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Responding to the intense scrutiny presidential candidates have received lately, one contender complained, "We're running for President, not sainthood." Does such a distinction hold true for pastors?
On one hand, pastors are full-fledged members of the human race. They sin daily. On the other hand, pastors labor in a profession in which character is critical. They're called to lead and teach and model not some technical skill but a life. When pastors fall, they can wound many believers.
So how pure does a pastor need to be? LEADERSHIP posed the question to four key individuals. Two are pastors:
-Eugene Peterson, pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland.
-Charles Swindoll, pastor of First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton, California.
The other two are denominational officials who daily deal with the care, certification, and discipline of ministers:
-G. Raymond Carlson, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God, headquartered in Springfield, Missouri.
-Donald Njaa, executive secretary of the ministry, The Evangelical Covenant Church, headquartered in Chicago.
PART I: WHAT IS INTEGRITY?
Leadership: Is integrity visible? Can you recognize a leader who has it?
Donald Njaa: I think it is visible, but only after knowing somebody pretty well. You can't determine whether someone has integrity just by sitting down for lunch.
Chuck Swindoll: With a person of integrity, you feel something solid. That's the idea in the Hebrew root word-there's something solid, of substance. It isn't a veneer.
Raymond Carlson: I define integrity as being complete, being whole. Generally you can sense a person who walks with God through the discernment the Holy Spirit gives.
Swindoll: Yes, we can sense that. However, I have been fooled. I have been shocked.
Eugene Peterson: That's because it's harder to detect integrity in pastors and Christian leaders than in almost anybody else. We're better at cover-up. We were brought up being con artists, and we improve at it as we get older.
Leadership: Why? Because those who preach every week are forced to talk farther than they're able to walk?
Peterson: We're not forced to, but we're tempted to; there's always the opportunity, so we usually do.
Swindoll: How do you combat that?
Peterson: I think we need to tell our congregations, "Don't trust your pastor."
Swindoll: That's a new twist. (Laughter)
Peterson: I'm serious. We need to make it clear that we don't want an exception to be made for us, that we desire to be held accountable.
Swindoll: The reason for that is that the ministry is a character profession.
A couple of years ago I attended my first meeting of the board of Dallas Seminary. I was a rookie, and surrounding this table were all these wise, responsible people. But I risked expressing my concern: "We just graduated two hundred and some people last night. I see their grade-point average, and I'm impressed. Can anybody speak for the character of any of these graduates?"
There was a long pause.
I continued, "I don't have any particular student in mind. In fact, I'd probably endorse them just on the basis of your recommendation. But can anybody here say these graduates have 'the goods'?"
Now I have great respect for what this and many other seminaries are doing. But what concerned me is that ministry is a character profession. You can sleep around and still be a skillful brain surgeon. But you can't do that in ministry without its coming back and seriously impacting your ministry.
Sometimes I think we need to go back to the farm and learn the basic stuff about milking every day, and doing the crops regularly, and showing up at the time you ought to be there. You demonstrate integrity by gutting it out, doing what you said you'd do.
Carlson: Another aspect of integrity is veracity, a habitual truthfulness. I place great stock in whether a person's word is his bond, because if it is, that says something about what's deep within him.
Njaa: Another thing I check: "Does the person distance himself from close peers?" The person who lacks integrity tends to do that.
People say the first step toward trouble for a minister is moving away from God, but that's hard to detect, because it's a private thing. The second step is withdrawing from peers, becoming a loner. So I ask: How does the person relate to other Christian leaders? Does he have friends who know him well?
PART II: WHAT DISQUALIFIES?
Leadership: Paul tells Titus that overseers are to be "blameless," and yet we're all sinners. How pure does a pastor need to be?
Swindoll: Using the words without reproach and blameless is a pretty sweeping way to start that list. If we take blameless to mean simply "without blame, without sin," I've never met anyone blameless. I'm not; not a person on my staff is.
It seems to me what we're getting at is that when we do fail, we say it. Integrity means we don't hide our stumble; we don't act like we didn't
Njaa: I think ministers can-and do-sin deeply and awfully and yet recover. But there needs to be a process that allows them to discover forgiveness. If the second sin follows the first so quickly that cover-up begins before they get a chance to be forgiven, they're going to lack integrity for the rest of their lives. Those I've had to remove from ministry all testify, "As soon as I sinned, I began to cover it up."
