Ministry is not like other jobs. In other jobs, you can mess up and still keep your job. A doctor doesn’t get fired because he had an affair. A baker doesn’t have to close up shop because she didn’t background check an employee. An electrician can be a drunk and still keep his job (but he better not do both at the same time).
In practical terms, personal and professional failures can end your ministry altogether. While there should be space for forgiveness for leaders who fail and space for them to be reinstated to ministry at some point, the reality is that most ministry leaders who lose their ministry are out forever.
It’s an old sad joke that failed pastors either become church consultants or sell life insurance. It’s not a funny one, but there’s truth behind it. Most ministry leaders who lose their ministry never return to ministry leadership. Sometimes that’s because they no longer feel qualified themselves and sometimes that’s because churches are hesitant to hire someone who failed elsewhere.
Of course, that isn’t always the case. Chris Beall, a campus pastor at Life.Church, failed morally many years ago. Life.Church leadership worked hard to minister to him and his family. A few years later, after showing he’d truly turned over a new leaf, so to speak, he was rehired to the church staff. He’s been in a fruitful ministry there for over a decade since being reinstated.
Even in those cases where ministry failure isn’t permanent, it’s still one of the most painful things a leader can experience. It’s more than just a personal embarrassment. It’s a public failure, a job loss, a loss of income, a career change, it tests your faith, and it drags your whole family into that valley with you.
With all that’s at stake, both practically and spiritually, it’s shocking to me when I hear about ministry leaders who take unnecessary risks that could end their ministry. There’s no point in risking it all.
Let’s take a look at some specific risks that leaders take that could derail their ministry.
Private or Unaccountable Digital Communication
I’m starting with this one because it’s the most common one that I hear. Digital communication is so ubiquitous that it takes no thought to send a quick personal text message or email. We don’t typically think about the risks associated with private digital conversations.
The truth is that private communication is, in itself, not bad, but it creates opportunity for bad behavior. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard about affairs and inappropriate relationships being born out of casual private digital conversations.
The problem with private or unaccountable communication is that it provides a safe place to say things you wouldn’t say in front of other people. That could be making off-color jokes, sexual innuendo, gossip, suggestive comments, or even seemingly harmless flirting.
And if you think that private digital communication is the same as private in-person communication, take a second to think about the vile things people say online or the shockingly inappropriate things people send via private messages. There’s a sense of safety or security when you’re communicating digitally that lulls otherwise sober-minded people into thinking that they can be a little less disciplined in what they type or send.
Solution: make sure your communication with anyone that’s not your spouse or kids or best friends is visible to someone else. It doesn’t have to be your spouse. I recommend having a friend or colleague that can see every piece of communication that enters and leaves your devices. Call it an accountability partner if you want. Don’t wait until something bad happens to put this safeguard in place.
Spending Time Alone with the Opposite Sex
Since we’re talking about risks and not actual sins, this one needs to be mentioned. It’s not a sin to spend time alone with someone of the opposite sex. But you are taking a risk when you do so.
You’re risking that innocent conversations become more than innocent. You risk the chance of someone in your congregation seeing you alone with someone that’s not your spouse and jumping to unfair, but not uncommon, conclusions.
You’re also creating an opportunity for the other person to make a claim of inappropriate behavior even if nothing bad happens in your meeting. This is a real risk and you shouldn’t assume the other person wouldn’t do this.
There’s a lot of pushback and debate around this topic. Most people who oppose something like the Billy Graham rule make the case that ministry is messy and inherently risky, requires private conversations at times, and you can’t always pair men with men and women with women. They also say it’s not in the Bible, which means it’s a little legalistic to follow this rule.
It comes down to your own decision. Are the risks I mentioned above, plus the potential of losing your ministry and harming your family, worth the private meeting? If the risk is great, is there another way to handle private conversations that can be more accountable and safe for you, the other person, your family, and your church? If there is, then I think it’s a responsible step to be safe rather than take a risk.
Spending Time Alone with Minors
When I was in high school, my youth pastor regularly gave rides home to kids in the youth group. He had the coolest Jeep Wrangler and spending some alone time with him was a valuable discipleship opportunity.
But now, as an adult, I look back at that time and cringe a little. Tim was an upright guy and is still in ministry on the mission field, but that’s not always the case. And it’s not always the case the kids will be truthful about their experience when they were alone with you.
Yes, it’s a sad time when we can’t minister privately to our youth and kids. It’s a sign of the times that this is even considered a risk, but we live in the now and face the risks of the reality we live in. We can’t ignore it and pretend it’s not a risk to be alone with a minor.
Some children and student ministries have two-adult policies — meaning that no adult can be alone with minors without another adult present. I’m grateful that this type of policy is becoming more common.
If you don’t have this type of policy applied for yourself and your volunteers, you absolutely must institute it immediately. It’s a risk to the minors in your ministry, to your volunteers, and to your ministry.
Even if you’re not the one that gets into trouble privately with a minor, I guarantee that you will be held accountable for facilitating the interaction between a volunteer and a minor. If you don’t lose your ministry job, you will certainly lose the trust of the families in your church.
Spiritual Consequences of Ministry Failure
Ministry leaders are held to a higher standard than other believers, both practically and spiritually. We’ve looked at the practical consequences of failure so far, but now we must turn our attention to the spiritual consequences.
To be clear, ministry failure doesn’t refer to being bad at ministry or being an ineffective Bible teacher. Ministry failure refers specifically to sin that removes you from the ministry.
In spiritual terms, ministry leaders are held to a higher standard of behavior. Look at Acts 20:28, Hebrews 13:17, James 3:1, 1 Peter 5:4, Titus 1, Ezekiel 34:10, 1 Timothy 3…you get the idea. The ones who God has entrusted with leading his people, his bride, his children, are held to a high standard of accountability.
What’s most interesting about these verses is that the Bible doesn’t give us a clear picture of the direct spiritual consequences of sin for leaders. All it says is there is a higher standard and to be very careful.
I believe that the practical severity of ministry failure, like losing your career and income, the pain caused to your family and your church, and the shame that comes with being “another failed pastor”, are all part of the spiritual consequences of sin. But beyond that fallout, there are eternal repercussions, too.
1 Corinthians 3, 2 Corinthians 5:10, Romans 14:10, Matthew 16:27, and Ephesians 6:8 all point to a future judgment or reckoning for Christians. That judgment will not be related to our salvation. Those who are born again will not be judged according to their eternal destiny. That judgment was decided by Jesus on the cross on your behalf.
Instead, we will all be judged according to the lives we lived, the good and bad we did, our works that were both selfish and unselfish.
I believe you and I will stand before Jesus and account for our lives. The bad and selfish and sinful works of our lives will be counted for nothing, burned up. The good and selfless will be all that’s left at the judgment seat of Christ and we will be rewarded according to those things.
I hope you see, now, that your decisions in ministry have incredible potential for great eternal impact. Your decisions can lead to eternal life and earthly blessings for those you lead. They can also lead to eternal loss (loss of rewards) and earthly pain for yourself and those you love.
“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” Ephesians 5:15-16