Why Do Megachurch Pastors Keep Falling?

So this isn’t an easy post to write, nor a glib one.

I’m not even sure what I’m about to write is accurate.

But once again last week, we heard of yet another mega-church pastor who isn’t in leadership anymore, this one fired by his church because of character issues.

I’m not naming names or linking to any post. If you’re plugged into church world, you probably know who I’m talking about, and if not, it’s not that hard to think of a bunch of others over the years.

Sadly, even if you read this months or years after this is published, chances are there will be yet another large church pastor who went down in flames.

The hardest part is there are just no winners. At least not in the short term. God is a God of redemption and he writes better stories than we do, but the pain of deliberate sin is something we’re best to avoid.

If there are direct victims (affairs, abuse, fraud), and sadly, often there are, their lives are devastated and their faith too often shattered or snapped. The people who were part of any movement or congregation associated with said fallen leader are crushed. The families of leaders are devastated, sometimes beyond repair.

And in the midst of it all, the unchurched gain one more reason to run in the opposite direction.

For those of us still in church leadership… think about that and let it sink in.

Bloggers and commentators who pile on to grab headlines or express outrage further destroy any hope left. I don’t want this to be that kind of a post.

And remember, for every mega-church pastor who has exited, there are probably 10 or maybe 100 smaller church pastors whose congregation and families are just as devastated. Only their stories never make the headlines.

Please hear me. I write this with a heavy heart and after a lot of reflection, introspection and prayerful consideration.

I’m far from perfect. There’s been no affair (by the grace of God) or fraud or anything worth headlines. But just talk to my family or my team. They see me on good days and bad days, and I write about the struggles of leadership as openly and candidly as I know how, as any of you who read this blog regularly or have read my latest book will realize.

So I’m not casting stones.

But I am writing so that all of us who lead anything (big or small) can look inside and notice the warning signs before it’s too late. Before yet another church loses its leader. Before yet another countless thousand people wince and say, “I told you so” or “Yeah…figures” and the collective eye roll/anger wave gets unleashed once again and more people walk away from Jesus.

Because, believe it or not, I think failure is in all of us. And yes, I think the seeds of failure are in me too. None of us are exempt.

But if you know what to look for…if you know where the danger lies, maybe, just maybe, you can finish well. Because not only are the seeds of failure in all of us, so are the seeds of finishing well.

So what’s the difference?

That’s why I’m writing this post.

Nobody who starts out in ministry sets out to fail. But all the time, people who never thought they’d fail, fail.

Every time another story breaks about a pastor who resigns, my phone lights up with texts from friends asking, “How do we make sure this doesn’t happen to us?”

A few years ago I wrote a post about the exit of two megachurch pastors…I think the observations are still true:

Most pastors aren’t fake. The struggle is real.

It’s hard to lead anything.

God uses broken people.

Even if all of that is true, still, why all the failure?

Here are some new thoughts…and some things I look for inside me in the hopes of finishing well.

1. IT JUST GOT BIGGER THAN I COULD HANDLE

Please hear this: leading something large is not inherently bad.

Although I hear the argument all the time, I personally don’t believe there is anything inherently bad about a large church or organization.

But there is something inherently difficult in it. And to some extent, the larger something is, the harder it is.

Please know, this doesn’t mean leading a small church or venture is easy. I have led small churches. I get it. Few things in leadership are easy.

But I’ve also led some larger ministries and organizations, and the larger it is, the greater the pressure and the more there’s at stake.

I remember when our church grew past 300; my mind was blown. Now it’s five times the size.

Or look at this blog or my podcast. Honestly, 100,000 readers or listeners was inconceivable six years ago. Then millions showed up.

Nothing gets you ready for that.

It’s way too easy for your platform to outgrow your character. And that’s where all the danger lies.

Add to it one more fact: you and I are not naturally made to lead thousands or millions.

It doesn’t mean you can’t do it. It just means you’ll have to grow your character faster. Much faster.

As I outlined in Didn’t See It Coming, that has come in the form of hundreds of hours of counseling for me, some dead honest conversations, and a lot of painful personal growth. And in my case, I’m so thankful that groundwork was laid before things became bigger.

It doesn’t mean I’m off the hook. It just means God beat some things out of me that had to go before the stakes were any higher. And he continues to do that. Daily.

So what can help you when things get bigger than you thought, whether that’s two hundred or two million?

Try this.

First, your platform isn’t yours. It’s God’s. It’s not your church or your organization. It’s His.

You don’t have a ministry, but God does (and out of his grace he chooses to use you).

Your life isn’t your own.  Are you allowing God’s spirit to loosen your grip on your life?

The more I remind myself of these things, the healthier I am.

Second, it’s a platform, not a pedestal. There is a world of difference between a platform and a pedestal.

Pedestals are about ego and adulation.

Platforms are designed to be shared and used for the benefit of others.

On the days I remember that I’m a better leader because I’m a better servant. On the days I forget it, the clock starts ticking.

