I know of a very talented ordained priest and colleague of mine who left his ministry; he was removed from the ordained ministry altogether. His bishop removed him. There was something he did to which he confessed, and he is no longer a priest. I do not know the details. I don’t need to know. My heart breaks for him, his wife and children, and the church that he pastored.
This man is a brother in Christ and a friend of mine. He was the one guy I would never have imagined to do something to warrant a total termination of ministry. But he is out.
And he is not alone. Sadly. I know more than a few peers who have removed, and the notice of this most recent situation brought many others back to my mind.
We all know people like this: men (mostly men) who seem to have a great ministry and an incredible run of effective years. They are growing their parishes; they are raising their families. We see them at conferences and conventions. We hug their neck and slap each other’s back. And maybe we sit down for a coffee at mid-day with them. Or we meet-up for a beer later.
And then the news of their moral failing comes. What? Whoa! Are you sure? What did I miss? What help could I have offered? What was going on deep beneath the surface? What were they hiding?
An Empty Chair
For 30 years, I was a member of a clergy covenant group. We met once a year for a few days in a retreat setting or conference hotel. Over the years, this band of brothers would share lives and struggles; challenges, prayer lives, and prayerful hopes. The rule that we all were asked to follow was simple: be open and honest. Tell the truth. But even then, between our annual meetings, on more than a few sad occasions, one of these brothers would be ‘removed’ by his bishop for cause. Suddenly, there would be an empty chair where a colleague had sat the year before.
What did we miss?
On one occasion, one of our band, by then a defrocked priest, came back to our group to address us. It was an occasion I will never forget. I was moved and impressed with his candor and honesty. This man looked at us and told us that he had been dishonest with his wife, his children, his church, his bishop…and with all of us for all those years. He had sadly but successfully divided his life into three parts: public, personal, and private. He had shared openly with us about his public life and the accolades of hard work of pastoring. And he had been honest about his personal life too. We knew about his children and his marriage and his prayer time. But he had another part of his life that he had never revealed to us or anyone: His private life. He kept his private life hidden.
Until the day it was not.
In The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis, two devils are in cahoots to take a Christian man down; to tempt him into sin and ruination. Their correspondence gives us the perspective from the bottom up. In this quote, the senior devil is mentoring the younger demon, showing him the ropes. He reveals the strategy of the underworld:
The long, dull, monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity are excellent campaigning weather. …Prosperity knits a man to the world. He feels he is ‘finding his place in it,’ while really it is finding its place in him. His increasing reputation, his widening circle of acquaintances, his sense of importance, the growing pressure of absorbing and agreeable work, build up in him a sense of really being at home on earth, which is just what we want.
Every Christian, lay or ordained, living in the world today can relate to the temptation that comes along as we go along.
I am also sad because I have seen these incidences (and I don’t even like calling them that) happen over and over again in churches I have known.
Before I planted Christ Church in Plano, TX 35 years ago, I ministered in a few other parishes. In every congregation where I arrived as an assistant, there had been a crippling clergy compromise sometimes decades earlier. I can say something true about living in the aftermath of a fallen leader: Congregations have long, long, long memories. The memory of a failed minister lives for decades.
We all make mistakes; we all misstep. Ministers are no exception. But the very nature of our office and our work magnifies our sin and creates a long trail. We fall, and that fall ramifies over and over again.
What We Know
Every ordained leader KNOWS that all the temptations that we all feel are all too common to all of us. We really know this. We have all preached about it. We have a common Enemy. Our common Enemy plays with our imagination, our pride, our ego, and our fortified systems of denial.
But even more shocking than this is that those of us in ministry tend to do nothing about these temptations when they start dancing before our imaginations. We do not disclose these things to our friends; we do not confess our weaknesses to trusted colleagues. We do not run away from temptations. As it turns out, we tend not to flee them at all. And if we do not flee, we will probably fall.
This is not a rant. It is a plea. I am asking my brothers and sisters in Christ who are fellow ordained leaders to stop what they are doing right now and take a long look at the big picture.
Look around and search your immediate memory. Whom do you know that has fallen? Who has committed the mistakes that have forced those in authority to intervene? Whom do you know that has evoked the phrase from you, “there but for the grace of God go I”?
Go ahead. Make a list.
And then, when you have made a list, pray for those brothers and sisters who have been removed or removed themselves for cause. Pray for their families. Pray for the victims and the participants. When they first came to faith or started their ministry, they had a big heart and huge hopes for God and for the cause of the Gospel of Christ. Most might still have the heart and hopes. Ask for mercy and strength wherever they are.
Then, make another list of actions and efforts that you can take right now to protect your integrity, awareness, morality, and honesty. What can you do so that you will never entertain devilish angels unawares?
Here are a few ideas for actions and efforts that you can make today:
- Find a friend or counselor with whom you can share. Meet by phone once a day or once a week to pray over trials and temptations in real-time.
- Share the pain and trauma of your ministry with your spouse. Let your wife or husband see the wounded person you are.
- Go deep in the Psalms and read them as David’s journal of anger, hurt, hope, and worship.
- Practice a spiritual discipline. Only one. Then two. They produce a halo effect that tends to smooth out lots of other wrinkles.
Finally, take an honest look at the systems of awareness and accountability that you have in your own life. If you were to imagine yourself a musician, who is there to help you tune your instrument and encourage you to practice your scales? What kind of support and surroundings do you have?
Gospel ministry is music. The beauty and drama of rhythms and sounds and chords and tempos are a great way to think about our work in the church.
But most of the clergy I know are, like me, soloists. We prefer to play music by ourselves. We practice our ministry and pastoral work by ourselves. We don’t like ensembles, and we certainly don’t like sitting in huge orchestras.
But this solo-operator tendency is also a major trap for us. Being a soloist can leave one feeling solo, alone, and lonely. Don’t let that happen to you.
Our God is a relational God. He meets us in His Son. He provides for us by the Holy Spirit. We can not forget that.
The Collect for Purity calls upon us to open the heart and the will by the work of the Spirit. Here it is:
Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Whenever I read Cranmer’s collect, I always feel that it is the perfect prayer because it shows me that I am totally outnumbered (3 to 1) and completely out-loved. Whatever love I have for the Father has been given me to show through the Son.
The Rectors’ Summit for Vision and Planning is a vital tool for resisting soloism. But the effort that it takes to convince Rectors to take time to get together is harder than it should be. The time and energy that it takes to get a few clergy interested in coming together actually prove the point I am trying to make. We are all trained to be soloists.
At a very personal level, this is my takeaway from the sad news of my friend’s moral failure: I know a brother in Christ that I used to call once a week to talk and pray together. It was a standing appointment that lasted for years. But then it just stopped. I don’t know why, but it somehow just fell by the wayside.
This week I am calling him or somebody like him. I am going to ask him to be a practice partner with me. I am doing this not because I am at the edge or almost crossing a line, but because I’d rather not be anywhere near it at all.
Canon David has over 35 years of local congregational ministry, diocesan and national involvement, leadership, and ministry experience and is the founder of Leaderworks. He was the founding Rector/Pastor, Christ Church, Plano and currently serves as the Strategic Leader and Dean, Diocese of C4SO.