Swindoll: Yes. There's some point on the spectrum where disqualification occurs. As I've talked with some pastors who have fallen, they've said, "You know, it got to the point where I could do such-and-such without feeling it, and I could still preach, and it just didn't bother me anymore." I thought, Something happened between that day and three days earlier when it was unacceptable. When you can sin and live with it, you're in trouble.
Carlson: I used to have a little formula that I thought worked: "A person can preach and have sin in his life, but a person cannot pray and have sin in his life." But then I discovered that some ministers do pray and yet commit ongoing sin. They sleep with a church secretary, kneel and ask God to forgive, and then do it again. I don't have all the answers for that, but there are those who can deceive people for a long time.
Njaa: I know a pastor who had a troubled relationship with his church. They said he lacked integrity, though no specific charges came out. He left the church, went to another city, took a little church, and built it into a good-sized church, the largest size in its history. Only then did it come out that he was, and had been, sleeping with a woman in the previous church. He had to be removed from ministry.
Swindoll: But he had an effective ministry while this was going on?
Njaa: Yes. Sooner or later the ministry falls, but it can go on for years.
Leadership: Is it possible for a church to expect too much integrity from a pastor? Can they expect too much self-sacrifice, too much accountability?
Peterson: I don't think a congregation can expect too much of a pastor, but I think they can expect the wrong things.
I have a congregation of three hundred people, all sinners like me. They come to church because they want a holy life. But instead of listening to the Word of God that I preach, instead of going into prayer before God themselves, they project these religious desires on me. They make me into a kind of holy person and expect me to be that for them. It's easy to let them; I like it.
Leadership: How do you know that people are doing this?
Peterson: They admire you. They want to hear you speak. Often, though, they do not get close to you, because they might be disappointed. And because intimacy is difficult for me, as it is for them, it's more comfortable for me to let that distance develop.
Leadership: So when people put you on a pedestal, it threatens your integrity as a pastor.
Peterson: I'm almost never tempted to do something bad, evil, sinful. Every temptation that comes to me is packaged as a good-something wonderful that these people, out of good motives, want me to do. But ultimately it keeps me from being wholly faithful to God in my vocation as a pastor.
Swindoll: Eugene, you admitted that you like it when people put you up there on a pedestal. Maybe I didn't read correctly how you meant that, but I don't like that. It puts me in a corner; it puts me in a mold of perfection I have to keep breaking out of. I'd rather remind people regularly of my struggles.
Also, unlike you, I am tempted in really bad areas. Maybe I'm not tempted to steal from Chase Manhattan Bank, but I have pretty gross things that flash into my mind at times. They aren't wrapped in good. There are times, in all honesty, when I have entertained temptations I knew were evil. They weren't good, and I knew they wouldn't be good at the end. But the attraction was still there.
Leadership: What kinds of sins disqualify someone from pastoral leadership?
Carlson: A lust for power and wealth would, in my mind, be a disqualifier for ministry, because it inevitably leads to a lack of integrity.
One of our districts studied the ministers who had been disciplined for sexual impurity and discovered every one had failed earlier in financial dealings-living a lie about tithing, or not paying bills. The lust for money begins a trail that leads to impurity.
Njaa: Crime, such as theft or fraud, would take somebody out of ministry, at least for a while. Leaving your spouse for someone else would also.
Peterson: Does anybody ever get disciplined for sloth? Or for pride? I'm a little uneasy talking about integrity only in the context of adultery, theft, or embezzlement. The ministers I know are not wrestling with adultery and theft. We're dealing with stuff that could end up there ten years from now, but right now it's the small, everyday battles.
Leadership: What are the daily battle areas?
Peterson: Ambition, pride, lying, sloth, anger. I can be angry for six months and not know it's anger; I have half a dozen euphemisms for it-"I'm grieved for this person."
Swindoll: Or, "I'm concerned for this person."
Peterson: Yes. And I lie a lot. Usually my wife or my kids call me on it-I overspeak unconsciously, or I varnish the truth. I can get by with that, with most people, for quite a long time.
