By the time I started seminary, I had been around church enough to know that Christian leaders aren’t always what they seem. I had seen a man with passion in the pulpit and abuse in the home. I knew the beloved youth pastor from my hometown who had been fired for looking at porn on the church computer. I knew of enough such men that I had come to pretty much expect to eventually discover some underlying sin whenever I met a seemingly “spiritually mature” church leader.
This cynicism was planted firmly in the back of my mind as I formally joined a church as a member for the first time. Don’t get me wrong – I was THRILLED to have found a church with powerful gospel preaching, biblical eldership, and intentional training for aspiring pastors. Everything about this new church plant was truly energizing to me. I just “knew better” than to fully trust the pastor, no matter how impressive his preaching was.
Two years later, I was offered a job working at the church as the pastor’s administrative assistant. The pros/cons list quickly became clear in my mind:
No longer need to wake up at 3:00am to work the sunrise shift loading trucks for FedEx.
Get an inside perspective on the daily workings of a healthy and growing church plant – a pretty big bonus, considering I was pursing a life in pastoral ministry!
Would get more hours and pay at this job than I did at FedEx.
If the pastor was a phony, I’d find out the hard way while working for him every day.
I decided to take the plunge, and I braced myself for what felt like nearly inevitable disappointment in the pastor.
But you know what?
It never happened.
If anything, quite the opposite – the better I got to know him, the more genuine I knew him to be.
He had many responsibilities that kept his schedule impossibly full. But he would check in every day and ask specific questions about my classes, remind me that he was praying for my wife and I, and provide helpful feedback on the portion of the worship service that I had led the previous Sunday. He’d regularly peek his head into my office on Wednesday afternoons and ask if I wanted to join him for a quick run to Starbucks before the midweek service. I’d always say yes, and he’d always pay for my coffee. Whenever I’d drive us somewhere, he’d tease me endlessly about the pigsty conditions of my car. After brushing a McDonald’s napkin off of his seat, he’d get in and get serious for just a moment and say, “Alex, even your car is a tool that God has given you for ministry. Steward it well.” Then he’d pivot right back to some lighthearted comment about the latest movie he’d seen. Before long, I was invited over regularly (along with other interns or staff members) to his house and we’d simply spend time watching football, enjoying a barbecue, or sipping coffee while walking along the Columbia River.
Working with him meant that I’d be sure to find certain souvenirs in my office every day:
Whenever I came to work early, he’d still be there before me. In those early morning hours when he thought he had the place to himself, I’d always hear him belting out the words of a Charles Wesley hymn as I made my way to my office. He let me tag along for hospital visits and out of state preaching engagements – including the trip to Montana when I first met several of the folks from the congregation I now pastor. As I encountered obstacle after obstacle in my (sometimes childish) pursuit of a ministry position, he helped me work through the challenges and disappointments.
Without ever realizing it, the last lingering sentiments of cynicism faded. I came to trust him completely.
In the three years since I moved away to Troy, he still checked in on me, prayed for me, and made time in his busy schedule to meet up whenever we’ve been in the same zip code. As I’ve mentored others, he’s been the pattern I’ve followed. I simply couldn’t imagine a more godly role model in ministry, and my life wouldn’t be the same apart from him.
There’s a rough draft of a blog post on my computer titled “The Men Who Made Me,” focusing on the influence of three men – my father, the youth pastor who led me to Christ, and my mentor. I’m not quite sure what I’ll write for the final draft.
Recently I was following the weekend routine I had learned from him. I used a good chunk of Saturday finalizing the sermon, took a few hours in the afternoon to get refreshed and clear my head, and went over my notes a few times before bed. I was on that final step at around 10:30pm when I got the call and heard the news – the words I had long ago forgotten to worry about hearing, “Due to his involvement in a sexually immoral relationship, he has been disqualified from serving as an elder at the church and has been removed from all of his positions of ministry leadership.”
The Crazy, Silly, Emotional Part
I’ll admit that for a couple of days after I got the news, it felt like the aftermath of a bad breakup – where every conceivable sad song somehow applies to that specific situation. Heck, I even felt like a Fleetwood Mac song related! The questions swirled… Had I based too much of my own ministry around the teaching of my mentor? Was I ready to handle the new status quo?I saw my reflection in the snow covered hills
‘Til the landslide brought it down
Oh, mirror in the sky
What is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changin’ ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?Well, I’ve been afraid of changin’
‘Cause I’ve built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Even children get older
And I’m getting older, too.
Yeah. Pretty sappy and pathetic. But that’s just how it was for a bit.
There were a few days characterized by long stretches of numb disbelief, occasionally accented by moments of overwhelming sorrow. As the sad reality slowly sank in, I began having conversations with old friends from that church. And while there was certainly pain and confusion, something beautiful emerged from those talks – a sense of hopeful clarity and direction for the future.
And those principles and lessons are all I want to pass along here:
Genuine Friendship is Essential
I cannot recall a moment in my life when I’ve been more hurt and healed simultaneously by God’s people – it was my trust and care for my mentor that allowed me to be hurt so deeply by his hypocrisy and fall, but it was that same sort of trust and care with others that provided opportunity for prayer, reflection, and encouragement. I wasn’t alone, and the saints of that church weren’t either.
