Ministry’s dangerous. If you google “pastor fired” you’ll see an endless stream of articles recounting the varied moral failures of former ministry leaders. Adultery, embezzlement, abusive leadership, and addiction always top the list. But as with everything in this fallen world, it isn’t always the glaring, blatant sins that cause all the damage. Rather, it’s the small unnoticed sin that festers for decades that, when mixed with success or failure, blossoms into something awful.
Think of it this way, a pastor doesn’t just start watching porn on their work computer or screaming at their assistant pastor, no, their sin has to dumb them up first. Pride is such a destructive sin for ministry leaders because out of it flows entitlement which leads to rationalization resulting in disqualification.
He took all of that money because he earned it with his hard work. She slept with her co-worker at the conference because her husband doesn’t appreciate the great work she’s doing. Whatever the scenario might be, pride makes individual sins easier to swallow, and ministry is often the means of excuse. Pride certainly comes before the fall and one of the greatest warning signs that a leader is on this path is when they truly believe the ministry relies on them.
When You Think Ministry’s About You
In my short 10-years in vocational ministry, I’ve witnessed too many leaders finish poorly. I’ve seen some fired, demoted, and disqualified. I even witnessed one of my former leaders deposed and excommunicated from the PCA. The thing that always stuck out to me was that each of these leaders was over ministries with varying degrees of success. Some came into struggling ministries and turned them around while others took over successful ministries and ran it into the ground, yet in the end, they failed all the same.
When a leader makes their ministry about them it becomes intrinsically unhealthy, regardless of its measurable success. Apart from repentance, the best thing that can happen for ministries with prideful leaders is for them to be removed. They may think that without their leadership the ministry will fail, and this truly is the case sometimes. This is ironic in that if you believe and act like the ministry you’re a part of would die without you it will always be healthier after you’re gone. This happens in two ways:
Scenario 1 – The Ministry can Bring in a Healthy Replacement
This is obvious. When a prideful leader is removed it opens up the opportunity for a healthy replacement. The famous verse regarding Christ in Philippians 2 shows us what this individual should look like,
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” — Phil 2:3-4
This is what a healthy leader does. They aren’t in ministry for their own ambition or selfish interests, but for the good of the Kingdom and others. Jesus started this trend by not holding on to His rights as God (v. 6) taking on human flesh (v. 7) and being obedient to the point of death on a cross (v. 8). This is our leader, this is our God. He who has been exalted over all willingly endured all the humiliation and suffering so that we would be made right with God. There is no reality in which the Son of God taking on human flesh isn’t an act of humiliation. And yet for our sake, He did it. There is no greater example of leadership than this.
Imagine the culture change in a ministry when a self-absorbed dictator is replaced with a humble servant. This point is easy to prove because of course, a healthy leader is better than a prideful one, but the next reason, while harder to swallow, is just as beneficial.
Scenario 2 – The Ministry Dies
I’ve been told I’m a cynic and, at times, I’m inclined to agree. But this isn’t a cynical statement. When a ministry is focused on the glory of an individual it needs to change, or it needs to go.
The first ministry I worked for died. The leadership burned out due to the intense nature of the program. The leadership began to look inward instead of upward, and the program imploded. It had at one point been a vibrant ministry. When I left 7-years ago there were a dozen staff and multiple volunteers on-site, and within 5 years there were only 3. Most of the church partners had pulled out and no longer supported the ministry. The director made the ministry revolve around him, and it died.
This was the end of that ministry, but it wasn’t the end of the Lord’s work in that community. In December 2017, the board of directors moved to donate all of the land, buildings, and remaining assets to another ministry in Charlotte and after only 1-year it was healthier than it had been in decades. The leader who made it about himself remained to the point of the ministry dying, but now the ministry that took its place is thriving.
Even if a ministry dies due to poor leadership it’s better than the ministry being a perpetual factory of personal glorification. We’re not building individual fiefdoms for our own glory, we’re continuing the work of Jesus Christ, and if a ministry is focused on an individual and not the Gospel, it needs to die. The Apostles give us a perfect example of this. Paul was angered by people thinking the church was about the Apostles, he said:
“What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” — 1 Cor. 1:12-13
This proves that ministry isn’t about the leaders it’s about the object of our salvation, Jesus. If Paul shows that it’s not about him, we should humble ourselves in our ministries! But there is one more verse that shows this even more. It’s an obscure passage and easy to miss. It was written by James in his introductory greeting:
“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.” — James 1:1
James, the literal brother of Jesus Christ doesn’t introduce himself as a super Apostle, or leader extraordinaire. He didn’t brag about being the head of the church in Jerusalem and leading the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). No, he introduced himself as a servant of Christ because that is exactly what he was. Ministry’s not about us, it’s not about our own glory, it’s not about personal fulfillment or accomplishment, it’s simply about making known the name of Jesus and loving people well.
Pride doesn’t need success to effectively destroy a ministry, it isn’t success versus failure. No, it’s sinful pride versus holiness. If we think or act like ministry is about us, we will fail regardless of the state of the ministry. But if we focus on Jesus and preach the truth of the Gospel it will be an eternal success because it’s anchored in the perfect work of our everlasting Savior.