When I notice it most is when I'm with my spiritual director. She is such a whole person that stuff I didn't notice in my life, I do notice around her. Suddenly I'm exposed. She doesn't necessarily say anything; she just is something.
I'll give you an example of the kind of daily sin she puts a finger on. I came back from my sabbatical and thought, I'm never going to be in a hurry again. I was immersed in prayer; I felt so good. But then we had to start a building program, and I had to take leadership in areas I don't normally.
In the middle of this, I began feeling restless, showing up late or too early; the margins of leisure went out of my life. So I said to my director, "I'm so upset with myself. I was immersed in prayer; I thought I could never get out of that, and here I am anxious and irritated."
She said to me, "Why are you so upset about being anxious? Do you think you're superhuman?" She attacked not my lack of serenity but my pride. I had proudly thought I could never be anxious again.
Carlson: We deal with cases that involve the range of issues mentioned so far, though we don't get them all dealt with as we should. We're called into situations in which a minister has violated one of the Assemblies of God principles-twelve reasons for discipline, including "Any conduct unbecoming to a minister or indiscretions involving morals" (that has to be defined), and "general inefficiency in the ministry."
Swindoll: There's the sloth.
Carlson: Other things on the list include "a contentious or noncooperative spirit, an assumption of dictatorial authority over an assembly, a declared open change in doctrinal views, a habit of running into debt which brings reproach upon the cause of Christ, a marriage in violation of our stand on marriage and divorce, and violations of ministerial courtesy."
Leadership: Has anyone ever been defrocked solely for a "dictatorial attitude"?
Carlson: Oh, yes.
Leadership: To what extent does the person's attitude toward the sin figure in disqualification?
Njaa: That's a critical consideration. The natural response when someone confronts us is to deny the sin and to be angry at the accuser. So whenever a conference superintendent and I need to confront someone, if we find a lack of cover-up and a lack of anger, we know some forgiveness has already begun. If we see an openness to deal with the sin, we may not take the pastor to "court"-some board of ministry. We may decide we can handle this one quietly and allow this person to stay in ministry.
Leadership: So two criteria: lack of anger and lack of cover-up.
Njaa: Yes. Our rules say we're to be restorative if possible. Ministers who get themselves in trouble know they can eventually be cleared and free to reenter ministry. There are many examples of that.
Swindoll: So you don't think anyone is out permanently.
Njaa: People are out permanently if the anger and the cover-up continue, or if they continue to sin.
On the other hand, I see people who've made a foolish mistake, and it was taken care of, and they are back as pastors in churches. Almost every year we put people back into ministry who were taken out for two or three years. That's more fun than anything else I do. And no one can hassle those ministers, because the decision to put them back in ministry wasn't theirs; it was the church's.
Swindoll: I'm all for redemptive discipline, but I'm not sure every fallen minister can be restored to the same stature. Paul says, "Lest, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified. … " I'm convinced certain sins reveal such a breakdown in integrity, the fallen one is disqualified from returning again to the high-profile leadership he enjoyed.
Carlson: We feel strongly on this.
Swindoll: That's good to know, because I don't often hear that. I don't mean to come off proud or judgmental, but I don't think repeated acts in these gross areas, or extensive cover-up, are just a matter of sin. I think they reveal a character flaw.
People say, "Well, aren't sins forgiven?" Absolutely. I don't think it's even a matter of forgiveness anymore; it's a matter of the person's lacking the substance required of that office.
Njaa: I'm not sure I agree with the notion of a character flaw. Sin is sin; I don't think there is anything deeper. Christ died to atone for sin. As a result, it's very possible for someone who has sinned deeply to be restored-even to ministry.
Swindoll: The only reason I am able to sit in this room clothed and in my right mind is that I have been absolutely forgiven by Jesus Christ. But for people in high-profile leadership, there are stricter requirements. As James says, we will be judged "more strictly."
Some people who have heard my convictions on this have taken me to task: "You haven't really forgiven." I really don't have trouble forgiving the person. I believe he and I will share the joys of heaven, and he's probably going to out-reward me for the life he lived. But I have struggles seeing him again in the position of high-profile leadership he once held. Something in my heart says, People trusted you; God used you to communicate the truth. People based their decisions, in part, on the fact you not only believed the gospel but to the best of your ability were living that. Then they find out that while he was making an incredible impact on their lives, he was living a lie. People are so disillusioned, they can never bring themselves to respect him as they once did.
