By Tim Harlow
When we get ahead of God, we’re getting ready to fall.
Like you, I cringe every time a pastor flames out. For one thing, I know that there, but for the grace of God, go I. I also know my job just got harder. I know that people look at the fallen pastor, and then look at me and wonder what I’m really like. The apostle James warned us of this reality (James 3:1), but it doesn’t make it any easier when another teacher doesn’t make it.
Somewhere, deep inside, we all love hearing stories about someone else’s failure. We subconsciously feel better about ourselves when we hear about someone else who messed up. It’s a weird yet normal part of human nature. What good would the Internet be if we couldn’t find all the dirt?
And, just so you know, I think the scrutiny of clergy is justified. For those of us who are supposedly accountable to God—and get paid from the tithes of saints’ Social Security checks—there should be scrutiny. I accept this.
I try to take heed when I hear a story of failure. I usually stop for a little introspection.
Lately, some of the bigger stories do not hinge on the typical sins of adultery and addiction, but something one repentant pastor called “hubris.” Hubris is about losing touch with reality and thinking it’s about you, not God.
Obviously, any time you have a lot of people looking up to you and telling you how great you are, pride is waiting. The reason there is evil in this world is because Satan fell to hubris.
But many times, these leaders fell into sinful hubris while they were trying to do good things.
Jim Collins, author of How the Mighty Fall, says the first sign of demise for an organization is “hubris born of success.”
Great enterprises can become insulated by success; accumulated momentum can carry an enterprise forward for a while, even if its leaders make poor decisions or lose discipline.
Stage 1 kicks in when people become arrogant, regarding success virtually as an entitlement, and they lose sight of the true underlying factors that created success in the first place. When the rhetoric of success (“We’re successful because we do these specific things”) replaces penetrating understanding and insight (“We’re successful because we understand why we do these specific things and under what conditions they would no longer work”), decline will very likely follow.
Luck and chance play a role in many successful outcomes, and those who fail to acknowledge the role luck may have played in their success—and thereby overestimate their own merit and capabilities—have succumbed to hubris.
—Jim Collins, How the Mighty Fall1
This is the most troubling part to me. It’s not that these organizations (churches, ministers, etc.) are doing something wrong. They are actually doing something right. They just start thinking they have it all figured out and, in many cases, make decisions that put them out over their skis.
When you ski, your boots are locked into skis that are generally about as long as you are, so balance in all directions is important. Obviously, if you’re imbalanced sideways, you will fall. If you lean too far back, you may fall—or worse. You may end up lying down on your skis while you head downhill way too fast. (Incoming!)
However, the phrase “getting out over your skis” means you are too far forward. It’s not something a novice usually does. It only happens when someone is being too aggressive.
In general, it’s not a problem with actually skiing. And it’s not a problem with being on the wrong slope. It’s not even a problem of speed. It’s about balance.
I believe the danger for any of us leading a church is in letting our passion for doing the work of God, coupled with some small victories from God, convince us that we should lean out too far. Then one day we wake up and find ourselves in a crumpled pile at the bottom of the mountain. And, unfortunately, we end up hurting a lot of other skiers on our way down.
It may eventually take the form of an obvious sinful behavior, or it may just turn you into someone who is impossible to work with. But it usually starts with a very small decision to take a very slight forward angle past the place of total dependence on God. Paradoxically, this happens even as you are doing the work of God.
Trust me, I’m no expert. I have an unhealthy human desire to win and be successful. And I have a healthy spiritual desire to help all of God’s children find their way back home. But sometimes, I get out over my skis.
Collins’s words seem appropriate for individuals, as well.
I’ve come to see institutional decline like a staged disease: harder to detect but easier to cure in the early stages, easier to detect but harder to cure in the later stages. An institution can look strong on the outside but already be sick on the inside, dangerously on the cusp of a precipitous fall.
—Jim Collins, How the Mighty Fall
The apostle Paul said it this way,
“So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).
1Jim Collins, “A Primer on the Warning Signs,” How the Mighty Fall, May 2009, accessed at http://jimcollins.com/books/how-the-mighty-fall.html.
Tim Harlow is the senior pastor at Parkview Christian Church, Orland Park, Illinois. He is also the author of Life on Mission: God’s People Finding God’s Heart for the World.