A Particular Peril of Public Ministry

I just heard about yet another pastor who stepped down because he was having an affair. This was at a church a friend of mine attends, about 100 miles west of here.

I have statistics on areas of ministry where the annual divorce rate is less than 1%, and where extra-marital dalliances are even rarer. The same is probably true for pastors of Bible-believing churches, I just don’t have the numbers. My point is that this is not necessarily what you would call “rampant” among Christian leaders. Nevertheless it happens far too often, and it’s devastating.

There is a peril in public ministry, which applies to writers as well as speakers. It’s the danger of looking better than you are.

I want to build up to an explanation of how that can trip us up. The life of David (2 Samuel 11:1-12:15) illustrates a central principle for maintaining character strength: No sin is good, but it’s your secret sins that can really take you out. David messed up royally with Bathsheba (indeed, as only a king could have done) at the beginning of this episode. He tried to cover it up, but that took him from bad to far worse: he ended up murdering one of his most loyal men. (Cover-ups haven’t seemed to fare much better in modern politics, have they?) His initial sin was bad enough, but trying to hide it led to worse disaster yet.

The Bible is refreshingly honest about even its heroes. No one expects men and women to be free of sin. The apostle John put it this way (I John 1:5-10):

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

The light metaphor has many different applications in the Bible. Jesus is “the light of the world” and the Word of God is “a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” So walking in the light certainly means letting ourselves be guided and led by Jesus Christ through Scriptures. There is a hint of another meaning in this passage besides these, however. It says “if we walk in the light . . . we have fellowship with one another.” Walking in the light has something to do with being connected with each other. I think it’s referring to living in light, not in darkness; being visible, not hidden. It means letting others see us for who we are. “If we say we have not sinned,” it says, “we make him a liar.” If we pretend we’re doing just perfectly, we make God a liar. Also tucked in this passage we see an exhortation to confess of sins. Is this just confession to God, privately in our own prayers? Not, not if we’re walking in the kind of light of open, transparent fellowship with one another.

Those of us who write or speak for audiences of any size at all, however—and this includes pastors of most churches—cannot share every detail of our weaknesses with every listener. I have struggles (everyone does, I suspect) that are just not appropriate for broadcast. My wife knows them, and some trusted friends do too. They are not secrets. But they are the kinds of things to be shared only with those I can trust to respond with a tough-love mix of encouragement and accountability, grace and truth. That’s what will encourage me to keep going, and to keep getting better.

Every pastor knows that not everyone will respond with a healthy blend of grace and truth. You have to get to know someone rather closely before you know if that’s how they operate. Some things you trust someone with only after you have known them well and found them worthy of such trust. It’s for a relatively small, limited circle of close friends and advisors.

By now you can probably see already where this is leading: when we get up front, it’s very likely that we look better than we are. We show our strong side, not our weaknesses. Not that the audience wants to see all of our weaknesses; I’m a fairly good speaker, and not much of a pianist. They don’t want to hear me proving I can’t piano!

That’s okay. There are two serious missteps one may take from there, however. One is to begin to believe your public persona is you, or must be you. Living in a family is one of the best correctives to that, provided one is willing to listen, though being involved in any closely connected community will surely help. If you start to forget who you are, your family and friends can always remind you!

An even more dangerous misstep is to make the wrong connection between your problems and your employment, i.e., “If anyone finds out about this, I’m out of a job!” Whether that’s true or not is not so much the point. Your issue is likely to catch up with you eventually, as it did with David and countless others (God knows already anyway). Find a truly safe person to talk with about it, like a counselor.

Again a reminder for any of us in public ministry at any level: All sin is sin and must be dealt with, but it’s the secret sins that can really take us out.

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