When Leaders Fall
A painful look at moral failings in the Church
In the last year, three failures of integrity in the ministry have rocked my world. The first was my childhood youth pastor, who lost his family and his credentials, only to lose his life a few months later to cancer. The second was one of my former Bible college professors, who, according to police, drove the wrong way on the highway while intoxicated, killing a young woman in a head-on collision. The final one is Bill Hybels, whose approach to evangelism and leadership profoundly impacted my life and ministry — and whose public fall left me in stunned shock, questioning everything I ever learned from him.
These situations have deeply grieved me. To be honest, I’m also terrified. When leaders fail to hold on to their integrity, it robs the innocence of everyone around them. It can weaken us, and just like the disciples at the Last Supper, we look at ourselves and ask, Will I betray Him, too?
Recently, Gary Grogan, one of our spiritual fathers and our church’s overseer, did a session with our staff to discuss integrity in the ministry. I’d like to share a few thoughts that stood out to me.
Leadership can never replace integrity. “Anything that can be built by great leadership can crumble when integrity fails,” Grogan said. There’s such an emphasis on leadership in the Church, it almost feels like heresy to say this. The line of thinking goes like this: Of course integrity is the most important thing. But that doesn’t create growth. Sadly, the engine for growth has created a church culture that sometimes allows the end to justify the means.
When leaders fail to hold on to their integrity, it robs the innocence of everyone around them.
After travelling as evangelists week after week, year after year, the dead places stand out in my memory. In time, we would hear of a catastrophic failure of the leader. I began to realize that when the atmosphere lacks the tangible presence of God, there is a strong possibility of hidden sin in the camp. The services may be high-quality in many ways. They may be impressive. But that can’t mask the stench of deadness.
Growth can never replace fruit. In the novel The Poisonwood Bible, the crazed missionary planted seeds that grew into enormous vines, full of gigantic foliage. But the vines never produced fruit.
Jesus cursed the tree that had no fruit. Fruit comes only from a healthy plant. It requires cultivation, good soil, sun, water, and the pollination of insects. Likewise in the Christian walk, true life change comes through the activity of the Spirit, which we can only pursue by spiritual means.
And what do I mean when I talk about fruit? A fruitful life is one that displays the fruit of the Spirit and the character of Christ; this requires surrendering personal passions and motivations to the purposes of God. Fruitful leaders naturally multiply themselves because they are spiritually healthy.
Excellence can never replace prayer and fasting. I hear a steady drumbeat everywhere I go: excellence. What I really hear under the surface is something different to hearts and minds: perfection. The drive for perfect execution requires a dogmatic commitment that often dwarfs the spiritual disciplines. Sometimes I look around at our giant facilities and perfect production, and I think, Christ died for this?
What if we slowed down and waited more on God? What would we see? What if we had nothing to lose and nothing to prove? What would happen if we put as much time into prayer as we put into production?
Celebrity can never replace faithfulness. The idolatry of growth has given rise to celebrity pastors. With no one to challenge them, their success can create a false persona. This leads to a secret, toxic culture. We can only reproduce what we are — nothing more, nothing less. As parents, we are shocked when we see how accurately our children mimic our weaknesses from a young age. Our churches are no different.
So many church leaders fervently try to set up safeguards and accountability. But one of the last things Pastor Grogan said sadly makes so much sense: “For those who willingly pursue sexual misconduct, fences will do no good. We must be willing to challenge each other on a regular basis, not letting loyalty or momentum supersede honesty."
Staying the Course
When I was in college, I remember earnestly praying a prayer over and over. It went like this: “God, if I am ever tempted to give up my integrity, please let me die first. I would rather die young with my integrity than live long enough to blow it all."
I know it was a strange prayer, but I prayed it fervently with all my heart every day for a long time. Somehow as a 19-year-old, I understood that when people lose their integrity, it can invalidate everything they’ve ever accomplished. At critical moments, the memory of praying that prophetic prayer has helped me to resist the enemy of my soul.
Help me, Lord, to be faithful to You to the end, so that when I stand before You, I will hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”