Why Pastors And Leaders Don't Get Fired. Even When They Should

It is always hard to address failure. When the person failing is the leader of a church it is even harder. As painful as it can be to confront a leader, the pain of ignoring a problem is almost always worse.

I read with sadness recently the reports on the demise of Mars Hill Church, a massive church in the Seattle area. The church welcomed over 12,000 attendees each Sunday to its services at 15 different venues in the city and surrounding communities and its Pastor, Mark Driscoll, was somewhat of a celebrity in evangelical circles. The church seemed to be growing and successful. Members were understandably shocked when the announcement came in the fall of 2014 that Driscoll was resigning and the church would cease to exist in its existing structure. The organization dissolved, and what was once one church with 15 locations fractured into 11 independent churches. Mark Driscoll was out of a job.

While the news caught most people off guard, it was not a surprise to those who were in the know. It seems Mark Driscoll was not a very nice man. While charismatic and gifted as a speaker, church leaders revealed that he was mean-spirited, domineering and profane in his dealings with other church leaders and members. He lacked the personal character required of those in his role. When his inevitable fall from grace came he took the church down with him. The fault was not only Driscoll's. The elders of the church tolerated the intolerable for too long and their unwillingness to act irreparably harmed the church.

Reading of the tragedy of Mars Hill leads me to reflect on why it is that churches and other organizations select, tolerate and even enable dysfunctional leadership. The fiasco of Mars Hill is not an isolated event. In my years in ministry and medical practice I have observed many men who were not qualified to lead be allowed to continue in their roles unchecked and undisciplined. The list of pastoral wrong doings of which I am personally aware includes foul language, arrests, sexual indiscretions, recurrent gossip, bullying of staff, and misuse of church funds. The list of professional malfeasance in secular organizations is even longer.  In the majority of circumstances the pastors continued in ministry and leaders continued in their roles without significant consequences. When I consider the cases of which I am aware I see a number of recurrent problems. While I specifically address the role of senior pastors, the role with which I am most familiar, the issues and principles they represent apply not only to churches but to leaders in other large organizations as well. 

Problem #1-      A Culture of Celebrity.

We live in a world that makes pastors into stars. Mark Driscoll had a salary of over $500,000 a year and commanded speaking fees of over $15,000 per appearance. Even in smaller churches the pastor can become the center of the church community, the focus of the ministry. This can lead to a fear that the church could die if the pastor leaves. As a result sin is overlooked. As long as people are coming, the pastor is not confronted. When the pastor is the focus, focus is lost. 

The Solution-  Churches need to guard against making one man the focus. This danger is increased with multi-campus churches that broadcast one pastor's preaching into multiple venues. It can be addressed by having other men assume more visible leadership roles, and by making character a priority. Talent is no substitute for character.

2-      Weak Leadership.

Elders (or governing boards) are supposed to be overseers, shepherds who guard the flock. Men in this position may at times be required to confront those who are in error. In many churches elders are poorly suited for this aspect of the job. They are often chosen or elected because they are nurturing and supportive by nature. In churches where Elders are elected there is a danger of selecting leaders who are more popular than they are firm in their convictions. 

The Solution- Churches should seek out men with proven records of character who have shown they can make difficult decisions.

3-      Change is Hard. And Risky.

No one wants to admit they are wrong, and it is not easy for leaders to admit to a congregation that they picked the wrong guy or that the right guy turned wrong. How do you explain to a church body that the man they have been listening to every Sunday is not the godly leader they thought he was? It is often easier to rationalize and ignore than deal with the fall out.

The Solution- Create a culture where self-assessment is expected. Periodic reviews of the ministry should be scheduled and results shared publicly. When self-correction is a part of the culture necessary change is less disruptive.

4-      Small Parts, Big Whole

Often times no single event is big enough to merit confronting the pastor. While multiple small events are at times indicative of a major character flaw, confrontation in such circumstances is more difficult. This can result in pastors who remain in their positions if infidelity is non-consummated, or whose bullying of staff is verbal but not physical. 

The Solution- Create a culture where leaders are expected to perform at the highest levels of personal conduct and where the truth that words and deeds reflect a man’s heart is embraced. Simple apologies should be rejected and replaced by definitive action plans and formal counseling.

5-      Misplaced Faith

We believe in a God who restores, redeems and rehabilitates. Leaders often feel that they need to give struggling pastors time to allow God to move. While this is true in most circumstances, when it comes to the senior pastor the bar can and should be higher.

The Solution- If the pastor needs significant rehabilitation he needs to step aside. There is a spiritual battle being waged and a weak general puts everyone at risk. Extending grace does not necessarily mean foregoing action.

This list could be much longer. It is my hope that pastors and leaders who read these words will be encouraged to stand up for their flocks and their faith. Scripture is filled with examples of people suffering due to the sins of their leaders. None of us want our church's story added to the list!

For those in leadership roles in other organizations the principles still apply. When we allow dysfunction to continue unchecked everyone suffers.

- Bart

Know a leader who needs to hear this message? Please consider sharing it. Comments or questions? I would love to hear them.

