There is an important conversation happening in the Western church about what it means to be a successful and healthy pastor. For decades, we’ve viewed a pastor’s success or failure through the lens of church attendance and fundraising. Is a local church growing? Is the financial giving increasing? Are people coming to Christ? Traditionally, these are the markers we value most. However, with the emergence of social media, podcasts, and YouTube, our metrics have evolved to include a church’s digital influence. This idea of a pastor as a social media influencer has, over the past decade or more, become the gold standard and the mold by which we shape our ministries.
However, cracks are beginning to show in this pastoral mold. COVID, political division, and increasing moral and ethical scandals have contributed to an erosion of our institutions. Church attendance is declining, and pastors are leaving. The #ChurchToo movement revealed rampant abuse within multiple congregations across several denominations. We have witnessed stories of pastoral mismanagement and cover-ups. We have experienced attempts to manipulate and coerce in the name of Jesus.
This erosion was exemplified powerfully through a podcast that quickly became popular by telling the story of the meteoric rise and scandalous fall into disgrace of the Mars Hill mega-church in Seattle, and especially its celebrity pastor, Mark Driscoll. For years, Driscoll was considered a paragon of pastoral success because he thrived in all the metrics of power and popularity. His church was growing financially and in attendance, and he had one of the largest social media platforms in the global church. However, the podcast shares the truth beneath the metrics—a truth that is shaped by a painful and heart-rending account of pastoral malpractice, toxic theology, and abusive leadership practices. Simply put, Driscoll’s character did not match his charisma, and as a result, his ministry and eventual downfall caused unfathomable harm to countless lives.
One of the most haunting lines in the podcast, asked numerous times by the host, is a simple question: “How did this pastor continue ministry when his behavior was so toxic?”
The answer? “Because he was doing too much good.”
“Good,” of course, is a complicated word. “Good” in terms of the church is often a complex amalgamation of closely held values: money, attendance, popularity, robust ministry. When a big pastor fails ethically or morally and those who have the power to discipline that pastor are confronted about the failure, far too often, as was the case at Mars Hill, the reaction of those leaders is some variation of, “We know this pastor is unhealthy, but if we call him to account we will threaten all the other good that is happening in our church.” Another way of saying it is, of course: “We are willing to put up with corrupt, abusive, manipulative, and generally un-Christlike leadership because our church is popular.” As I have listened to the podcast, I have found myself reflecting on all the times I’ve heard similar narratives.
In a world where churches are shrinking, financial giving is drying up, and the global church’s reputation has suffered, it has become difficult to hold unhealthy leadership responsible. It would be another stain on the church’s reputation during a moment when we desperately need stability. We need success stories. And I understand that urge. As a pastor walking a small congregation through a world ravaged by COVID, I empathize with the reality that every individual matters. Dollars do fund the mission. People are the means by which the kingdom of God advances. Leaders are imperfect, and the church of Jesus Christ is larger than any single individual. The temptation that entices us is: let’s press forward because the end justifies the means.
Friends, far too often all of us—ranging from local church boards to global leaders of international denominations—have succumbed to the temptation to excuse toxicity in the name of growth. For this sin we must repent because the results of our choices are showing themselves to be catastrophic, both in the lives of those who have attended churches where they were harmed, as well as for the witness of the church.
As Edward Deming famously wrote, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” Over the past several decades, the Western Protestant and Evangelical traditions imagined, designed, built, and implemented a system whose fruit we are now tasting: fruit that is bitter and leaves us hungry and desperate for something real. We crave community and spiritual leadership that are authoritative and real.
The question we must ask is, “What does it mean to be real?” More specifically, what does it mean to be whole?
The question we must ask is, “What does it mean to be real?” More specifically, what does it mean to be whole? Of course, when we talk about wholeness, we are really talking about holiness. The loss of trust the church is experiencing is not an indictment of Christ. Instead, it’s a statement about our neighbors’ belief in our ability to live out the message we preach. What the world wants from us is not a theology of wealth, political power, or savvy theological packaging. The world needs us to look and act like Jesus.
What if, instead of valuing dollars, attendance, and digital influence, we expected our pastors to live out the fruit of the Spirit? What if we took seriously the demands of character formation within ourselves? What if we remembered the importance of humility? What if we rediscovered the beauty found within gentleness? What if, instead of theological tribalism and increasingly violent politi-theological demands, we chose empathy and forgiveness? What if we risked our numerical growth and financial stability in order to hold to account systems and persons who are harmful, divisive, and theologically toxic? What if we made it a core value to sacrifice personal preferences for the sake of our neighbor?
These are not questions that create the largest gatherings, but they will, with time and intentionality form holy gatherings where people will find a healthy, truly Christlike experience where they can be shaped into the character and competency of Jesus.
May we have the courage necessary to do what is right.