Past Sin Does Not Make You A Better Spiritual Leader

At Cooke Pictures, we’ve developed a reputation for helping churches, ministries, and nonprofits handle crisis communications. No matter how well intentioned you are, sooner or later, things can sometimes go terribly wrong. As a result, we’ve coached organizations on how to survive in the wake of leaders who have fallen because of sexual, financial, drug or alcohol, and other issues. Through it all, there’s one persistent myth some pastors have in particular about continuing ministry. While many take the time and effort to walk through proper counseling, healing, and eventual restoration, far too many want a shortcut.

In many cases I’ve encountered, that shortcut comes from the idea that because they’ve morally fallen in a particular way, they’re now more sensitive and understanding to those in the congregation who have experienced something similar. As a result, it’s not long before they start another church down the street, begin a church consulting practice, go on radio or TV, or launch their own ministry – all without taking the far more difficult route of submission to other leaders, counseling, and eventual restoration.

Over the years, I’ve talked with numerous pastors and ministry leaders who refuse counseling, accountability, or any other kind of help because they believe their sin has actually made them a better pastor or leader.

In his remarkable book “Mere Christianity” – written during World War II – C.S. Lewis refutes that thinking:

A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means – the only complete realist.

I applaud ministry leaders who have fallen and then done the hard work of repentance, submission to others, working working through the problem, and winning back trust. But never fall for the deception that your past sin makes you more effective as a Christian leader. Certainly if you’ve been through the restoration process, that past experience gives you insight to draw from. But as Lewis said,

We should always be loving and sensitive to anyone who falls because of moral or other issues. Our job as believers is to help restore them into full fellowship.  But pastors – don’t try to sell your effectiveness on the basis of past sin. And for the rest of us – don’t let a pastor or ministry leader convince you that because of his or her sin, that’s made them a better spiritual leader or gives them a pass when it comes to restoring trust.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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  • Deb

    Truth! Thank you!

  • Very valid points and good conversation, Phil! I would also include in this same arena the issues related to “Founder’s Syndrome” and Generational Secession. Visible organization and ministry success does not necessarily mean that the person who received a lot of the credit and attention is worthy of the same admiration. Don’t allow the good work of the organization or ministry to shield spiritual and leadership failure. The bigger and more successful the organization becomes, the more of an effort needs to be made for transparency and accountability of leadership.

  • Excellent article, Phil, and SO true!

  • Micah Bell

    As in the Biblical example of David, restoration begins with true, genuine repentance followed by true, genuine forgiveness. At that point, the climb to recovery can begin, and the path depends on the individual soul. So many churches have jumped to crucify and not first forgive as God forgave David. There is also lack of discernment of demonic issues and seldom the applied ministry for such.

  • I’ve served with two ministry organizations whose associate pastors have fallen heavy into sin and been caught, only to have the top leadership dust them off and get them quickly back to work. The reason – leadership wanted to teach their congregations to be forgiving. Both times it’s blown back, though, as members struggle with what they feel is a double standard and weakness in dealing with sin, resulting in many congregants and staffers leaving the churches. There’s got to be a fine balance between compassionate restoration and church discipline.

    • Well said Nathen. Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean restoration to the same position in the church… That has to be earned once again…

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  • BL Clifton

    Thanks Phil! Your article helped shaped a devotion I wrote for my website.

    “I succumbed to the lure of pornography early in my marriage, and it took an 18-month journey of confession, counseling and consecration to draw me out of the wasteland. Did that experience make me into a better husband and pastor, compared with a person who grabbed hold tight of Jesus’ hand and stayed clear of that swamp? Must I plunge into financial ruin to be able to preach more effectively about money? Do I have to drag my wife through a divorce court so that I can counsel others more fruitfully on how to have a good marriage? No – it’s rising above failure by God’s grace (good) and it’s avoiding failure by God’s grace (better) that creates a strong leader.”

    • Very well said… Thanks for your comment!

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