You may be praying wrong


Our adult group sends out prayer requests through email a few times a week. As I am sure is the case with many such groups, these requests primarily revolve around physical and financial issues- someone is sick or injured, or someone is in need of a job. Pretty standard stuff. With this mindset of community prayer, as I was reading through the book of Colossians, I was struck right off by what Paul prayed for. Early on in Chapter 1 vs 9 he declares his prayer for the recipients of his letter-

“we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God,”

He prayed-

  • That they would be filled with the knowledge of His will, through all spiritual wisdom and understanding

  • In order that they might live a life worthy of the Lord.

    It is interesting what he did not pray for. He did not pray for a change in their circumstances or improvement in their earthly condition! I wonder if that is why he prayed they would “get” God's will. Makes sense to me, as recognizing and understanding that my current crummy state is in fact God's will for my life is definitely going to require a wisdom I do not currently have!

Wonder also, if Paul was hinting that God's will for us is something that is different than what we would think or expect. Paul seemed to have a much better understanding of the long term will of God, His eternal plans and design, and a greater ability to live his life with that in mind. In fact, it seems that Paul's ability to endure all of the ridiculous abuses and persecutions he faced came about as a direct result of his ability to place things in the correct eternal context.

This is suggested by the second part of Paul's prayer, his reason for praying for understanding of God's will, “that they might live worthy lives”. Worthy means “appropriate”. He wanted the Colossians to live like the children of God that they were.

In the office I had a conversation with a Christian who is an alcoholic. The patient had been trying to serve God, but continued to battle a drinking problem, one day teaching a youth Bible study, the next day downing a whole bottle of wine after dinner. As I tried to encourage the patient, I shared my favorite line from the Lion King- the scene where the “ghost” of Simba's father says to him, “Remember who you are.”

I shared, “Remember who you are, you are a child of Almighty God, chosen by Him from all eternity to be his child. God wants you to live like it!”

As we talked, it was clear that part of the reason for the drinking was a focus on earthly struggles which distracted from a true understanding of the eternal will of God. And that the correct prayer was not simply, “Help the drinking stop”, but rather, “Give a full understanding of your Person and your eternal will, the perspective that will allow this person to live a life worthy of you, a life free from alcohol and focused on your kingdom.”

I need to pray better! How about you?

I dare you to disagree with this political post!


I am a political junkie. My morning routine includes reading a number of political blogs and I have rather strong feelings about the path our nation should take. I have also learned the hard way on Facebook that my political opinions are not universally shared, so I avoid making political comments on social media and on this blog. I am about to break this rule, for there is one truth about politics that needs to be addressed- It is not that they are all selfish egotistical liars (which may also be true!) it is that all believers, regardless of political persuasion, should be united in one response to our leaders in government- we are all supposed to pray for them.

The apostle Paul gives specific advice on how and why to pray for those who lead us in 1 Timothy 2- “ I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone- for kings and all those in authority, that we may lead peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.” (niv)

Paul uses four different words to describe the prayers we are to make and thereby makes it clear that we are to completely pray for our leaders. We are to make all sorts of requests on their behalf- we are to pray for them personally, pray for them physically, and to give thanks for God's sovereign influence in their lives.  Paul goes on to declare the goal of our prayers- the salvation of our leaders, for he writes that God desires that all men be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.

Paul also gives a personal reason we are to pray- that we may lead peaceful and quiet lives. The two Greek words translated “peaceful” and “quiet” refer to two types of tranquility, the peace that comes from outside of us and the peace that comes from the inside. When applied to the church as a whole, this has profound meaning. The goal of our prayers is to minimize conflict with those outside of the church and to minimize conflict between those within the church! What a concept!

Think about it- If through prayer we focused more on the eternal than on the temporal, how different would our lives be? What if we cared more about the President's soul than his politics? Or if we were concerned more about the distribution of the gospel than the distribution of material wealth? Imagine the change in our conversations if, the next time someone in our family of faith complained about a political leader, our reply was, “Let's pray for him, right now!

If we cared as much about our nation's and our leader's spiritual futures as we do their political futures, our discourse would change dramatically, and the peace we experience from inside and outside would increase.

A lesson on being selfless...from Barney

Taught the 5th and 6th grader Sunday School lesson recently. The lesson was from the book of Acts about Paul and Barnabas, the great evangelistic apostle and his partner. The emphasis of the lesson was supposed to be on everyone playing their part, how we all have a purpose, which is true. But something else about Barnabas really struck me- he thought of other people first. Instead of protecting his turf and asserting his position, he seemed to be deeply concerned about making sure other people fulfilled their calling.

When Paul came to Jerusalem, the leaders were afraid to welcome him, fearful of the murderous Pharisee he had been. Barnabas bridged the gap, literally grabbing Paul and bringing him in to the fellowship and vouching for him. Years later, when Barnabas was sent north to the city of Antioch to encourage the new church there, it seems that shortly after his arrival he realized that what they needed was a depth of teaching that he couldn't give. So he walked over 400 miles round trip to the city Tarsus to fetch Paul!

Barnabas did not seem to mind that Paul was more talented than he was as a speaker or teacher, did not seem to care about who did the job or got the glory. He just wanted to see the Lord's work done.

Makes me think- there are not too many Barnabases running around today. We seem to be mostly concerned about our own gifts and our own place, about how we can perform a task. I wonder how the church would be different if we were more concerned with helping other people achieve their potential than we were about making names for ourselves.

I can say with confidence that I am nothing like Barnabas in this regard. I need to do a better job of caring about making sure others have a place than I am about protecting mine.