It was perhaps a lack of such friendships that, in part, allowed my mentor to go so far down a destructive path without notice. While there’s certainly cause for lament there, I also find myself loving the church and cherishing God’s people more than ever. Even as I write this, many specific individuals come to mind who have prayed for me, encouraged me, visited me, challenged me… it is those vital connections within the body of Christ that keeps each member vibrant and alive. Thankfully, the Lord has protected my heart from the cynicism that had once dominated it, and I trust more deeply than even before my mentor’s downfall.
Raise Up, Empower, and Trust Your Elders
There is no doubt in my mind that my old church will survive this trial. Among the primary reasons for my confidence is the team of elders that my mentor himself played such a role in establishing. Their presence as watchmen, guards, caretakers and shepherds of God’s people brings immense peace to my heart as I ache for that congregation.
Every pastor should work hard to raise up a team of gospel men who have the integrity, strength, and zeal for Christ that they’d be willing and able to remove him if it ever becomes necessary to do so. It’s not only the best thing for the church’s well-being, but for the disqualified pastor as well.
I understand the temptation of lust. It is one that I struggle against almost every single day. But I’ll admit, the first thought that comes to mind when I hear of yet another pastor disqualified because of a full-blown extramarital affair is, “I cannot imagine doing that!”
In one sense, I’m thankful that it seems so incomprehensible to me. But there’s another sense in which such thinking is extremely dangerous. Prior to the first time my mentor chose to sleep with another woman, I don’t think he set out to have an affair that would eventually cost him everything. There must have been some slow, steady wandering that found him far beyond every rule or boundary he had ever set for himself. I’d even be willing to bet he himself had thought, “I cannot imagine doing that…” a time or two upon hearing of earlier pastoral failings. The simple takeaway for every last one of us?
Take heed, lest we fall.
People are Complicated
The knee-jerk reaction I had in those first couple of emotional days was to think, “Everything about that guy was fraudulent and fake!” But given awhile to gain perspective and a dash of context, I realized that it isn’t quite so simple. I’m convinced those ministry pep talks in my car were the real deal. I believe that he was completely sincere when I overheard his singing. Even much of his preaching, I believe came from a genuine desire to please the Lord.
That, of course, doesn’t nullify the absolutely despicable nature of his sin.
People are multifaceted. We all have certain paradoxes or downright contradictions about us. I think regularly about the myriad ways I fail to measure up to the perfect Word I proclaim each Sunday. We’re all convoluted, twisted, confused, fallen, finite creatures – and that includes exceptionally gifted preachers.
It is okay for me to be angry at him. It is okay to feel the sting of disappointment. It is okay to withhold the same level of trust from him in the future. But I don’t need to throw away everything I’ve learned from him, and it isn’t necessary to relegate every happy memory to the ash heap. Some of the good stuff was real and worth cherishing – I’m sure of it.
A song about the inner conflict and complexity we all experience…
Everything Unsaid by Joshua Hyslop
For everything unsaid there is a flourish of my pride
It is deep and dark and wide
I can’t tell the weeds from vines
But if I had the strength I’d move the mountains in my mind
But it’s taking all my time
Just to start to realize
That I’m not the man I hoped to be
And though I’m not alone
I still feel so lonely
Come Monday I’ve forgotten all those promises You said
All Your holy words in red
Wreathed in guilt and golden thread
And if I had the strength to be who others say I am
I wouldn’t look into my eyes
And see the shadow of a man
Well I’m not who they say I have become
For I know the things I’ve said
Won’t compare with what I’ve done
No, no, oh, no
Now all of these monstrosities
Are choices I have made
They will not go away
I’ve made my bed and here I lay
But is there still forgiveness if we know what we have done
Woe to every single one
Who spared the rod and blamed the son
Well it’s not just the day that needs the night
Seems to me it’s in the darkness we can finally see the light
Oh, oh, oh, oh
Biblical Anthropology and Ecclesiology are Critical
A full-fledged biblical understanding of the doctrine of man helps establish the reality that I should never be truly “shocked” or “stunned” when a fall like this takes place. ANY human being (including you or me) can sin in ANY manner. That’s simply part of the fallen condition, and yet another reason why we should pray with all earnestness, “Come, Lord Jesus.”
Along the same lines, a biblical ecclesiology will provide the necessary fortitude to do what is right in situations like this. If the elders at this church had believed that my mentor builds the church, they never would have taken the terrifying and necessary step of removing him from his leadership positions. But because Christ builds His church and gives qualified leaders to the church, they were able to confidently obey the Chief Architect.
The Gospel is Scandalous
The depth of my mentor’s sin and duplicity is staggering. If his deliberate and evil choices cause even a single little one to stumble in their faith, Jesus Himself says that it would be better for a millstone to be hung around his neck and for him to be cast into the sea than to do what he has done.
And yet, the gospel of astounding and scandalous grace he preached still applies to him – if indeed his trust is staked to the saving work of Jesus.
When I consider the fact that these egregious sins are forgiven, that my mentor is declared by the Lord of the universe to have the very righteousness and purity of Christ, that his adultery is cast as far as the East is from the West, it gives me great joy. Though his sin is great, God’s love is greater. Though his sins were as scarlet, Christ has washed him white as snow. It is true for the wicked deeds of my mentor, and it is true of mine as well.
All praise be to God!
If you’re a member of that church, please know that I’m praying every single day for you. Press on and press in. Christ will complete the work He has begun in you, and I eagerly await the day we will all behold Him, face to face, without shame or stain, and serve Him joyfully forever. Process this day in light of that Day. I love you guys very much.