Carlson: In the Assemblies of God, no credentialed minister who's been discovered to be a homosexual can be restored to that position. Now I believe that because God is God, people can be delivered. I know people who are delivered. Scripture tells us, "Such were some of you." And we used to restore ministers who had committed homosexual acts, but those restorations were not successful. Because of this, the general presbytery has taken this stand.
Also, personally, I can hardly imagine a minister who's found to be guilty of incest ever qualifying for the ministry.
Swindoll: The only case in Scripture I find where a leader guilty of moral misconduct was left in the same high-profile role of leadership is David. But after Bathsheba, his life turned sour. He was confronted, and he came clean, but he lost on the battlefield, his family went crazy, there was the Amnon and Tamar scandal, Amnon was murdered, Absalom rebelled, and on and on. Now David wasn't stoned for his sin. Talk about grace! He was under the law, he was an adulterer, and so he should have been stoned, but God graciously preserved his life. But he never reached the pinnacle he once had reached. I'm haunted by that.
In fact, I'm haunted by the fact that not another person in Scripture had a high-profile leadership position, sinned sexually, and was put back into that position. It's mostly an argument from silence, I realize; the Bible isn't full of people who fell like that. But isn't it interesting to anybody else that not a soul like that is mentioned in the New Testament? Some are even turned over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. Doesn't sound very redemptive to me.
Peterson: I hear what Chuck is saying, but I guess my basic feeling is that there's nothing that disqualifies us from ministry. Everything is redeemable. Scripture brims with that. Moses was a murderer, and he kept on. Abraham forced his wife into adulterous relationships-or at least was willing for that to happen. But I'll concede Chuck's position this much: I think in wisdom the church should use certain people only in special places in ministry.
Swindoll: I'll agree with that.
Peterson: You see, sweeping floors is ministry. There are plenty of places of ministry in this world. But people who have enjoyed prominent ministry can get addicted to it. If they wind up as pastor of a tiny, out-of-the-way church, they think they're being punished. But isn't that ministry?
Swindoll: Precisely. See, the pastor who winds up in the tiny church would say, "We're shooting our wounded." I want to go back a step and say, "The minister who failed the flock was the one who shot the wounded."
Peterson: I can accept that. I do think we have to be careful, though, when we use the word disqualification for ministry. I don't think there is any.
Swindoll: Paul used the word.
Peterson: Yes, "lest I be a castaway . . ." but he could have been returned. I love the way Don talked about this: these people are all restorable, if-and I think his criteria are exact-no anger, no cover-up.
Swindoll: Yes, but restored to what? A thousand-member church? That same high-profile role?
Peterson: Not to that.
Swindoll: Okay, then I have no argument with you. But why don't we talk about this fact that some things do disqualify? I think people in seminary need to hear that on the front end of ministry. Sometimes there aren't second chances; how many pins does it take to pop a balloon?
Leadership: Don, would you agree with Chuck on this point? Haven't you restored people who have committed adultery, for example?
Njaa: Yes, but the person was so restorable. One person came to us and said, "I've sinned. Take me out. Here are my ordination papers. Take me out of ministry." It was a one-time problem, and there was no anger, no cover-up. We put him under care, and three years later we have him back in the church. He's doing well.
Swindoll: Don has described something rather remarkable, and I don't have trouble with that. We can't forget that a "contrite heart God does not despise." When I have a contrite heart, I don't ask for anything, I don't expect anything.
Njaa: Part of the problem in trying to determine something like this is that each case is unique.
Leadership: So far we've been talking about the sins of the leader. What about those of the leader's children? Does a son or daughter's rebellion reflect a person's inability to "manage his own home"?
Njaa: My answer is no. The rebellion may well be not against the father or the mother. It may be a rebellion against the pressure they've been put under by a church. I don't think you can exclude the minister because his or her child acts up.
Peterson: There are a lot of different reasons for children's not growing up in the faith. I have three kids, all grown. One of them had an extremely difficult adolescence. Now she's wonderful, and our two sons coming after never knew adolescence was anything but praising God. But when our daughter was in trouble, people in the congregation were as gracious to us as they could be. They took care of us. I'm really grateful they didn't say, "Peterson, you must be doing something terrible at home because your daughter's acting this way."
