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.