Creative Leadership

The 7 Most Common Ways Pastors Shoot Themselves in the Foot

I love pastors. I work with them regularly and have the greatest admiration for what they do.  But when it comes to outside criticism, bad PR, or being attacked in the media, a significant number of instances are caused by pastors themselves – and I’ve discovered a number of common threads those pastors share. Nothing here is a theological or doctrinal issue, but they’re all red flags when it comes to outside media’s perceptions. And in today’s instant message, social media world, those perceptions matter. You may not care today, but I can name you many pastors and leaders down the ministry road who wished they had. Here’s the most common ways pastors and ministry leaders shoot themselves in the foot:

1) They overdo the “respect” thing.  I completely understand a pastor’s desire to teach new converts the importance of respecting the office of pastor. But many simply go too far. Before a meeting with one pastor, I actually had his assistant phone to warn me I needed to call him “Pastor,” and never just his name. But the truth is, respect isn’t demanded, it’s earned, and when it’s overdone, those outside the church assume it’s a cult. That’s why the secular media comes down so hard. Plus, two of the most respected pastors in the country – Jack Hayford in Los Angeles and Jack Graham in Dallas, each just go by “Jack.” No titles, no pomp, no ceremony. That’s because they’ve earned respect and don’t need to remind anyone of their titles.

2) They buy an ostentatious house.  Want to toss a red flag to a media bull? Buy a huge house. It doesn’t matter whether you deserve it or not or can afford it or not. If a house is so large it can’t be photographed well from the street, then don’t buy it. It doesn’t mean you should live in a trailer, but the truth is, pastors living in mansions are like catnip to reporters, so you can avoid a lot of PR pain by simply not going over the top.

3) They overdo security.  We need to protect our kids at church, and we need to ensure everyone’s safety – especially in this crazy world we live in. But that doesn’t mean you need an armed guard to walk you from your car to the church. I visited a church in California recently with an entire fleet of armed security guards stationed throughout the church. Walking into the lobby, it felt more like airport TSA than a church. I have a friend who’s a former Navy Seal and provides protection for a few top professional golfers. He never looks like a security officer. He puts on golf clothes, fits into the crowd, and is invisible – until he’s needed. Some pastors should think less about using security to support their ego and more about actual safety for the congregation.

4) They’re not accessible.  Too many pastors rarely show up at the office, rarely spend time with their staff, and create a barrier between them and everyone else. If your team is going to execute your vision and communicate your message, they need to spend time with you, understand your DNA, and know how you think. You don’t have to be best friends with everyone on the staff, but if you don’t walk through the factory on a regular basis, you’re undermining your own calling and ministry. Want to build resentment among your staff? Cut them off.

5) They don’t do background checks during hiring.  It would take too long to list all the church employees that seemed so nice and had a great resume during the interview, but later turned out to be racists, sex addicts, thieves, have anger problems, and more. Call the references. Do a background check. Find out the truth. Being lazy on the front end of hiring can really damage your reputation down the road.

6) They’re too trendy.  I’ve written here about the actual definition of “relevance” and it has nothing to do with preaching in jeans, t-shirts, moving lights, or fog machines. I like all that stuff, but if you’re not careful, over time it can add up to “shallow” in the minds of your community. Look like you honor the spiritual office you hold. Don’t always show up dressed like you’re still in high school. It doesn’t mean you have to go back to a coat and tie, but if you’re in this for the long haul, simply be aware of how people perceive you – because it matters.

7)  They make fun of the local media.  Huge mistake. Like them or not, local news media can damage your ministry more than you know – and on the positive side, they can help more than you know.  They’re speaking to a lot bigger audience than you are.  So speak the truth, but never try to “get back” at local media.  It will always come back to haunt you.

My CPA tells me that there are some tax deductions that are perfectly legal, but are a red flag to IRS auditors. It’s the same way with the media. Nothing on this list is sinful or illegal. I’m not telling you not to do these things, I’m just telling you it’s the quickest way to generate negative media attention.

Why go through the pain? Some Christian leaders are criticized because they take a bold stand for their faith. Others are criticized because they do dumb things.

Which would you rather be?

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  1. this is a fantastic post Phil. I have actually had to correct people who want to address me as Pastor. Just “Bill” is what you can call me. There are some parents who are trying to teach their children respect and i will never stand in the way of that, but I’m a regular “Joe.” Every one of these suggestions is on the money. Our house is plain but maintained, and sits behind a car lot. Thanks for the good advice.

  2. 8) They run and control the church as if it were an organization or an institution instead of the body of Christ rather than following John the Baptist’s example, “He (Jesus) must increase, but I must decrease,” and allowing the living, resurrected Jesus, Himself to be the CEO (Head) of the church.

