestal those men and women who are beautiful, bold, gifted, and charismatic. If they are dynamic communicators, effective leaders, and can draw a crowd or sell a lot of books, they become prominent in our evangelical world. While the ability to draw a crowd or deliver a dynamic message is not a vice in and of itself, I believe we have overemphasized the importance of these leadership gifts.
Meanwhile, we’ve ignored or forgotten certain other aspects of leadership. For instance, we’ve forgotten our theology. We’ve forgotten, as an example, that the Bible says we are completely sinful, even pastors and leaders. No one is beyond a public or private moral failure. Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:10 says, “There is none righteous, no, not one.” We shouldn’t be surprised when we put our favorite evangelical leader on a pedestal and then they fall off. Maybe they weren’t created by God to take “center stage.” Maybe the pedestal shouldn’t be occupied by anyone but Jesus. In a sense, we shouldn’t be surprised when we hear about a leader having a fall, because the Bible tells us that there is no one we can completely trust but Jesus. Jesus never fails. Leaders fail quite often.
More than that, while we tend to platform leaders with obvious external gifts, we have underemphasized the importance of internal character. The most important gift a leader can give to those who follow is their character. I heard Gary Thomas say recently, “What a trap it is to work hard on your sermons but not work hard on your character.” Ouch.
Scripture is replete with references to what matters most in leadership. Consider the psalmist’s description of David’s leadership: “So he shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart, and guided them by the skillfulness of his hands” (Psalm 78:72). Or how about Paul’s description of the qualifications for pastors in 1 Timothy 3:1-7:
This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.
Out of that entire list of qualifications, only one has anything to do with a pastor’s competency or skill. A pastor must be “able to teach.” Everything else has to do with the pastor’s inner life, what a pastor must be. The pastor must be blameless, committed to his wife, not violent, or greedy, or covetous. He must be gentle and be a good husband and father. He must be humble and have a good reputation.
What’s noticeably absent? Paul never says that a good pastor must be any of the things we often look for in our popular evangelical leaders. There’s nothing here about having dripping charisma, nothing about being hip and cool, nothing about turning a pithy phrase in the pulpit, nothing about “velocity” or “efficiency” as a leader, nothing about the ability to grow a large church.
Good leadership is about character. Maybe the reason the public falls keep happening is because we’ve forgotten what’s most essential. We’ve forgotten that who we are in public is an overflow of who we are in private. We’ve forgotten that who we are when no one but God is looking is who we really are. And if who we really are is anything other than someone who is submitted to the Father, yielded to Christ, and indwelt by the Spirit for the purpose of obedience for the sake of his name, then our inner brokenness will become public reproach.