Pastors are normal people. Like in any believer, sin in the life of a pastor is deadly. Here are five fatal flaws in ministry to look for.
By Andrew Hébert
Pastors are normal people. The shepherd of God’s flock is still a sheep himself. As a pastor, I’m not a “father” but a “brother,” a real brother who is part of the same dysfunctional family as the rest of God’s children. I struggle with the same things everyone else does.
Pastors wrestle with all kinds of sin. I’ve often told people in counseling situations there’s little they could tell me that would surprise me—not only have I heard it before, but in many cases, I’ve been there myself.
The truth is, we’ve all been there—wanting to throw in the towel, to let a church member know what we really think, and to take the “mask of ministry” off for a minute. We’re tired of always having to be “on” when we’re in public.
I’ve been frustrated at times when I’m at the grocery store or eating at a restaurant with my family and a church member comes to share “concerns” he has about something happening at the church. I don’t always have the most sanctified thoughts. We all have bad attitudes at times.
Sometimes, though, these bad attitudes extend far beyond small frustrations and become sinful thoughts, actions, or desires. And sin in the life of a pastor, like sin in the life of any believer, is deadly.
While an extensive list of pastoral dangers would be impossible to summarize here, there are five fatal flaws that especially endanger those in ministry.
The temptation of fame subtly seduces as it takes on different forms, often masked with righteous aims. We want our online sermons to get more “likes and shares” so “we can reach more for Christ.” But we mix in a small dose of prideful arsenic along with our righteous intentions. We desire recognition and personal significance. God created us to have God-directed ambition, but sin always twists God’s good gifts. The desire for fame often looks like wrongly directed ambition or the desire for recognition.God created us to have God-directed ambition, but sin always twists God’s good gifts. — @andrewhebert86 Click To Tweet
When fame takes the form of ambition, pastors are blind to the goodness, grace, and gifts of God. They find discontentment with where God has called them and what He has called them to do. Fame can also look like a desire for recognition. We want people to recognize our talents and giftings. We enjoy compliments and are hurt by criticism. Both responses reveal how we’ve allowed pride and the desire to be recognized to seep into our souls.
Do you feel just as joyful when others are recognized? Do you feel slighted when you don’t receive public or private praise? Answering these questions may reveal you desire fame more than you realize.
The “pride in one’s possessions” (1 John 2:16, CSB) is one of the three original sins of the garden of Eden. Paul warns that a pastor should “not be a new convert, or he might become conceited and incur the same condemnation as the devil” (1 Timothy 3:6, CSB). The hunger for fame will never be fully satisfied. If you aren’t content with what God has given you at this present moment, you will likely never have enough to be fulfilled. Paul said he “didn’t seek glory from people” (1 Thessalonians 2:6, CSB). The desire for fame and recognition and the pursuit of prideful ambition are ministry killers.
Sexual temptation is real. Giving in to this temptation will render a pastor’s ministry dead on arrival. Pastors should treat women as “sisters with all purity” (1 Timothy 5:2, CSB).
Billy Graham famously determined to never be alone with a woman who wasn’t his wife. He wouldn’t eat a meal or ride in a car alone with another woman. He wouldn’t even walk into a hotel room without first having a staff member check to make sure there wasn’t a woman hiding in a closet, waiting to catch him in a compromising situation. This protected Dr. Graham’s ministry from public reproach and left him uncompromised in his ministry.
We must be careful in how we relate to the opposite sex. In our friendships, pastoral counseling, visitation, and social media interactions, appropriate relationships can become inappropriate. We must embrace Joseph’s response to temptation: run!
Sexual temptation is a problem in the church. We’ve all heard of too many pastors who dropped out of ministry because of moral failure. Lust, flirtation, pornography, adultery, sexual misconduct, and sexual immorality are fatal flaws. The ripple effects of sexual sin extend far beyond any one of us—to our wives, our children, our children’s friends, the church, the community, and even regional or national headlines.
Perhaps no other ministry danger is more personally draining than church conflict. Satan loves nothing more than dividing, distracting, and discouraging Jesus’s church. Nothing will zap a church of its spiritual vitality or steal a pastor’s joy faster than a church fight.
Unfortunately, in a fallen world, conflict is inevitable wherever two or more are gathered. But fighting becomes deadly and the hurt within churches becomes more intense when the pastor gets involved. Pastors should always take the high road—there’s less traffic there. But from time to time, pastors give in and join the fight. In our digital age, this fighting spirit may show up outside the walls of the church and end up on the walls of the pastor’s social media pages.Nothing will zap a church of its spiritual vitality or steal a pastor’s joy faster than a church fight. — @andrewhebert86 Click To Tweet
This is not to say the pastor should never participate in a fight. Pastors, at times, are called to “contend for the faith” (Jude 3, CSB). They should drive out wolves from the flock (Titus 1:9–14). There are hills worth dying on. The problem is when we make mountains out of every molehill and are eager to fight.
