My heart broke as I read the news about Perry Noble, his struggle with alcoholism, and his subsequent removal as senior pastor of NewSpring Church in South Carolina. But it’s not the first time my heart has broken over the last few years; it seems it’s happened enough to count on two hands and each one more than I would have liked to have heard.
Why do the seemingly mightiest fall? How come those we look to as the spiritual giants tumble so far? These questions rattle our minds when we hear stories like these. There was a time I wondered how it was even possible, but then I became one of those stories.
I became a Christian at 16 years old and dived head first into ministry upon graduating high school. I was optimistic and bright-eyed about ministry, fully convinced I would always be above reproach. As I served with passion and commitment whenever and wherever, it wasn’t long before I was a leader in the mega-church I worked at.
At 25 years old I began what was my first serious relationship and had the firm rule of no sex before marriage. But all the good intentions in the world were not enough for what came next. Not long into the relationship my boyfriend and I let temptation rule over us and we did the very thing we said we’d never do. I’ve transparently shared this story many times on this website so I won’t go into it here, but the aftermath and next five years were the darkest and most challenging of my life. The confession, church correction, shame, disappointment of letting those I cared about down, and much more seemed too much to bare at times. My boyfriend and I broke up, I went through a season of restoration, and I began to watch God weave together the broken pieces of my life into a beautiful redemptive story.
For a long time, I thought God would not want to use me in ministry again; I had failed horribly the first time so why would He want to use me again? Although I struggled with these thoughts for a while I’m so thankful that He was, and is, so much more than I thought.
I share this because having gone through a moral failure--not to the degree of some you can think of, but still--I don’t judge as I once did. In fact, I know it happens easier than we would like to believe and it’s those “spiritual giants” (as we call them) that are most vulnerable. The long hours, emotional outpouring, constant attention to others, and so on begin to weigh on a soul. But what I believe to be the biggest contributing factor is what I call the untouchable myth.
Much like Peter in his story of betraying Jesus before the crucifixion, we convince ourselves that we will never do a list of sins; acts so beneath or unlike us that we completely put them out of mind. It’s because we avoid accepting that they are even a possibility we become vulnerable to the very things we said we’d never do. No pastor goes into ministry believing they will steal from their congregation, or turn to alcohol, or fall into an affair. It’s that they don’t accept it as a possibility at all and don’t put the proper guardrails in place.
As much as I want to continue to dig deeper into this idea, it’s not what today is about. Because what I felt second to my sympathy for Noble, his family, and the church was an overwhelming concern for the coming generations into ministry. What are we doing to prepare them for the weight that comes with shepherding people?
What I absolutely loved about the church I trained in is that they were all about equipping the next generation the best they could. Along with the college-aged discipleship and education they provided, what perhaps was the greatest lesson imparted was servant leadership. We didn’t start out preaching to hundreds or leading worship in the main service. We started out cleaning toilets, stuffing envelopes, and even massaging ladies feet at a women’s event! Even then, it took years of doing what nobody else wanted to do, without ever being noticed, to even get to the place our dreams envisioned we would be.
It wasn’t perfect because no program or organization is. I still fell but it was because I hadn’t learned to properly guard myself. This was perhaps a lesson I could have used.
No matter where you are in ministry--perhaps new to working in a church, a pastor overseeing a team, or someone who feels like you’ve been in ministry so long you have it figured out--know that we are all vulnerable to falling.
There are many contributions to moral failure but there are three that are probably the biggest lends to it and perhaps most common.
- The weight of ministry. Noble remarked that the weight of growing his church was a factor in his dependence on alcohol. But Noble isn't the only one; there are so many pastors out there who feel this burden to grow their church, constantly be available for people, and take on everything themselves. If one isn't depending on Jesus, they'll turn to another source for refuge. The weight is heavy and only Jesus can carry it for you.
- Value placed on platform. Pastors are becoming celebrities, worship bands are becoming rock stars, and ministries are being placed on a pedestal. The value of platform is becoming the focus of many and a microphone is being pursued over really serving people. When the value is placed here and not on serving others, pride and fame will cloud one's purpose.
- Too much too soon. There was a time when, to be a pastor, one had to go to Bible college for four years, start at the bottom, and often worked their way up from janitor. It took patience, education, devotion, wisdom, and humility to get to a place of leading a church. Today young people are being shown the platform as a way of ministry instead of being shown the mop closet, office supplies, and unlovely parts of ministry. When we give too much too soon we aren't helping the next generation...we are hurting them.
Over the next five weeks we'll explore the value of waiting and people in the Bible who did so, lessons that can help guard us from falling, and our responsibility in training the next generation.
My hope is that we’ll stop glorifying a platform and elevating those who use it to celebrity status, focusing on numbers and approval instead of health and obedience. Maybe, just maybe if we start doing this we will see less leaders falling and more influence given to them for the sake of the Gospel.
"And he said to them, 'If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.'" Mark 9:35 (ESV)