When you read the results of a race—be it cars, people, or animals—it's not unusual to see DNF attached to some entrants' names. The letters—standing for did not finish—indicate those who had to quit. Sometimes the reason is also indicated: a blown engine, for example, a pulled muscle, or lameness.
What if the equivalent to a DNF were put by the name of every seminary graduate who is now doing something other than the ministry they once felt called to? Every study of dropouts I hear about suggests that it would be an enormous list.
If reasons were affixed, you might read stress/burnout, or conflict, inadequate people skills, insufficient leadership capability, poor work habits, family unhappiness, or mean-spirited congregants. There would be many others, of course.
And among those, be one that would probably catch the eye fastest: moral failure. The term arouses a lot of natural curiosity and not a little apprehension. The mind wonders: What happened? Why? How was it discovered? What has happened to the people involved? Could this happen to me?
The term moral failure covers a broad spectrum of tragic conduct. Someone has acknowledged an attraction to pornography; another is discovered to have engaged in an improper relationship (with either gender); still a third is found to have a history of some kind of molestation. Is this list large enough?
Given Jesus' sweeping definition of adultery (the intents of the heart), I suppose we are all moral failures in one way or another. Murderers, too. Some in Christian leadership go beyond the intents of the heart and act out the intentions. Almost every time, an unspeakable heartbreak ripples out into lots of lives. And, beyond that, there is always disillusionment, scorn, a sense of betrayal, and the loss of trust that accompanies such sin. Sins of the flesh are destructive and usually result in a DNF.
As much as I dislike the term moral failure, I am going to stick with it in this essay. And I'm going to stipulate right here at the top that moral failure is inexcusable, destructive, shameful, a matter of disgrace, downright sinful(!). Of this most of us will agree.
Of all the things I have written for Leadership Journal, this is the most difficult—a subject I would like to have avoided—because I know too much. I was once guilty of moral failure (years ago), and, along with my wife, I have talked to too many others as well. I can tell you that the issue and its causes and solutions cannot be adequately addressed in a matter of a few thousand words. One can only scratch the surface. Every situation is unique; every situation has to be dealt with differently.
Years ago when I lived in New York City and pastored a church heavily populated by people in the financial world, I came to realize that greed was a major theme among those who handle money. Money: there was never enough of it, and some bent all the rules to get more.
When I had the opportunity to mix it up in Washington D.C. with so-called politicians, I saw that power was a similar problem. There is never enough power in Washington, and many lust after it and will cut corners to gain more.
Having lived in New England for a large part of my adult life, I've also seen something of the sins of intellectual arrogance. The brilliant folks of the Ivy League world may not always be the richest (wealth) or the most powerful (politics), but they can be among the most prideful. Brutally so. And you know what St. Paul said about the corrosive effects of knowledge.