Njaa: That kind of situation should never eliminate a pastor from ministry.
Swindoll: There's been only one perfect Father, and he has a lot of wayward kids.
Leadership: What does the verse mean, then, that says, "If he can't manage his own home, how can he manage the church"?
Swindoll: Eugene's situation illustrates the distinction between a managed and unmanaged home. Eugene, it was because you have integrity that your congregation surrounded you. You had endeared yourself to those people, and not even the waywardness of a willful daughter could drive a wedge between them and you. Had you been covering up, had you been obviously alienating your family, I'm wondering if the congregation would have said, "Let's stand by him no matter what." They knew the most grieved person in the church was the pastor.
That's managing a family. There was a caring attitude, a consistency and integrity that showed in your grief when a daughter turned away for a time.
Leadership: To what extent do the sins of a spouse affect a ministry?
Swindoll: We had a man on our staff whose wife left him and later married someone else. We went through an intensely difficult time because we loved that guy. We still do! His heart was so sweet. What he lacked in foresight in seeing this occurring, he made up for in his compassion and grace.
For many months we tried to keep him in our ministry, but eventually the difficulty and awkwardness of the situation became too much for the congregation-even our great flock-to handle. And we've got people who stay with you-two senior pastors in thirty-three years tells you something.
I finally said to him, "You know, I think you're probably going to want to date and marry. You're probably going to want to live the life of a married man. And I think that's very difficult for our congregation to live through." Sitting here today it might sound kind of harsh, but on the front end were months of prayers and tears.
Leadership: Is he in ministry today?
Swindoll: Yes. In fact, I recommended him both by phone and letter, endorsing him in his move to another fine church.
One of the difficulties is that sometimes the pastor bears some responsibility for the spouse's drift. There was a bit of that in this case. He wasn't guilty of gross neglect of his wife and children, but his work meant so much to him-in my opinion, too much. He is now a much more balanced and wise husband and father. And, I might add, he's doing a superb job in ministry at another church. I would imagine he is now able to see the wisdom of his moving to another place of ministry.
Njaa: We would probably allow a minister facing that situation to stay in the church, but we'd always place him under the care of other pastors.
Of course, any big change in a minister's life is difficult for the congregation to cope with. Things get disrupted, and that minister may have to relocate simply because people can't cope with the change.
PART III: ACCOUNTABLE TO WHOM?
Leadership: To whom should a pastor be accountable? To a spouse? To the board? To the congregation as a whole? To peers? To God alone?
Swindoll: I've long since left the idea that I bow before two hundred or several thousand people-however many may be in a congregation. That many bosses would drive me mad.
In the last ten or so years of ministry, I have carefully selected a group of three men with whom I meet. Not all are from our church, so there's confidentiality, objectivity, and freedom for all of us. The purpose in meeting is not to dwell only on sin, but also to be friends. It's not for my benefit only, but also for the others'.
I am regularly accountable to my staff and officially to our elder board, though the larger that gets, the more unwieldy it gets. With some board members, there isn't anything I wouldn't tell, and to others I'm not as close.
I'm certainly also accountable to my wife and our grown children. All the Swindolls feel the freedom to address any area or offer any warning. I admit it is occasionally painful to hear, but ministry doesn't shield me from straight talk at home; it requires it.
That's a long answer to a hard question.
Peterson: For my work, I'm accountable to the Session. For example, during our recent building project, we had a financial goal, and we passed it. Everybody was elated. But I was furious, because I felt they had set the goal too low in the first place. I thought people had held back and been stingy.
I got on my prophetic horse and wrote a letter to the congregation that said, "You are stingy," almost that blunt. Before I sent it, I told the Session, "I've prayed about this," (that usually gets them on your side) "and I feel strongly about needing to say this," and read the letter to them.
One man said, "Don't send that." Another map said, "I'm disappointed that you would do that." Voice by voice they told me not to send it.
I went home that night mad at the Session. Jan said, "Could it he they were listening to God more than you were?" It hadn't occurred to me.
