There are three lists of pastors that I’ve been keeping track of in my head. Maybe you’ve been keeping some similar lists yourself.
I haven’t kept these lists consciously. Until now, anyway. But after several recent episodes in which pastors have landed on these lists in some dishearteningly conspicuous ways, I started becoming aware that I was keeping them. So now it's time to come clean about them.
They’re lists of pastors who have flamed out, traded down, or held strong. Some names we know, some we don’t. (None of which I’ll be mentioning here.)
The list of those who’ve flamed out is tragic and obvious.
- The pastor who was caught in one or more sexual affairs
- The pastor whose marriage ended from abuse or neglect
- The pastor who let fame go to their head until they thought the rules no longer applied to them
- The pastor whose anger and domineering style so alienated people that they lost their credibility and their church
- The pastor who, even after a horrifying public flame-out, didn’t seem to learn anything from it
The list of those who have traded down is less obvious, but still tragic.
- The pastor who traded in their moral compass for political expediency (this happens on both sides of the political aisle)
- The pastor who started by challenging the status quo, only to be co-opted by it – and the money that comes with it
- The pastor who got worn down by the demands of ministry until they stopped caring, but kept going through the motions and collecting the salary
- The pastor who started with love and compassion, but became hard, mean and legalistic
- The pastor who had strong convictions, but compromised so much that they lost their theological moorings
And then there’s the third list. Those who have stayed strong and firm, no matter the circumstances.
- The pastor who stayed in the small ministry God called them to, instead of climbing the ladder of so-called success
- The pastor who left a numerically growing ministry to salvage their emotional, spiritual and family health
- The pastor whose ministry got huge, but whose ego stayed small
- The pastor who left a legacy for future generations without needing or getting credit for it
- The pastor who built on the foundation of the past without being stuck in it
What List Are You On?
I didn’t write the first two lists with any sense of smugness or superiority. There was a season of my life where I could easily have ended up on either of them. And I’m never immune from the possibility.
I never want to put my church, my family or myself through the public horror of the first list. And I pray for healing and restoration for the churches, families and pastors who are dealing with it. One of the wondrous aspects of Christ's grace and redemption is that you can move to the third list after having been on either or both of the first two.
But we need to be aware of both lists because, while the failures in the second list are not as obvious as those in the first one, they can be just as dangerous and long-lasting.
Not all ministry failures happen in spectacular or public fashion. Many, maybe most, occur through the relentless drip-drip-drip of discouragement, disappointment and criticism.
The temptation to trade down and become cynical, sell out, or settle for business-as-usual must be resisted as firmly as the temptation to flame out.
I call them trade-downs because, in most cases they’re not about good people who abandon their principles entirely. Instead, they’re trading down. From the best to something less. Long-term integrity for a short-term win. God-honoring risk for financial security. Ideals for expediency.
Success or failure in ministry isn’t always obvious. The tendency to exchange the best things for less-than-the-best is hard to resist if we don’t keep ourselves alert to it.
We seldom celebrate consistency, integrity and humility as much as we should. But those are the character traits that make for real ministry success. And they should never be traded for anything less.
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