The Perils of Pastoral Power

“A Franciscan Monk Preaching”, by an anonymous painter near Romagna, Italy circa 1500-1525. “I’m very proud of my humililty,” the monk said.

One of the best decisions I made during my undergraduate study was to do a double major in Political Science and Biblical Literature. I had plotted my course in politics from the very first semester, but somewhere along the line, I developed a conscience and chose to study scripture as well. When my new Bib Lit adviser met with me to sign off on the paperwork, he said, “The two things you’re never supposed to talk about: religion and politics!” When my Poli Sci adviser, who had been lobbying for me to attend law school, learned of my decision, his response was, “So are you going to seminary now?”

My choice might have confused these esteemed representatives of two departments that rarely worked in concert (and indeed seemed almost antithetical), but having a background in both areas has helped me to make connections that may not seem obvious to the average person. On the one hand, I am a firm believer in the separation of Church and state, for the sake of the Church even more than the state. On the other, there is no question that my religious beliefs about the nature of man affect my view of what is achievable in politics, and I have recently discovered that there is one particular way that thinking a bit more politically might be beneficial from a spiritual standpoint.

In my Poli Sci classes, there was a roughly 50/50 gender divide. Some of the students hoped to go on to law school, some to work on political campaigns, some to serve in government, and some had not made up their minds. However, we were all aiming to work in the secular sphere. My Bib Lit classes were of a different character entirely. Unless the class was also a requirement for the Christian Education degree, it would be almost entirely male. To my knowledge, there was only one other female majoring in Biblical Literature at the time. Nearly everyone in those classes intended to be a pastor or serve in some other form of full-time ministry.

Now, Taylor University (my alma mater) prides itself on “the integration of faith and learning”. It is not difficult to make this work in the context of a Biblical Literature degree, where every day is spent analyzing the Bible. But what about the godless students and professors in the Political Science department?

To call my professors “godless” is merely a joke, for they made great efforts to incorporate Christian ethics and modes of thinking into our discussions about politics. Somewhat remarkably for a conservative Christian institution, they did so in a holistic manner, without adopting the skewed focus of the so-called “Religious Right”. We considered how our faith affected not only our approach to social issues (abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research, etc.), but also economics, foreign policy, and the very structure of government itself.

My adviser was Professor Philip Loy, who at the time had already served on the Taylor faculty for four decades and was somewhat of a legend on campus. He was a favorite with students because of his tendency to employ sarcasm at every possible opportunity, his stubborn refusal to have anything to do with technology, and the pithy statements he could come up with on pretty much any topic. Starting sophomore year, I began to write many of these quotes down in the margins of my notes, and by the time my Taylor education was complete, I had several pages of the very best “Loyisms”.

One of these quotes, spoken on the 3rd of November 2006, has proven to be quite influential in the way I view the political process. Professor Loy said, “If you have any ego, stay out of Washington, because you will come out with a huge ego.  It’s called Potomac Fever.” This idea of “Potomac Fever” is not truly an oddity of Washington, D.C., but a universal fact of life: the temptations of power are great, and its ability to corrupt is legendary.

It could be reasonably assumed that Poli Sci students will end up either holding power or at least rubbing shoulders with those who do. Therefore, our professors wisely laid down principles for how we should deal with power. Those of us who were paying attention knew that we needed to be on our guard when we entered into the political sphere.

What I am wondering at this point in my life is whether my Bib Lit professors should have spent some time making the same point. There can be an assumption that pastors are on a kind of higher spiritual plane than the rest of us: that humility is simply part of their job description. It is also true that we do not typically think of ordained ministry as a power position in the same way as we think about the presidency of the United States. Yet, in so many ways, the temptations of power are just as great for the local pastor as they are for holders of political office, and should you happen to be a pastor with a large audience, that temptation is increased about a hundred fold.

“Oh, shiny!” Pope Benedict XVI admires his papal tiara. Photo by Flickr user Manhhai

The perils of power are rather obvious when we are looking at major religious leaders. The papacy long ago succumbed to what I will now dub “Tiber Fever”, and while Pope Francis is making efforts to increase the perceived humility of his office, the irony is that many traditional Catholics are quite upset about this and want him to be grabbing the papal tiara back out of storage. But while there is no figure in Protestantism who enjoys something like the doctrine of papal infallibility, the nature of evangelicalism in the United States has created all kinds of Christian “celebrity pastors” whose influence is sizable, to say the least.

Now, I must emphasize at this point that there is nothing wrong with fame in and of itself. Jesus of Nazareth was quite famous in first century Palestine, and he was sinless. Many godly Christians over the years have enjoyed large and receptive audiences. Sometimes it is easy to believe that the only path to “success” is to water down orthodoxy and just say what makes people happy. Sadly, we do see the public chasing after many such figures, but there are enough positive stories in history to suggest that not every person who “succeeds” is a sell-out to the gospel.

What we must absolutely acknowledge is that any amount of power has the potential to corrupt when it is held by a human being still struggling with the temptations of the flesh. Those who have been redeemed by Jesus Christ and renewed by the Holy Spirit actually have a fighting chance against those temptations, but it does not mean that they will never succumb.

