Fighting the Fallen Leader Epidemic: A Better Way to Find Leaders

Pastors falling into sin is nothing new. And yet it seems to be an ever-increasing problem. The fall of celebrity pastors has almost become commonplace in the church, leaving many of us wondering what’s happening. How is it that these men can build something so significant for the kingdom of God yet fall into adultery, alcoholism, or narcissism? Their stumbling comes at no small cost, first to themselves and their communities, then to the church at large.

In the wake of these collapses, we often sound the alarm for more accountability and stronger community, and rightly so. But none of these efforts appears to be working as we see pastors and church leaders making the same mistakes time and time again.

This should drive us to reflect deeply not simply on what is happening, but about how we identify local church leaders in the first place. Corrective measures cannot merely address the symptoms. They need to go at the root cause. But so often we’re asking the wrong questions and looking in the wrong direction. We need to not only consider our failing pastors, but also accepted church structures and our own selves as part of the problem.

We need to not only consider our failing pastors, but also accepted church structures and our own selves as part of the problem.

Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel have addressed some of these concerns in their new book The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb. In recent blog posts they have also written specific concerns with the negative effect of this phenomenon. They write, “We live in the era of celebrity pastors whose platforms of influence stretch far beyond the walls of their local congregation, and who shake the earth when they fall off their pedestals.”

An Inverted Power Structure

When it comes to presenting a solution, Goggin and Strobel are both provocative and insightful, suggesting that the church has embraced a whole structure and shape to power that competes with the way of Jesus. They go on to explain that the church and her people have believed the same lie as Adam and Eve in the garden, that “dependence upon God is a place of scarcity and hindrance, while autonomy is a place of flourishing and fulfillment.”

American culture and the American church lift up self-reliance and autonomy as cardinal virtues. These are prime examples of what it means to be successful, driven, and American. Therefore, when pastors and leaders display these characteristics, their vision and mission go forward unquestioned. The bolder and more powerful they seem, the more impervious to spiritual failure they seem, and the more they are praised. When their leadership results in “success,” they’re exalted for these character traits.

As Goggin and Strobel write, it’s time for the church to see that “the very narcissism, lust, and greed that has caused church leaders to fall is the same narcissism, lust, and greed that drove their ministries to ‘succeed.'”

Confusing Spiritual Gifts with Spiritual Fruit

In reality, many of these pastors have displayed the fruit of the flesh all along (Galatians 5:19-21). Yet they simultaneously display many of the gifts of the Spirit. Which leads us to ask, how can they demonstrate the gifts of the Spirit and the fruit of the flesh at the same time?

I recently attended a seminary class where Nik and Ruth Ripken—veteran missionaries and authors of The Insanity of God—shared from their research of the persecuted church. As Nik started unpacking their findings related to leader selection, he noted that some of the congregations they observed—particularly those that select their leaders similarly to the West—experience the same problem of pastors that fall away from the faith or into moral failure.

Then he said something I’ll never forget: “The devil can imitate all the gifts of the Spirit, but none of the fruit of the Spirit.”

Satan, in all his schemes, can elevate people to certain positions by making them appear to have the spiritual gift of leadership or administration or teaching. They may even have that gift, and it might even be spiritual in nature but it could be corrupted and distorted by sin. The danger in apparent giftedness is that it can fool us about what’s really going on in someone’s heart.

The danger in apparent giftedness is that it can fool us about what’s really going on in someone’s heart.

Of course, if we were paying attention to the fruit of the Spirit in our leaders’ lives then we wouldn’t be fooled. If we were looking closely, we would see that while some of our pastors appear to have the gift of leadership or teaching, they’re also marked by lust, greed, or arrogance.

When we don’t see it, it’s often because we confuse the gifts of the Spirit with the fruit of the Spirit. We assume that giftedness follows godliness. We assume their eloquence is preceded by gentleness, so we miss that they’re abrasive in meetings. We assume their passion is preceded by joy, so we miss their inability to care what others have to say.

A Better Way to Find Leaders in the Church

Spiritual fruit, not spiritual gifts, is what qualifies someone for ministry.

The better, more biblical way to select leaders for the church is to identify character qualifications such as those listed by Paul. Leaders found this way won’t be without sin, and surely some of them will fall (even Jesus had Judas). But there will be less of them to pull the rug out from under the church and damage her witness.

We should first look for those marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And if we don’t see real evidence of the Spirit in their lives, we shouldn’t let them near a leadership role, particularly a pastoral one.

Jesus didn’t commission his disciples immediately. Barnabas observed and encouraged Paul. Paul did the same with Timothy. As such, prospective pastors were never to be a novice or a new believer. The pattern of Scripture is to commission leaders after they are proven in character and virtue.

This is why 1 Timothy and Titus list the qualities of being “sober-minded” and “self-controlled.” The only attribute listed in 1 Timothy 3:2-7 (ESV) considered a gift or skill is being “able to teach.” The rest are character traits that flow out of a life marked by fruit of the Spirit.

A better way to identify leaders within the church is to look for those whose gifts are nested in spiritual fruit. Good prospective leaders will display a life transformed by the Spirit working from the inside out. In doing so, we may need to adjust our perspective on power and performance in ministry, but we’ll ultimately protect the church from the needless harm of destructive leadership and a failed witness.

Grayson Pope is a husband and father of three. He serves as Pastor of Community at his church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is currently pursuing an MDiv at The Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Grayson’s passion is to equip believers for everyday discipleship to Jesus. Social: Instagram | Twitter | Facebook