A week later I knew they were right, dead right. That wasn't righteous, prophetic indignation. That was just my ego ticked because I thought I had a congregation in the palm of my hand, and they didn't do what I wanted. The Session prevented me from doing a gross evil.
Leadership: You're accountable to the Session, yet apparently you're also accountable to your spiritual director. How do the two work together?
Peterson: My spiritual director holds me accountable not for my ministry but for myself, who I am.
The reason I have a spiritual director-I've had one for five years-is that I got scared to death of myself. I saw my capacity for self-deception. Then I looked around and saw colleagues who were just as bad, but they weren't doing anything about it. I thought, I've got to do something. I went looking, praying, searching. In my denominational structure, we have administrators, but we don't have bishops to oversee our lives.
Leadership: In selecting people to hold you accountable, isn't it a temptation to choose people who see things your way?
Swindoll: Absolutely. I love yeses. I don't like a group of squint-eyed board members who always say, "You're out to lunch." But I need people like the layman who leaned over my desk several years ago. He's a raw-boned construction guy, and he looked right into my eyes and said, "Swindoll, do you have anybody to lean across this desk, look you right in the eye, and say, 'B.S.!'?" (Only he didn't say "B.S.")
"Yeah," I said, "I've got several."
"Good," he said. "I see our rapid growth, and I get real scared that you can get alone in this office and start believing your own stuff." That was probably one of the best things I could have heard. He did it in the right way: he didn't bring in anybody else, he volunteered to help, and he's not the type to burst in regularly. I needed to hear that. I still do.
Carlson: That kind of person keeps us from one of the dangers of leadership of any kind: it's easy to begin to say what we think people want to hear.
Peterson: One thing people want is purity and integrity. The problem is when we try to reach that in some area and realize we can't. Then we fake it for the sake of the congregation. I think Luther was right when he said, "Sin boldly." Don't fake it. You're a sinner; be a sinner. Let people know you're a sinner.
Swindoll: Can a congregation handle that? I agree with Luther, and I've occasionally preached that, but I don't know of a congregation that can handle my sinning boldly. Could you imagine going into the pulpit and saying, "I want you to know last week I was full of lust"? The reaction would be, "Whoa! You're supposed to be a model! Do you know what you're suggesting to my teenager?" It's tough to know how to be open yet not scandalize.
I think you can be so vulnerable that you overexpose your dark areas too often to the wrong group. I have a very small group that I voluntarily expose my inner being to, but it's because a trust has been built over the years.
Leadership: Ray and Don, how do you view accountability from the denominational side?
Carlson: The key to any kind of accountability is the spirit behind it. Those of us in charismatic circles have seen firsthand the "shepherding" movement and how that has created more problems and drained people's spiritual life and power. In the extremes of the shepherding concept, people cannot do anything unless they discuss the matter with their shepherd. As a result, some shepherds began to investigate every detail of their lives, including the intimacies of married life. I am aware of instances where marriages have been destroyed by this.
Swindoll: It's a religious Gestapo.
Carlson: That's right. It begins with the right motive, but people take it to the extreme.
In the Assemblies of God we believe our minister should be accountable not only as you men have described, but also to his organization.
Njaa: Our denomination does have bishops-we call them conference superintendents-and their primary function is to be pastor to pastors.
There's also a national board of ministry, whose only function is to take care of ministers, and regional committees on ministerial standing. If a minister is sliding, it's the responsibility of that pastor's pastor or the regional committee.
Then I'm minister to the whole bunch, which is impossible, so I'm in touch only with the hot spots. But the point is that if someone is in anguish, there is a denominational system to help.
Those are the denominational structures for accountability. Equally important is accountability to peers-people you're with on a regular basis who have enough guts to tell you when you're out of line. Otherwise, all these other structures may come into action too late.
Carlson: Isolation is deadly. We find that for the most part, ministers who come under discipline have gotten isolated.
Leadership: As you think about pastoral integrity, what gives you hope?
Swindoll: I gain hope as I think about the benefits that come from living a life of integrity. One payoff is a congregation that loves you and trusts you.
Njaa: I find hope in the gospel that Christ's death on the cross can redeem us all. God can use us all. I always want to hold up that principle. What we preach is true for Christian leaders.
Copyright © 1988 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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