Paul says a pastor must not be “a bully but gentle, not quarrelsome” (1 Timothy 3:3, CSB). When a pastor has a combative spirit, he fails to exemplify the character of Christ. It also almost always spells the end of his ministry within that church or ends the effectiveness of his ministry.
As those who lead ministries that operate entirely upon the generosity of God’s people, pastors have to walk carefully through the minefield of personal and church finances. Financial missteps affect not only the church’s life but also the reputation of Christ in the community.
Finances present multiple challenges and dangers for pastors. Perhaps the most obvious and egregious is the embezzlement or misappropriation of church funds. Another financial danger is when a pastor mismanages the church’s finances. This isn’t always intentional, but it happens whether it’s due to ignorance, negligence, or risky stewardship practices.
Financial misappropriation and mismanagement are more common than any of us want to admit—about 1 in 10 U.S. Protestant pastors acknowledge someone has embezzled funds from their church. But much more common is the landmine of financial greed. We must be careful about our motivations in ministry. Paul says he didn’t have “greedy motives” (1 Thessalonians 2:5, CSB). Peter exhorts pastors to “shepherd God’s flock . . . not out of greed for money but eagerly” (1 Peter 5:2, CSB). At the same time, we are responsible for providing for our families (1 Timothy 5:8). I want to make enough money to provide for my wife and kids, be generous to the Lord and to others, save for the future, and enjoy the good gifts God allows us to enjoy. But if that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing, then money is my master, not Jesus.Few things hurt the witness of the pastor or the church in the community more than the pastor’s misappropriation, mismanagement, or misplaced motivation regarding money. — @andrewhebert86 Click To Tweet
Few things hurt the witness of the pastor or the church in the community more than the pastor’s misappropriation, mismanagement, or misplaced motivation regarding money. A lack of integrity with finances is a clear and present danger in ministry. A reputation takes a lifetime to build but only a moment to lose.
Leadership is a high-stress calling. There are no two ways about it. Pastors have all the stresses of any leader with the added weight of spiritual burdens. The hazards of the job include physical, mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual fatigue. Many pastors walk around burned out without even realizing it. Sometimes pastors don’t realize how susceptible they are to sin when they’re this fatigued until they make a life-altering decision to give in to temptation in a moment of exhausted vulnerability. We often don’t realize what the weight of ministry has done to our souls until it’s too late.
As they care for their flocks, few pastors take care of their own souls. Many lack disciplined rhythms of spiritual, relational, and physical health. The busyness of doing the Lord’s work can sometimes crowd out the intentionality of being in the Lord’s presence. Most pastors identify with Martha much more than they do Mary (Luke 10:38-42).
Some of the fatigue comes from the inescapable responsibilities of pastoral ministry. Sermon preparation, counseling, weddings, funerals, and hospital visits along with the need to lead the church staff well, coordinate with church committees, work with church deacons, and fulfill responsibilities to the community and the denomination can all be overwhelming and seem never-ending.Fatigue is often a gateway drug that weakens the pastor’s defenses against other sins. — @andrewhebert86 Click To Tweet
Some pastors won’t take the time off the church offers for them to replenish their own souls and invest much-needed time away with their families. Failing to observe Sabbath rest is as much a sin as failing to observe the commandments to not commit adultery or murder. A failure to rest is its own type of unfaithfulness, but the mistress is work. It’s its own type of murder, where the pastor is killing himself to work. He is also killing his own joy and the joy of his family.
Fatigue is often a gateway drug that weakens the pastor’s defenses against other sins. Fatigue may reflect sinful habits that don’t reflect the character of Christ who “often withdrew to deserted places and prayed” (Luke 5:16, CSB). Jesus modeled a rhythm of work and rest pastors should, but often don’t, imitate.
A Call to the Character of Christ
In light of these temptations, we need nothing less than a return to the character of Christ. The temptations of fame, infidelity, fighting, finances, and fatigue don’t create character problems but simply reveal the character problems already there.
As pastors, and as believers, we’re called to more than this. We’re called to the character of Christ. Embracing Christ’s character is the essence of what it means to be a pastor. When we submit to the Spirit’s work of forming us into greater Christlikeness, we will have ministries that make a lasting difference and bring God glory.
Andrew is the lead pastor of Mobberly Baptist Church in Longview, Texas, and the author of the book Shepherding Like Jesus: Returning to the Wild Idea that Characters Matters in Ministry. He is a graduate of Criswell College and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife Amy have four children.