2. I CREATED A WORLD WHERE NOBODY CHALLENGED ME

So…let’s be honest…nobody likes critics.

But the bigger your organization or church becomes, the easier it becomes to surround yourself with like-minded people who won’t challenge you.

Please hear the distinction. You need like-minded people. You have to run with people who get your mission, vision and strategy. Otherwise, your organization descends into internal chaos.

But what you really need is likeminded people who can challenge you.

You need people committed to the same vision, mission and strategy you are, but who will push your thinking and who will push you.

Sure…maybe you have an accountability partner. You can spin your accountability partner. You can say it’s better at home than it is. Maybe they should ask your wife how it’s really going.

What you really need is people who have influence with you and power over you who can speak into you. Like a board and an inner circle to whom you are transparent and to whom you are truly accountable.

I realize in the age of social media, those of us at a distance might think we have a responsibility to speak truth to power or to criticize someone from afar. But I promise you, most leaders just tune out an angry person or troll 1000 miles away from, and perhaps to some extent rightly so. You don’t know them. They don’t know you.

There are also critics inside your church who intend to harm you or the mission. Learn what you can from them, but move on. They will not help you or your church long term.

But what you and I need most is people in our lives who know us inside out, who love us and as a result of that love, tell us the truth about us.

But you’ll be tempted—so tempted—to tune those people out. Don’t.

Keep them close.

Cultivate an atmosphere in which your team and those around you can tell you the truth. How you hurt them. What you’re not seeing. What you don’t realize is that they’ll be afraid to do that. You can fire them or dismiss them.

Just welcome their feedback, and encourage their critiques.

They may feel like your enemy in the moment, but I promise you they’re your best friends. They’re on the same mission as you, and they want you to win. And to help you win means they have to call your sin.

The way to cultivate that is to thank those on-mission people every time they critique you. Welcome it. Tell them how much it helped you.

And if it hurts, get on your knees and talk to God about it. Ask what needs to stick and what you can discard, but for God’s sake (literally), listen.

And in the further need of transparency, a few things that have helped me.

First, give the people close to you your passwords.

My wife can look and at times does look at anything on my phone or devices. She has ALL my passwords and I let her see ANY of my conversations. DMs. The whole thing. Especially with the women I work with and talk to.

To make it even more interesting, because of the nature of my team, they have access to virtually everything in my life—all my inboxes, my passwords, my notes. So even if my wife’s not looking, they are. Everything. And that’s a wonderful thing.

Should you share that with everyone? Of course not.

But just because everybody doesn’t need to know everything, it doesn’t mean nobody does.

Give people access. And let the people who love you challenge you.

3. I STAYED TOO LONG

This isn’t a problem for everyone, but it is a problem for many of us.

I’ve been in the same church for 24 years. And you know what, we grow bored and accustomed to power. So I change it up. Regularly. That’s another story for another day.

And just over three years ago, I moved out of the Lead Pastor role and into a Founding and Teaching Pastor role at our church. Why? Because I sensed the season of me being the point leader at the church I founded was ending.

I wanted to jump before I was pushed. I wanted to leave while I was still serving the church, not when the church was serving me. I wanted to go while I was still fresh, not when everything grew so stale that everyone knew it was time for me to go except me.

By all accounts, I left early. But looking back, I think the timing was perfect.

Don Miller did an incredible interview with author Stephen Mansfield who shared 10 signs a leader is heading toward a leadership crash.

Sign #1? The leader stayed too long.

I get why leaders stay too long: it’s all you know how to do, and financially, you can’t afford to leave. But that’s such a mistake.

First of all, you’re supposed to serve the church. It’s not supposed to serve you. Secondly, I get that you’re not ready for retirement. But that’s not a tenure or honor issue: it’s a financial issue. Boards should get far better at handling financial issues as financial issues, not tenure issues. When I jumped out of the Lead Pastor role, I took a pay cut. It was a huge trust issue.

But I promise you, trusting God is never a bad thing. So trust God.

4. SOMEWHERE ALONG THE WAY, I LOST MY SOUL

You got into this for the right reasons. I know you did. Everybody does.

But somewhere along the way, it’s too easy to lose your soul.

How exactly does that happen? Well, it’s a subtle art.

Most leaders who sell their souls aren’t 100% on the right track one day and the next day wake up in someone else’s bed. It just doesn’t usually work that way.

Selling your soul starts with compromise.

You look at a little porn. Once. Okay, twice. Okay, a little more, and soon it’s a habit…

You flirted with her once…then again. Then you were emotionally entangled. And then…

You started justifying your impulsiveness. If they only knew the pressure I’m under, they’d be this way too, you told yourself. And you repeated that to yourself the next day, and the next…

You swore a bit because just because you think cussing a little doesn’t mean you’re not a Christian.  But now, your internal dialogue is just so foul…

You had the one drink…then the other, then every Friday, then most days…

You blew your stack at the meeting the other day, but man they were being dumb, and you’re the leader, and you can get away with it, and…

And before you know it, a thousand little compromises left you compromised.

