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 pastor or leader to the congregation, ministry partners, donors and the general public. Then my task becomes helping them craft and 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, including the 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 a moral collapse, 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. But 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 where it’s 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. 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 adultery. 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. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a female staff member suddenly “promoted” to an important job that required lots of private time with the pastor. 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 local bars 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 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.


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  1. These are all EXCELLENT points!
    I would also like to suggest looking at the possibly unrealistic expectations for male pastors spouses that can cause undue tension in the marriage.
    Besides the wear & tear of a spouse who is on call
    24/7, and the usual “Pulpit Bunnies”? Many pastors wives need to work a payroll job to make up for a pastors often modest salary, and yet are STILL expected to work 3/4 time as the Church’s “First Lady”. This means keeping a home to the exacting standards of the ladies auxiliary, easing the pressures on their children, and being expected to run any number of clubs, bake sales, sunday schools…
    This would be demanding enough for a full time wife/partner. But for a working woman? The pressure is unreal.
    A good question to start asking your clients is, “Do you pay for a house cleaner and a babysitter, both once a week at LEAST?” And “Does your wife have a designated day or afternoon off each week when everyone in church knows she is not to be disturbed? What about an evening for just you and your family?

    1. It sounds like you’re speaking from experience! I understand where you’re coming from. My mom was a pastor’s wife typing and printing the bulletins, running the kids ministry, and raising our family, but she also had a day job as a secretary at a used car lot. I agree that most people don’t realize just how much pressure a pastor’s spouse is under…

  2. This is a timely article about issues that just seem to keep resurfacing decade after decade. I was recently sent a brief video of a celebrity pastor who was defending why he did not talk about sin, his defence being that people know they are sinners. Well it seems that even many church pastors don’t get that never mind the average spiritually blind sinner walking the street! I think the church should stop talking about sin after we’ve all safely arrived in heaven but until then everyone of us need reminders of the dangers that lurk when our adversary the devil goes about seeking whom he may devour. Thx Phil.

  3. These are great observations. I left ministry to be an addiction counselor and found I could be more of a minister in a secular environment than I was in church. If I could name anything that caused me to leave, it has to do with point number 6. You’re not allowed to question, and if someone is perceived to have a different perspective, then they are sidelined and seen as somehow dangerous. I’ve noticed elders dominated by one strong personality, and surrounded by “yes” men. If you’re not a “yes” man, then you’re out of the club. Meanwhile, the gospel is withheld from so many people. I was tired of watching this play out in various ministries and decided I’d make a better evangelist outside of these church structures. It’s been two years, so far so good. I feel like I constantly live evangelism.

    1. So sorry to hear about your experience, but I’m glad you’ve discovered the place you can make a great difference! I do encourage people not to view the entire church or ministry world through the lens of their personal experience. My dad was a pastor and was fired by the elders who didn’t want him preaching on the Holy Spirit. But that hasn’t made me cynical – God will deal with them. In fact, it’s motivated me to help the church rise up to make the impact it should. But your comment is terrific, and is a very good caution. There’s no question that ministry in the secular world is SO important… Thanks for the comment!

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