When Pastors Fail Because of Moral Failure
In recent years, five of my friends who are pastors have lost their ministries because of moral failure.
Most of them were widely known beyond their local contexts as authors, conference speakers, movement leaders and such. From the outside, they appeared to be at their peak.
For reasons beyond my ability to understand, God has graciously protected me from moral collapse over the years. Knowing the fragility and fickleness of my own heart, sometimes I marvel at how this could be the case. Why them and not me? Sometimes I wonder if, under different circumstances, I, too, could collapse morally. As the famous hymn goes, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it…” Indeed, I feel my proneness to wander every single day.
When I was a seminary student, an older, seasoned pastor spoke in a chapel service and said, “Some of you are very gifted. You aspire to do great things in ministry one day. God have mercy on you.” Twenty-four years later, I am beginning to understand what he meant by that.
And do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not. (Jeremiah 45:5)
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great Baptist “Prince of Preachers,” once told his students that if they could be happy doing something besides ministry, they should do it. I’m sure there were several reasons why Spurgeon gave this advice. But the reason his advice makes sense to me is because…
Being a pastor is hard. And pastors fail.
When Pastors Fail Because of Isolation
One day in my mid-twenties, while studying to become a pastor, I came across a suicide note published in the local newspaper…written by a pastor, which included this excerpt:
“God forgive me for not being any stronger than I am. But when a minister becomes clinically depressed, there are very few places where he can turn to for help…it feels as if I’m sinking farther and farther into a downward spiral of depression. I feel like a drowning man, trying frantically to lift up my head to take just one more breath. But one way or another, I know I am going down.”
The writer was a promising young pastor—still in his thirties—of a large “resource” church in Saint Louis, Missouri. Having secretly battled depression for a long time, and having sought help through Scripture reading, prayer, therapy, and medication, his will to claw through yet another day was gone. In his darkest hour, the young promising pastor decided he would rather join the angels than continue facing demons for years to come.
Some of those “demons,” it turned out, were high-powered members of his church, whose expectations of him were impossibly high. More on this in a moment. But first…
Not many months after this man’s tragic suicide, another pastor, also from Saint Louis, asphyxiated himself to death because of a similar, secret depression.
As an aspiring pastor myself, the news of these two pastor suicides rocked my world. How could these men—both gifted pastors who believed in Jesus, preached grace, and comforted others with gospel hope—end up losing hope for themselves?
As the stories of these pastors became more public, it became clear that both of them shared an all-too common reality for pastors. Both had allowed themselves to become isolated…especially in their churches.
They had plenty of adoring fans.
But they had few, if any, actual friends.
In his suicide note, the first pastor said that he felt trapped. He was isolated and depressed, but he didn’t tell anyone because he thought that it would ruin his ministry. He had come to believe that pastors weren’t allowed to be weak. Nor were they allowed to be human, like everybody else.
Unfortunately, the two pastors from St. Louis are not rare. Many of us pastors, including Spurgeon and including me, have fallen into the emotional abyss—not in spite of the fact that we are in ministry, but because we are in ministry.
Studies show that pastors experience anxiety and depression at a rate that is disproportionately high compared to the rest of the population. Due to the unique pressures associated with spiritual warfare, unrealistic expectations from congregants and oneself, the freedom many feel to criticize and gossip about pastors with zero accountability (especially in the digital age), failure to take time off for rest and replenishment, marriage and family tensions due to the demands of ministry, financial strains and self-comparison, pastors are prime candidates for relational isolation, emotional turmoil, and moral collapse.
When Pastors Fail Because of Unreal Expectations
Studies also show that some pastors face unreasonable, even impossible, demands placed on them by their people. I am NOT one of those pastors, thanks to a church that both receives my gifts and embraces my limitations. All in all, the people of Christ Presbyterian Church treat me with extraordinary love and kindness. But, sadly, not all pastors are as lucky as I am.
Dr. Thom Rainer, a leading pastoral ministry guru, once conducted a survey asking church members what they expected from their pastors. Specifically, Dr. Rainer wanted to know the minimum amount of time church members believed their pastors should give each week to various areas of ministry, including prayer, sermon preparation, outreach and evangelism, counseling, administrative tasks, visiting the sick, community involvement, denominational engagement, church meetings, worship services, and so on. On average, the minimum amount of time church members expected their pastors to give to the ministry was 114 hours per week.