By Jerry Harris
The announcement came in mid-January. James MacDonald, founding pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel, based in the Chicago area, was taking an immediate and indefinite sabbatical from all preaching and leadership in his ministry. The elders took this action in response to mounting criticism concerning leadership overreach, financial questions, and alleged abuse of staff and members over a 12-year period.
Stories of this sort are becoming all-too-common among megachurch pastors . . . and they show no sign of slowing. The churches that provide platforms for these leaders represent tens of thousands of people. High-visibility, powerful-personality pastors and preachers command huge audiences, direct massive budgets, oversee very large staffs, and expand their reach through social and conventional media.
Bill Hybels, Perry Noble, Mark Driscoll, Darrin Patrick, Tullian Tchividjian, and Bob Coy only begin a list of highly influential people who found themselves in the middle of the rubble of what had been celebrated and influential ministries. And while it’s true that falling is not limited only to pastors of large, influential churches, these failures certainly carry an entirely different level of social weight, giving a collective black eye to churches, ministries, and ministers.
As the senior pastor of a megachurch, these revelations aren’t lost on me. I would be arrogant to think I am somehow insulated from this type of tragedy. So, how do I protect myself and my flock, and keep the commitment I made to myself, my Lord, and my church? Psalm 23 says, “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (English Standard Version). As I understand that passage, my choices have a dramatic effect on Christ’s reputation. So what’s the answer?
Many pastors have read Jim Collins’s book Good to Great, but I was particularly taken with the sequel, How the Mighty Fall. Although companies and business plans are highlighted in that later book, I think its focus on the five stages of decline can speak loudly to preachers . . . especially successful ones:
1. “Hubris Born of Success.” Success can have a drug-like effect on a leader. We might look at our social media likes and shares, offering numbers, attendance figures, or CEO status, and consider it a license to do whatever we want. But hubris is a dry well. It’s been said that no matter how good things seem, you’re never as good as you think you are.
2. The “Undisciplined Pursuit of More.” Sometimes it’s hard for leaders to see the line between passion and ambition. Undisciplined leaders tend to ambitiously reach beyond the passion God gave them for ministry. Hubris creates undisciplined behavior, and undisciplined behavior creates bad motives and even worse results. More baptisms, more locations, more attendees, more ministries . . . how can that be wrong? But without discipline, it’s no better than a house of cards.
3. The “Denial of Risk and Peril.” When we heard the revelations about the ministers mentioned earlier, most of us probably wondered, “What were they thinking?” Indeed! They weren’t. Hubris breeds undisciplined behavior that invites both risk and peril. I’ve heard it said that sometimes we don’t hear the train coming until the caboose runs over us!
4. “Grasping for Salvation.” Stories likely come to mind of ministers or ministries that are mere shadows of what they once were or what they were intended to be. It makes me think further back to stories of corruption and loss associated with Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, Robert Tilton, Ted Haggard, and others. It reminds me of Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral, which is now Roman Catholic; the City of Faith (associated with Oral Roberts), which is now office buildings; and the now-abandoned Heritage USA (associated with Bakker). These are monuments to ministries that slipped or failed; their leaders, caught up in risks and perils, grasped for what had left them . . . to a lampstand that had been removed.
5. “Capitulation to Irrelevance or Death.” Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church in Seattle comes to mind. It suddenly dissolved. Great leaders, like great companies, can stumble and fall—like the temple of Dagon, which Samson brought down on his own head. Great power comes with great responsibility. Power and responsibility combine when we remember God works within us and through us, when people who know us—and are not intimidated by us—seek to lovingly keep us humble, when we remain people of the Bible (and not just whatever draws a crowd), and when we remember there is a big difference between building our foundations on gold, silver, and precious stones rather than wood, hay, and straw (1 Corinthians 3:11-13).