You’ve gotten so ugly you don’t recognize yourself in the mirror.

The challenge is several fold.

The more I see leadership as a trust, the less likely I am to use it for personal gain or to indulge my flaws.

Second, the more sensitive I become to the impact of my actions and attitude on the people closest to me, the better I lead. The gravitational pull is to to make excuses to those closest to you or find people who tolerate your weaknesses. And that’s a mistake (see #2 above).

I need to become an expert at noticing the little compromises.  I don’t have to confess them to my whole team, but I need to confess to someone.  Bringing them into the light when they’re small prevents them from growing into something sinister.

The challenge in leadership is to live in a way that people closest to you become the people most grateful for you. Who cares if hundreds of people who live hundreds of miles away from you (who only know you on social and video) love you when your family and team can ‘t stand you?

People become truly grateful for you when your life is characterized by humility, confession and grace.

5. I INVESTED TOO LITTLE TIME AT HOME

Often—not always, but often—when you talk to leaders who are no longer in leadership, you realize that there were some serious issues in their marriage that were either neglected or never resolved.

And that can create a vicious cycle where because things aren’t going well at home, you throw yourself even harder into your work because you feel you can win there, all of which makes home go even more poorly.

Here’s what I’ve come to believe: Ultimately, everything rides on how you lead at home. 

If you’re winning at work but losing at home, you’re losing.

The stakes are high.

The difficult issues you work through in your home life will make you a wiser, stronger leader organizationally. Like many couples, my wife Toni and I have worked through some difficult seasons and (thankfully), came through to a better place.

But in my thirties, I became so consumed with work because it was honestly just easier to win at church than it was to win at home.

Why do so many leaders fall for that trap? There are at least three reasons.

There’s a clearer scoreboard at work. You can accomplish things far easier at work than you can at home.

It’s easier to earn respect at work than it is at home because you hold a title, and for senior leaders, direct a team.

You can avoid the hard conversations at home by staying later and working longer.

All of these are terrible reasons of course, but that doesn’t keep leaders from falling for them. I’ve fallen for them in different seasons too.

The challenge with home, of course, is that no one is that impressed by your title, latest progress, or corner office.

But lead poorly at home for more than a season and the consequences will play out in several ways throughout your life and leadership:

You may win in ministry but lose the heart and affection of your family. Most of us have met leaders whose family is still together but deeply resents the leader’s organization.

Your leadership in ministry might be permanently stunted as unresolved character issues leak from home into your organizational leadership. Your flaws tend to eventually impact everything you lead and touch.

You might lose it all – the collapse of your family might lead to the collapse of your ministry and leadership.

See what’s at stake?

But here’s the truth.  You can’t have a great ministry and a bad marriage. A bad marriage will eventually undermine a great ministry.

So if you’re struggling at home, invest more there. It will be painful at first. It may involve expensive counseling and hours (days, months…) of wading through mud. Do it.

I look at the investment I’ve made over the last 15 years in counseling, coaching, retreats and more time on my knees, and I can’t believe how much it’s paid off. Naturally, I still have a long way to go. The ancients called this process sanctification, and it’s never done. But things can get better. They really can.

Lead well at home, and you will inevitably become a better leader in your ministry or organization.

It’s just too easy to lose at home. So don’t.

ADDENDUM: FOUR LIKELY REASONS BILLY GRAHAM FINISHED WELL

The news is not all bad. There are more than a few long-time leaders who appear to be leading and finishing very well.

Billy Graham was certainly one of them.

Most people in church leadership are aware of the Billy Graham rule: never meet alone with a member of the opposite sex. And while it has its critics and limits, it’s helped many people.

Thank you to Kadi Cole who alerted me to the origin of the Billy Graham rule in her fantastic new book, Developing Female Leaders.

As Kadi points out, the Billy Graham rule actually had four aspects. Billy and a few of his colleagues got together in 1948 in Modesto California after seeing other evangelists become entangled in affairs, greed and running down local churches.

It consists of four rules:

  • Financial integrity…so that Billy Graham and his team would not raise money themselves at crusades.
  • Sexual integrity…so they wouldn’t fall victim to affairs or impropriety.
  • Respect for local churches…so they would build up local churches, rather than compete with them.
  • A commitment to accuracy in reporting…so they would not exaggerate how many people attended or how ‘successful’ their ministry was.

All four issues are still real issues. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

You can read Billy Graham’s own description of the Modesto Manifesto here.

SOME DEEPER HELP

13 years ago, I burned out. By the grace of God, there was no affair, nothing that precluded me from moving forward in ministry except my loss of energy and passion.

And also by the grace of God, I recovered. Since then, it’s become a passion of mine not only to try to thrive in life and leadership but to help other leaders do the same.

www.careynieuwhof.com.

 

 

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