How can this keep happening?
My wife and I sit in bed, disheartened after hearing of another church leader who had been forced to resigned due to sin in their life. This time, it was one of my favorite authors and preachers, Tullian Tchividjian, after admitting to an inappropriate relationship.
This news happened hot on the heels of hearing of a friend who had been removed from his leadership position due to inappropriate conduct.
Thinking about the long list of pastors and church leaders who have been removed or resigned from their positions due to sin will break your heart.
It will break your heart for their families and for their friends, for their churches and their ministries, and for everyone who has followed them and been impacted by their leadership. My heart breaks especially because anyone looking would question whether God was really real in the lives of these leaders
The statistics are horrible reading:
- 90% of church leaders feel fatigued and worn out on a daily basis.
- 77% of church leaders feel that they do not have a good marriage
- 70% of church leaders have no close friends.
- 40% of church leaders will have an extra-marital affair since becoming ministers
- Only 26% have regular devotions and feel fed spiritually themselves
The question that won’t leave me though is a simple one: How am I going to be different?
I look at these leaders and think to myself, they have everything I have and more. They are smart, confident, mature Christians who are experienced in not only leading others, but leading themselves. If this can happen to them, then how am I going to be different?
I have an image in my mind about what I want my life to look like when I am older. I can see Sarah and myself there, old with gray hair filled with years of adventures, talking about our grand children who have just come to know Jesus. When I see that image in my mind, I desperately want to be able to say with Paul that “I have run the race, I have fought the fight, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:17).
So, I decided to pen this piece, a letter to myself more than anyone else to remind me and explore some of the ways that church leaders can finish well in ministry and avoid the consequences and pain that comes with burnout and sin
Remember What First Made You Passionate About Jesus
In Revelation 2, Jesus has a conversation with the church in Ephesus that should be tattooed on the heart of every church leader:
“I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance… You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first” Revelation 2:2-4
Jesus congratulates the Ephesians for their hard work at loving and serving people. They tested their teachers, they endured hardship, they persevered .. but, they stopped loving Jesus. Is your heart full of affections for Jesus?
The Ephesians forgot the love they had at first, and the good works they performed were done on their own strength. They weren’t motivated by what Christ has done in them and for them. What was once a relationship of love had become cold, emotionless orthodoxy.
There are many times when you will feel dry and spiritually lost, but in the isolation of the desert, try and remember what motivated you at first. Somewhere along the lines of failure, every leader will forget the affection and passion they had for Jesus. Love will become something remembered instead of felt, something spoken of in the past tense.
You want to know how to finish well in Christian leadership?
Find whatever makes you and made you most passionate about Jesus and immerse your life in it. Keep it on repeat, sing it so often that your mind knows the truth even when you can’t feel it. Then, find whatever kills your passion and your contentment in Christ and run from it. Ruthlessly and violently throw away everything that steals your passion for Jesus.
Do not forget your first love.
Choose to be in Community
Leadership can be a lonely adventure. You have to make unpopular decisions, follow deep-rooted convictions and no-one will ever really understand some of the burdens that leading will have on your life. Yet, for the most part, loneliness will be a choice that you will make as a leader and it will eventually drag you under.
When I choose to isolate myself, I lose touch with reality and cut myself off from relationships that can give me perspective. Even more concerning, I expose myself to all sorts of dangerous that would be more clear if I was surrounded by friends.
Choosing isolation is sort of like removing all of the rumble strips on the sides of a highway. You know the strips that make a large noise when you start to go off the road? You might not need them when you are driving in clear daylight on a short drive, but after a day of driving and the light starts to fade, they might just save your life.
When temptation comes, when you start to become anxious and nervous, when you start to make decisions from an unhealthy place, when you start to overload yourself and continually miss rest, who is going to call you out and be your rumble strip?
Leaders need someone in their life (besides their husband or wife) who can say important and true things to them when they feel discouraged and disappointed, or when the edges start to fray. Who is going to point you back to Jesus when you have lost hope? Who do you have in your life that can say “I am concerned about you”?
