Creative Leadership

The Top Six Risky Habits of Pastors in Trouble

In almost every case of moral failure, one or more of these behaviors are present…

Over the years, I’ve helped quite a number of churches, ministries, and nonprofits navigate the confusing maze of communicating the news of a fallen or abusive pastor or leader to the congregation, ministry partners, donors, and the general public. Then, my task becomes helping them share a new vision for how the organization moves on past the crisis. My goal is to never allow a leader or staff member’s mistakes, pride, stupidity, and sometimes criminal behavior to irreparably damage victims, as well as innocent members, donors, and supporters of that church or ministry.

During that time, I’ve discovered a certain pattern of behavior from leaders who fail. I’m not a psychologist or counselor, so I’m not addressing the sin, emotional problems, pride, or other issues that lead to moral collapse or abuse, but particularly in the case of pastors and ministry leaders, there are six types of risky conduct I’ve seen played out time and time again. These behaviors can sometimes go on for years, but I’ve noticed that at least one of them is almost always in play at the time of his or her fall.

1) Abusing Alcohol and/or Sleeping Pills – Especially if you’re a pastor, I can give you plenty of reasons never to drink at all. Having said that, I don’t believe the Bible prohibits alcohol, but it does clearly warn against getting drunk. The problem is, with booze, you don’t have to be drunk to do risky and stupid things. Plus, I’ve known pastors (or their wives) who became alcoholics but wouldn’t dare tell anyone until it was too late. If you do drink, do it at home or do it around trusted friends. And please don’t do it alone in places like a hotel bar, which is often filled with attractive members of the opposite sex.

Sleeping pills can sometimes be worse, and the biggest offender seems to be Ambien. Early in my career, after a long film shoot, my doctor proscribed Ambien to help me sleep on an international flight. When we changed planes in Brussels, it was all my poor wife Kathleen could do to drag me off the plane and into the airline lounge to sleep it off. That was my last experience with sleeping pills. I’m sure there are legitimate reasons for proscribing Ambien, but there are incredibly bizarre stories of people on medications like Ambien, so the best advice is to avoid them altogether.

2) Crude or Sexualized Joking with Staff Members – Years ago, I was consulting with a large church, and during a staff meeting the pastor started trying to guess what color underwear the female staff members were wearing. I pulled the executive pastor outside and asked him what in the world just happened. His response? “Oh, everybody knows pastor is just a joker. It’s not a big deal.”

It was a big deal. Within a few months, he was forced to step down because of an adulterous relationship with someone outside of the church. You don’t have to be a prude to know that crude or sexy jokes with staff members aren’t appropriate – especially in a church or ministry environment.

3) Spending Too Much Time Away From a Spouse – There are a lot of red flags when it comes to a deteriorating marriage, but a big one is too much time apart. One pastor preferred to enjoy a vacation home without the company of his wife. Another would go on long work trips alone without his wife. I’m not even a pastor, but while I’ll do 1-2 day trips without Kathleen, any longer and she’s coming with me.

Too much time away alone usually leads to spending too much time with a woman other than your wife. And of course one thing leads to another…

4) A Fascination with Pornography – In today’s digital, social media age, porn is everywhere. It’s online, incredibly easy to access and it’s impacting younger kids more than ever. When I was growing up, the Sears Catalog or the occasional National Geographic was a big deal. Today, statistics reveal just how early kids are being exposed to the most graphic sexual content.

And adult leaders can access it even more easily. I met a Navy Seal Team member who told me that whenever they captured high-level Muslim terrorists, they all had one thing in common: a huge stash of pornography. It’s almost as if being so radical in restricting women creates an unhealthy obsession with them.

I don’t know if it’s similar with pastors and ministry leaders, but I do know that far too many are watching this stuff regularly – and many are doing it right in their church or ministry office. And before you think it’s just a male problem, counselors and therapists are telling us they’re seeing a rise in women who are addicted as well.

5) Really Stupid Decisions – Who thought it was a good idea for a nationally known Christian evangelist and apologist to own a chain of massage parlors? To “be more productive,” one pastor had his female assistant move into his and his wife’s home. Another started picking up women in his hotel bar after preaching at other churches. Really Stupid Decisions (or RSD) can happen to anyone, but they seem to happen more often when a leader has power, money, little-to-no transparency and/or lots of control.

And RSD’s are more prone to happen when…

6) No One Can Question the Boss’s Decisions – Yes, there are actual churches and ministries where the pastor or leader’s decisions are rarely if ever questioned. That pastor has created a culture where it’s his way or the highway, and anyone in meetings who disagrees with the man of God will need to find another job.

More often, I actually see cultures where no one questions the leader out of genuine respect. Respect is good, but anytime the team feels uncomfortable questioning any leader’s decisions, something is wrong. Either way, these cultures are simply ripe for abuse, whether sexual, financial, spiritual or otherwise.

These are usually the situations you’ve heard about that, when stories of that abuse started leaking out, the leadership team circled the wagons and defended the leader at all costs.

Certainly far more people than pastors and ministry leaders experience personal failures, but my life has been spent working with those inside the church. And in retrospect, it’s remarkable how consistent so many of the cases are with respect to certain patterns of behavior, which means that if we could at least keep these six areas in the back of our mind, we’d be quicker to notice situations that could be averted or avoided – before serious damage is done to both victims and the members of the congregation.

Find out more about this subject in my new book “Church on Trial: How to Protect Your Congregation, Mission, and Reputation During a Crisis.”

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