When, in my 20s, I started out in the ministry, an old preacher gave me this advice.
“Always watch yourself around women and money,” he warned me. “Those two temptations ruin more ministers than all other temptations put together.”
I admired this fellow, and rightly so, for he was wise. I’ve tried to take his advice to heart.
But as I’ve aged — I’m now older than he was when he issued this warning — I’ve decided he was mistaken in this instance.
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Certainly, a lot of preachers have been derailed by illicit affairs or dipping into the coffers.
However, the most dangerous temptation of all — the besetting sin of the profession — isn’t either of those.
The besetting sin of ministers is pride. Phrased slightly differently, it’s ego run amok.
Typically, the affairs and financial shenanigans for which preachers get sacked are only symptoms of that other, underlying sin.
I thought of this recently as I read about the recent fall of Bill Hybels, the founder of Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, an early and profoundly successful megachurch.
The news that got the media’s attention was a finding by an independent group of Christian leaders that Hybels had engaged in “sexually inappropriate words and actions,” including sexual harassment, across four decades as Willow Creek’s senior leader.
Hybels has stepped down from both Willow Creek Community Church and the Willow Creek Association, where he also held a top position. He has denied the allegations of misconduct.
Sex always leads in the headlines.
But the investigatory group’s report — again, as recounted in the news — seemed to point to a broader pattern of toxic behavior.
The report portrayed him as, in my characterization and not its actual wording, a jerk who intimidated male and female subordinates alike, threw tantrums when disagreed with and refused to acknowledge his own missteps.
I want to emphasize I don’t know Hybels personally. I do know he was long admired within the profession and still has many defenders.
That said, if these allegations are accurate, Hybels certainly wouldn’t be the first clergy member to fall into such excesses and won’t be the last.
Somebody once observed that for all of us, clergy, lay people and non-believers alike, our greatest strength tends also to be our worst weakness.
A certain egotism is required for working in the ministry. No one could do the job very long without it.
That’s an odd-sounding requirement for members of a profession who supposedly imitate Jesus Christ, the one who said, “Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart.”
But as a minister, you’ve got to stand at a podium, face dozens or hundreds or thousands of parishioners staring back at you and boldly proclaim that you, a mere mortal, carry the word of Almighty God and that those sitting in the pews should listen to you.
You’ve got to motivate unpaid volunteers to give their sweat, money and time to tasks you’ve deemed as worthy.
You’ve got to endure the sniping of disgruntled members and self-aggrandizing skeptics and a culture that increasingly opposes all your core beliefs.
Nobody lacking a substantial sense of self can do this week in and week out. You might easily say the same about teachers, doctors and newspaper columnists. They also need a strong opinion of themselves to do their jobs well.
I’ve known too many preachers to count, and I am one myself. Don’t be fooled: we all are, to one extent or another, egotists by nature. We go to great lengths to disguise that from you, ourselves and even (ridiculously) the Lord.
Nevertheless, the fact remains.
Put six preachers in a back room at a steak house with no lay people around, and their conversation inevitably devolves into a brag-fest about whose congregation is growing fastest, who delivered the most eloquent sermon, who came up with the wittiest answer to a deacon’s snarky question.
Behind closed doors, friends, it’s all about us.
That’s not necessarily bad. Ego carries us through when less-assured men and women might long since have quit. God, in his mysterious way, uses our pride for good ends.
Many a homeless person has been fed through the efforts of a closeted self-seeker.
The danger arises when ministerial egos are allowed to rage unchecked. The independent group that investigated Hybels concluded Willow Creek’s separate church and association governing bodies failed to stop him when he acted badly.
Such lapses by religious boards don’t just happen at megachurches.
Take any natural-born egotist anywhere, leave him to his own devices, and there’s a danger he’ll transmogrify into a full-fledged narcissist, a self-appointed prophet — or both.
He may start hitting on the women who seek him for counseling. He may browbeat his staff. He might buy himself a private condo out of the church’s endowment.
Fortunately, even if the church board doesn’t rein in a minister when he starts veering toward excess, God often does.
I suspect that’s why the Lord, in his mercy, allows many holy men and holy women to fail abjectly and often. He turns us toward humility before we get ourselves into big trouble.
It’s his way of showing us the tough love we need.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at email@example.com