I was surprised to learn a few months ago of a pastor who up and left the church he’d been pastoring. It was a surprise because he was a good pastor, bright, incisive, pastoral and well liked by the congregation. I had been meaning to send him an email asking why the sudden move when I was recently informed by somebody in the know that he left due to a “moral failure”.
Said I: “What was it? Did he fail to tithe ten percent?”
Joking of course. Not joking in a “ha ha” way. Joking in the sense of a cynical commentary on the limited moral vision of so many churches. We all know what “moral failure” means within the context of the pastorate. It is code for “an affair”. What do you think that says about the way that many Christians tend to view morality? It would seem to imply that they link morality very closely with sexual ethics. Unfortunately, that is an egregious matter of conflating the whole with the part. An affair is indeed a moral failure. But that doesn’t mean a moral failure is an affair.
Let me unpack that by making two additional points.
First point: many pastors should leave the pastorate due to non-sexual moral failures. For example, what about a pastor who continually plagiarizes the sermon illustrations of others in his own sermon? For example, he shares an anecdote allegedly about his own kids on summer vacation. But in fact you read that same story in a book by Charles Stanley or Max Lucado. How often can this happen before it is a moral failure that must be dealt with publicly and punitively?
Second point: many pastors leave the pastorate due to the moral failures of their congregations. As a seminary professor I have been a witness to countless pastors entering a church and being chewed up by a deeply unhealthy congregation. Sometimes the catalyst is one family who exercises way too much power and will crush any pastor who doesn’t adequately represent their special interests. Other times it is a fissure that runs like a gaping fault line through the center of the congregation over matters like “worship style” (hymns vs. choruses) or theology (Calvinist vs. Arminian). But whatever it may be, it is not long before the unsuspecting pastor is the one thrown under the bus. (As an aside, I once preached on Matthew 7:1-5 [Do not judge] as a guest preacher in a church. I explained what Jesus meant here and how we must indeed judge, but only out of a healthy and careful self-introspection. When I preached the sermon I didn’t know that this church had been torn apart by special interests judging others and forwarding their own agenda. But afterwards a number of people shared their appreciation for my “boldness” in speaking the truth to a congregation that had failed morally. Needless to say, I never would have had that “boldness” had I understood the real situation!)
In conclusion, I find myself grieving over this latest moral failure. But I also find myself grieving over the countless other moral failures of pastors and congregations. And finally, I find myself grieving over the moral vision that limits “moral failure” to a certain range of a pastor’s sins rather than to the dismayingly large range of actual sins that infect pastors and congregations.