It's refreshing news to hear of pastors taking a leave of absence not over sexual or financial misconduct, but over pride. Such was the case with John Piper last year, and this week with C. J. Mahaney. Mahaney has been president of the church planting network Sovereign Grace Ministries, which according to its website now includes "about 95 churches," mostly on the East Coast. He is the founder of the megachurch Covenant Life Church, which he handed over to Joshua Harris after pastoring there for 27 years. He is also one of the leaders of the Together for the Gospel Conferences, and one of the most popular speakers in the neo-Reformed circuit.
The story behind his leave of absence is still unraveling. But he has publicly acknowledged that he has succumbed to "various expressions of pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment, and hypocrisy."
It's an interesting list of sins—ones that pastors all over America commit week in and week out. This is not to excuse Mahaney or to take such sins lightly. It is to suggest that the state of the modern American pastorate has been shaped so that these sins—especially pride and hypocrisy—are impossible to escape. For this reason, our pastors need not our condemnation, but our prayers. They are in a profession that is about as morally risky as they come.
Bigger and Better
The modern American church is very much a product of its culture—we're an optimistic, world-reforming, busy, and ambitious lot, we Americans. In business, that means creating a better widget, and lots of them, and thus growing larger and larger corporations. In religion, that means helping more souls, and along the way, building bigger and better churches. Alexis de Tocqueville marveled in the 1830s how American Christians seemed so blasé about doctrine compared to their enthusiasm for good works. Religious busyness will be with us always, it seems.
Translate that into church life, and we find that American churches exalt and isolate their leaders almost by design. Our ambitious churches lust after size—American churches don't feel good about themselves unless they are growing. We justify church growth with spiritual language—concern for the lost and so forth. But much of the time, it's American institutional self-esteem that is on the line. This is an audacious and unprovable statement, I grant, but given human nature (the way motives become terribly mixed in that desperately wicked human heart) and personal experience, I will stick to it.
With this addiction to growth comes a host of behavioral tics, such as a fascination with numbers. The larger the church, the more those who attend become stats, "attenders" to be counted and measured against previous weeks. Pastoral leaders are judged mostly on their ability to enlarge their ministries. It's not long before we have to rely on "systems" to track and follow newcomers. It is the rare church now that can depend on members naturally noticing newcomers, or on their reaching out to them with simple hospitality. That has become the job of a committee, which is overseen by a staff member. With increasing size comes an increasing temptation to confuse evangelism with marketing, the remarkably efficient and effective if impersonal science of getting people in the doors.
With the longing for size comes a commitment to efficiency. No longer is it a good use of the head pastor's time to visit the sick or give spiritual counsel to individuals. Better for him to make use of his "gift mix," which usually has little to do with the word pastor—or shepherd, the biblical word for this position. Instead, he has been hired for his ability to manage the workings of large and complex institutions. The bigger the church, the less he works with common members and mostly with staff and the church board. To successfully manage a large church, one must be on top of all the details of that institution. This doesn't necessarily mean directly micromanaging things, but it certainly means to do so indirectly. The large church pastor may not personally tell the nursery volunteers to repaint the 2–3 year-old room, but when he notices a spot of peeling paint as he passes by, the pastor will tell someone who will tell someone, and it will get done in short order.