  3. Thanks, Phil, for this insightful post on common well intentioned, but often misguided, responses by pastors to the unique pressures they face. In the spirit of Christian charity, may I suggest two additional ways in which they shoot themselves in “the other foot:”

    1. Many pastors function as spiritual “Lone Rangers” without personal accountability or an outlet where they can just be a “real” person. Those single-handedly carrying the mantle of leadership for their congregation are often put on a pedestal and come to believe they are invincible. As a result, they can become isolated and then slip into sin. With no safety net or place to turn for help, they adopt the imposter syndrome, as they obligatorily continue to function in their pastoral role. Afraid to
    show their vulnerability or weaknesses, they further insulate themselves and their entire family. But as we know, the Bible says, “Be holy for I am holy,” not “Act holy, so that others may come to Christ…”

    2. Alternatively, some pastors try to be all things to everyone. In the process, they can become workaholics and then drift away from their wives and kids. In any other industry, someone consistently working 100-hour weeks would cause concern. But when it is for ministry, everyone says, “Praise God,” and the “Atta boys” drive them deeper into at-risk behavior, because that is where they find identity, affirmation and fulfillment.

    T.D. Jakes compares this tendency with the ubiquitous flight attendant warning to parents traveling with children in their announcement before every takeoff: “Put your own mask on first, then the child’s.” Though it sounds counter-intuitive, it is the right thing to do, because while a parent can care for a child, the child can’t care for a parent. The same goes for a pastor turning first to his family, who will love and support him long after fickle church members leave. These two dynamics, separate or combined, are a recipe for failure and a fall. Selah.

    1. Great advice. You’ll dealt with so many crisis situations on behalf of your clients, that it’s always good hearing from someone with your experience. Thanks for posting!

  4. Phil the most obvious example of pastors shooting themselves in the foot is when they speak without thinking. The modern world is very complicated and there are too many pastors who have a knee jerk reaction on matters to do with medicine, politics or science rather than first thinking about a subject, reading about it or even listening to members of their own congregations who are qualified in the relevant subject. An authoritative Scripture does not automatically give an authoritative pastor….

  5. I’d say #4 and #6 are spot on with my experiences here in L.A. Fortunately I’ve found a new community whose leader does a great job of steering clear of all of these pitfalls, but my past experience hasn’t been as positive. These aren’t just pitfalls in PR. These are pitfalls in leading well. I can say from experience that the ‘celebrity culture’ come churches here in LA adopt leaves little room for building healthy and authentic community. Nothing says, “we don’t care about you unless you can make us look cool” like a pastor or a lead team who is elitist and unaccessible. On the same token, nothing says, “if you don’t follow the absolute latest fashion trends, you’re dead to us” like a pastor who tries too hard in the wardrobe department. When you’re a 50 or 60 year old leader, it’s ok to dress like one. You don’t need to look like Usher.

    The cultures that tolerate these behaviors end up with an incredible amount of dysfunction which only serves to reinstate fears non-Christians have about faith, not to mention affords the media ammunition.

  6. #1 is so common among the Bible Belt, Jack Hayford one of the best pastors I had the privilege to serve under. I still carry his edited copy of the spirit filled life bible. Look if your a man who has edited the bible and you still dont carry the name pastor I dont think anyone should. LOL

  7. Great list Phil! Very thoughtful, and I would agree with all of your points. Maybe another one to add is bashing the “mainstream” or “liberal” media. Not sure as believers we are called necessarily to be BFF with anyone in the world, but I think it can only serve to burn a bridge right away with the media by consistently bashing a perceived liberal or mainstream bias. And this is coming from a conservative person. 🙂 I’m not sure Jesus or Peter or the Apostle Paul would have concerned themselves too much about the media, let alone made it a point to bash the liberal or main stream media. I’ve heard several pastors do that from the pulpit over the past few years, and it seems as though that would only serve to draw a political line in the sand right way — so that, if anyone in the audience was left-leaning, they might tune the pastor out from that point on. Or worse, feel unwelcome because of their different viewpoints. And wasn’t one of the beautiful things about our Lord was his ability to reach across all kinds of barriers and erase them? Just some thoughts.

      1. Right on. We shouldn’t make enemies, but should do our homework, really know their positions and be able to respond with intelligence and wit. The wisdom of God can seem like foolishness to the unbeliever, but wisdom and a winsome approach can go a long way to a better media experience.

  8. I worked for a senior pastor who demanded the entire staff (including his wife) call him Pastor, as if it was his first and only name.

  9. Some leaders forget that they are actually there to serve. I once heard Phil Pringle (pastor of a huge church in Australia) on the power of cleaning toilets. He pointed out that they have a rota of people to do that, but he never considered himself ‘too important’ to do it. If it needed to be done, he’d get on with it. Another great leader I know had a similar philosophy. He’d written bestselling books and taught some of the greatest theological minds…but someone dropped a packet of cookies and he was first to grab the vacuum to clean it up. Someone was surprised and he said, ‘well, that’s what I’d do at home.’

    Some leaders can appear to have put themselves into an exalted position, far above such ‘menial’ tasks. I’ve always thought that if you lose the power to serve others, you’re probably not that great a leader.

  10. You HAVE spent a lot of time with pastors/ministries! Boom! I’ve been around pastors my whole life….Totally on point. Common sense can save people a world of pain and drama, if they’ll view things from the outside. 🙂

  11. I agree Phil. Jesus was on a first name basis with His disciples (and He was God on earth). If He could walk in such humility, then how much more should we. I ministered at one church many years ago where before the service the pastor had one of his “armorbearers” kneel before him and shine his shoes. It was too much for me, repulsive. The Jesus example would be for us to kneel before them and shine their shoes.

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