The vast majority of pastors begin their careers with very good intentions. Perhaps there is a certain naivety among many of these young men, fresh out of seminary, ready to take on the world. Perhaps they do not realize how a person’s ego can be built up by every post-sermon compliment, Twitter follower, book deal, or high-profile speaking engagement. After all, pastors are shepherds. Their work is not supposed to be about them at all, but to deny that this happens is essentially to deny that pastors are human. It does not mean that they are worse than a layperson like myself, but merely that they are the same as a layperson when it comes to being tempted.

If you pay a reasonable amount of attention to evangelical goings-on, you can probably think of two or three people right now who have fallen prey to the perils of pastoral power. You want me to name names? Fine, I’ll name a few. Mark Driscoll. C.J. Mahaney. Ted Haggard. I don’t hate any of those three men – like me, they are sinners saved by grace. If I wanted to, I could add a whole lot more names of people whose presence on the list would be much more controversial, on account of the fact that they have not been forced to step down from their pastorates. Indeed, there is an argument to be made that the very nature of certain high-profile Christian organizations adds to rather than detracting from this problem of power. Once again, I don’t think that the concept of an organization is the problem any more than the concept of ordained ministry is the problem. The problem, such as it is, is a failure to acknowledge the constant peril in which our pastors live and move and have their being.

This peril is not limited to those pastors you read about in the news. Sadly, the pastor of a congregation of 100 faces many of the same problems as one who leads a congregation of 1,000 or even 10,000. A church of 100 might seem on the small side, but if a person ran a business with 100 employees, that would likely be considered a power position. In some ways, pastors have less power than the head of a business, but in some ways they have more, because their influence is not limited to the professional sphere, but has personal and spiritual dimensions.

“Me, a celebrity? No way! Calvin, Calvin, Calvin.” John Piper preaching in 2010 – photo by Micah Chiang

Depending on the size of a congregation and which denomination they belong to (if any), their method of church government will be different. In my life, I have been a member of three different churches, including the one at which my membership application is currently pending. Each of them had five or six pastors, and then beyond that a board of deacons, elders, or both. The more the responsibility of leadership is shared, the more accountability there will be, but no system is foolproof. Whether your church has an episcopal (bishop-led) system of government, a presbyterian system, a congregational system, or simply one dude (or dudette) calling the shots, I can guarantee you that it is led by sinners. Therefore, a certain amount of corruption is always in the cards.

However, the type of people we place in leadership and the statutes by which they are bound can go a long way to protecting pastors from the perils of power. Yes, I said protecting pastors, not only congregations. It is to a pastor’s advantage, whether they be a senior pastor or otherwise, to have a strong accountability network that can help protect them from themselves. A pastor who is surrounded by “yes men” and “yes women” is going to end up in a world of trouble. I’ll say it again: this is not because pastors are bad people. It is because they are people, plain and simple.

The sad fact is that the more good a pastor is doing for the gospel, the bigger the target on their back. We have a very real enemy out there who does not want the Church to succeed in its mission. The more faithful a pastor is being, the more the devil wants to make them unfaithful. If they are affecting lives for good, the devil will attempt to pervert their influence and affect those lives for evil. Sometimes this can be done by raising up opponents for the pastor, but the deadliest method is to actually find a way to corrupt the pastor’s own heart, make them blind to error and deaf to rightful criticism, and then use them to lead a trusting congregation astray.

To be a pastor is a noble calling, and it is not always destined to end in tears, though every pastor will probably shed some tears along the way. My intention is not to make us all constantly suspicious of those God has placed in positions of spiritual power, but to say that we need to pray for them, encourage them, partner with them, and at times even hold them accountable. No person is capable of holding his or herself 100% accountable, and it is not enough to hope that God will correct them through some miraculous act. Both pastors and congregants need to be aware of how the perils of power are present not just in the world, but in the Church.

Thankfully, there are seminaries out there that are making efforts to prepare young people for the perils that they will face upon stepping out into the “real world”. It must also be noted that Taylor University is not a seminary, and I was very thankful for the tremendous efforts of my Biblical Literature professors, which helped to make me not only a better student, but also a better person. Nevertheless, if I could make but one tweak to that curriculum, it would be to spend a bit of time with all of those future pastors instructing them on how to deal with power. Let us be thankful for those pastors in our lives who serve us with great character and humility, and let us pray for all those in positions of spiritual leadership, that God will direct them through the perilous obstacle course of life.

2 thoughts on “The Perils of Pastoral Power

  1. Just finishing reading Out of the Flames, the story of Mchael Servetus. Most would consider Servetus to be a heretic due to his views on the Trinity. However, the relevance to your blog was his interactions with John Calvin and Calvin’s position in Geneva. Calvin saw to it that Servetus was burned at the stake because Calvin didn’t like Servetus’ challenges to his Institutes. I don’t feel real comfortable criticizing John Calvin, but the book made me think that he went far beyond godly leadership and crossed into abuse of power due to personal jealousy and egocentrism.

    • The Servetus case is certainly one of the greatest sources of criticism of both Calvin and the entire Geneva experiment. On the one hand, executing someone for religious beliefs is never ok. However, people in that period were burned for far less, and I don’t believe Geneva was known for executions on the whole. It was also pointed out to me by someone far wiser that in the Servetus trial, Calvin was actually acting in a civil capacity because he was trained as a lawyer. I’m not gonna let Calvin completely off the hook, because I’m sure he disdained Servetus, but the story is a bit of an odd one. As I recall, Servetus had chances to leave early on – I would have to read the history again. But yes, even Calvin was quite capable of making mistakes, and he did.

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