Tom Fuerst ~ Pastors, Moral Failings, and the Thing Nobody Wants to Talk About

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When a pastor has a moral failing, especially of the sexual nature, everyone wants to talk through the sordid details. That thing that happens behind closed doors, that thing that is supposedly “no one else’s business” when it comes to my sexuality, becomes everyone’s business when it comes to the pastor. People want to know who the other party was. They want to know what led to the moral failing. They want to know (blame?) if the pastor’s wife didn’t “keep herself up” for him. They want to know how long the affair’s been going on. And they want to highlight all the possible ways the pastor might be a hypocrite for espousing a stern sexual ethic in public while living in blatant sin in private.

Everyone wants to talk about these things. Everyone wants to know.

But there’s an issue behind all of this that no one is addressing. There are questions to be asked that no one really wants to ask because such questions don’t make for good water-cooler gossip.

You see, lost in all the pastor-gone-wild media porn out there is the fact that pastors have jobs that, as largely defined in the American setting, are not sustainable for healthy living. The way the pastorate is defined in American culture, whether the church is large or small, reflects the larger systemic issue of an over-worked American society that knows nothing of a work/life balance. And this is not only the minister’s fault for living into this kind of lifestyle (though it is certainly our faults, too), but it’s also the church’s fault for expecting their pastors to live this way, or rather, for not expecting their pastors to model a better way of living.moralfailing

The contemporary American pastorate in larger churches looks more like a CEO. His/her job is to make sure the investors are happy, engaged, and committed. S/he must provide a weekly presentation that emphasizes the entertainment factor to maintain the interest of the people. The pastor spends his time visioning, executing, managing, and promoting himself/herself and the church. The church becomes a commodity in this model, another thing people might consume or not consume, depending on whether or not they like the product and the person – the pastor – who advertises the product.

But it’s not much different in smaller congregations. In smaller churches, the pastor is always on the run doing all the hospital visits, administrative tasks, cleaning the church building, writing his sermons (often on Saturday nights), putting out congregational fires, and making sure the few parishioners are happy.

What strikes me here is that, when it comes to the moral failings of pastors, we want to talk as if this is an individual issue. As good Americans, we cannot look beyond the specific free will decisions of the isolated individual pastor. But whether we’re talking about large churches or small churches, when pastors are working 60+ hours on a consistent basis, we are setting him/her up for moral failure.

haggardAnd yet, despite the plethora and increasing number of major pastoral moral failures in the last three decades, the American church continues to insist that this particular structure of pastoral ministry is not only the way it should be, but many argue, in fact, that it is biblical.

But this couldn’t be further from the truth. When the ministry of the church became too great for the apostles, the church didn’t come to them and offer them more money in exchange for more time spent at the church building. No, the apostles and the church worked together to find a way to ensure that the Apostles could focus on very specific things and let others concern themselves with what was left.

This is exactly what we see in Acts 6, when the ministry to the needy became too great for the apostles to take care of. Due to the size and demands of this early ministry,certain people (widows) were being neglected because the apostles couldn’t handle it all (6:1). When the job ministry is too big, matters of justice, things of importance to humans and God, get neglected. And the early church found a solution:

 And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” What they said pleased the whole community…

The apostles don’t see themselves as CEOs or slaves to the church. They see themselves as fulfilling a specific duty for the church: the ministry of the word of God and prayer. Everything else was dropped from their plate. And not only did the church not look down on them or call them lazy for a desire to emphasize these two tasks alone, but this suggestion “pleased the whole community.”

I’m not arguing here that a pastor’s moral failings are somehow excusable. They’re not. These men and women make terrible decisions that have long term impacts on their families and their churches. But make no mistake about it: these decisions are not made in a vacuum. These decisions are made in the context of a church structure that fails to emphasize what the apostles in Acts 6 emphasized. Pastors are encouraged to be leaders and counselors, friends with everyone and visioneers for the city, but I wonder how often pastors are simply encouraged to be ministers of the word and prayer.

Tullian_Tchividjian_croppedI wonder when the last time a church simply wrote on their senior pastor job description, “we’re looking for a man or woman who simply focuses on the word of God and prayer.”

In the end, this Americanized, degenerate pastorate has already failed. The only reason we can’t see it is because our American individualism blinds us to how structures of oppression work. And, yes, I use the term oppression on purpose. A consistent 50-70 hour work week is not liberty, but enslavement – a return to Egypt. A consistent neglect of family in order to meet the needs of everyone else’s family is not freedom, but bondage.

The American pastorate is bondage.

We want our pastors to be the moral reflections of a godly humanity. We demand that they live in glass houses and sit on pedestals. But we’ve structured their lives in a way that inevitably leads to failure. This is a no-win situation for anyone. I just wonder how many lives will be ruined before we seek a better way. How long will it be before the church demands a better, more biblical way? I don’t know. But I’m not holding my breath for this trend of pastoral moral failings to stop so long as we continue to view the ministry through the lens of the American way instead of the way of the apostles.

Read more from Rev. Tom Fuerst at www.tom1st.com.

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Tom Fuerst is Associate Teaching Pastor and Associate Director of Community Life at Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. Tom is married to Cassie and they have three children. Tom blogs at http://tom1st.com/

2 COMMENTS

  1. A perceptive and wise post. More lay people, elders, search committee members, etc need to read this, however. Their expectations of their pastor must line up with biblical examples, and it’s time to drop the expectations of our our strange quasi biblical, quasi American leadership structures. Of course, ministers are already familiar with what has been said in this article, but those same pastors have struggled to speak up or act in ways that would be correcting or healthy for themselves or their congregation.

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