Most leaders have large groups of people they interact with every single day, but very few close friends (remember, 70% of pastors say they have no close friends at all). Even Jesus traveled with a community of twelve and had an inner circle of three friends who knew him well.
God created the church to be a community of people who help each other fight sin and love him. He calls us into life-giving relationships where we speak gospel truth to each other (Ephesians 4), confess our sins (James 5:16) and love each other deeply (1 John 4:21).
Who knows you? I mean, who really knows you? Who not only has permission, but acts upon that permission to ask you deep, penetrating questions about your life?
Growing that handful of friends who know who you are, where you are and what your life looks like is difficult, but it is easier than picking up the pieces after burnout or being removed from your position due to sin.
Confess Sin and Be Accountable
Confessing your sins has become an uncommon practice, but it’s vital for the longevity of any leader.
Carey Nieuwhof says this:
When I confess my sins, I need to not only look for the obvious, but for the cracks. For small sins that could become much bigger. For motives that aren’t pure. For thoughts that run off in dangerous directions.
Leaders who avoid accountability will eventually have to give an account for their actions – either when they get caught, or when they come before God on the day of judgement. There is no escaping the consequences.
Furthermore, confessing your sins to God, in the presence of another person humbles you and reminds you of the saving work of Jesus. It’s hard to say to another person, “I looked at porn or I lied today” and then forget who you really are, a sinner in need of a Savior. Following that humbling though, comes great assurance.
In 1 John 1:9, it tells us that ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” and in James 5:16, “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed”.
The person I am confessing to can then assure me of God’s great love towards me, the finishing work of Jesus on the cross and God’s forgiveness that I have now.
In the meantime, ask yourself:
- When was the last time you confessed your sin before God?
- When was the last time you confessed your sin to a friend?
Leaders are not Unique
One of the best things about the bible is that it is brutally honest, time and time again. Here is something we learn about three of the greatest leaders in the Old Testament:
- The wisest man, Solomon
- The strongest man, Samson
- The man after God’s own heart, David
They were all overcome by the temptations of sexual sin (Judges 14-16, 1 Kings 11:1-8; 2 Samuel 11-12).
No leader is above the temptation to sin in spectacular ways, let alone so-called respectable ways. If you doubt this, or doubt that it could happen to you, you are already halfway on the path to falling. When you convince yourself that the rules don’t apply to you, that you can outrun the statistics and the haunting voices of all the fallen leaders before you, you set yourself up for a fall.
It is perhaps the most common lie that fallen leaders believe.
Proverbs 16:18 “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall”
Lead Yourself Well
If you wanted to wrap all of the above in a nice little bow, it would come under the title of self-leadership. Leaders often forget that before they lead others, they need to lead themselves first. Confessing sin, seeking accountability, building friendships and fanning affections for Jesus are perfect examples of leading yourself well.
Leadership author, Dan Goleman, who wrote the best-selling book, Emotional Intelligence spent time analyzing why some high-potential leaders succeed when other high-potential leaders fail.
The difference maker between leaders who lead others well and those who lead others poorly comes down to how they lead themselves. He called it emotional self-control.
Even Jesus, the ultimate leader had a pattern of intense ministry followed by time set aside for reflection, prayer and solitude. This didn’t just happen once, but time and time again. Jesus practiced the art of leading yourself. Jesus invested regularly in walking with God, keeping his calling clear, avoiding burnout and keeping temptation at bay.
The challenge as a leader is clear:
If we want to go where God is calling us, we need to lead ourselves. Leaders are no good to the people they lead if they spend the majority of their time feeling empty, discouraged and spiritually dry. We need to care for our own walk and our own emotional state if we want to lead others.
There is so much more I could say on this subject, but I think the five headlines above summarize the main principles I want to instill in my own life so that I am able to echo Paul’s words to Timothy below.
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:6-8)
How do you safeguard yourself as a leader?