Lessons from a Tragic Leader
The other day, a pastor of a Florida “mega-church” was found dead in his hotel room in New York. Investigators found a packet of white powder inside his pocket. While toxicology reports won’t be in for a while, the signs point to the unfortunate possibility that his death was drug-related.
The pastor was in his early 40’s. While I don’t consider myself old, I do consider early 40’s young. Especially to be dying. Tragic.
I regret to say that there would have been a time in my life I would have judged this pastor. I wouldn’t have been able to see beyond appearance of drug use and the other issues he’d been involved in. I would have been quick to use the word hypocrisy. Compassion would have been in short supply.
This situation elicited a much different response. I found myself experiencing two primary emotions. The first was sadness. What a tragedy for a young man’s life to be cut short for any reason, much less under this cloud of suspicion. He leaves behind children, family, and a host of grieving church members. Regardless of whatever vices he wrestled with, he was no doubt a talented, gifted and creative leader.
The second was understanding. Part of me understands, at some small level perhaps, how a man in his position could end up like this. Pastoral leadership is a demanding and often lonely world. Amplify this by the mega-church status his congregation earned. He no doubt was forced to be a celebrity, a superstar, a hero. Throw in the financial pressures such mega-status involves, the favors and entitlements that accompany affluence, the temptations and perks that follow along being surrounded by folks who mix friendship with chicanery—well you have a pretty lethal mix. My hunch is that he could ill-afford to be human. It makes sense how this guy ended up where he did.
Every pastor can relate to this world to some degree. Even in a small church (perhaps especially in a small church?) the demands can be unrealistic and suffocating. Many a pastor have fantasized about driving away and calculating how far they can get before anyone knows they’re gone. I remember occasions when I secretly envied guys who had heart attacks. At least they had a legitimate reason to quit and be free from the demands.
Congregations often demand a Messiah. While giving lip-service to Jesus the suffering servant, many aren’t any more interested in that kind of Messiah than first century Judaism was. Congregations expect a super-hero–someone with all the right answers, correct political views, unfaltering faith, powerful and charismatic leadership, infallible doctrine, and untouched by sin or personality faults. They lust for three B’s of church growth that measure success: Buildings, Bucks and Bottoms in the pews. They clamor for lots of all three.
What’s a pastor to do? Many of us fall in line. We are seduced by the fantasy that we can be the one who can foot the bill. We busy ourselves concocting the formulas and methods that promise to deliver, and then we sell our soul trying to deliver the goods. Our greed and pride eagerly embraces the idol of success. We want to be the very type of Messiah Jesus had no interest in being.
The result is often some form of being found dead, all alone, with a pocket full of white powder. Such a value system is toxic. It kills relationships, personal integrity, ministry, joy, strength, perspective, and sometimes, literally, people.
It leads to isolation. We don’t believe we can trust anyone with our real selves–our struggles, weaknesses, failures, doubts. We can’t afford to associate with the lowly, to get our hands dirty with humanity. Often times people quit wanting to be around us because we’re moody, arrogant, edgy, and insecure.
The white powder speaks of our secret life. Living in such a system forces us to drive our sin, our vulnerabilities, our brokenness underground. We bury our stuff. But it’s still there; it doesn’t go away. We end up living two lives–the public life of super-Christian hero, and our private world of sin, habits and vices. We work hard to keep them separate. We go to great lengths to hide our private life. We’re careful to only act out when we’re out of town. We keep the evidence safely locked in our closet. But in the end, one way or the other, our container of white powder is exposed. It won’t stay hidden forever.
How much wiser and better we would be to pursue the good enough pastor model. This concept strives to create a different system, one where it’s the norm to embrace our humanity and resist the seductive pull toward perfectionism. Such a system allows us to lead as whole beings, a glorious mix of strengths, gifts, successes, failures, struggles and weakness. It embraces grace, which doggedly believes that we are accepted and loved as we are–that we are good enough.
I pastored small country churches while working full time as a social worker.
In short, I was on call 24/7 at two different locations for some 30plus years.
The pressures are intense but I was never tempted to get involved in
anything like this. The loving mother of our four children was a constgant
support as were the members of our congregations.
This is indeed an unfortunate occurrence which could have been
Thanks for the feedback Norm. Count yourself blessed (and a bit fortunate) not to be tempted in this way. We all have our areas we are particularly vulnerable with, and sometimes the forces of life and evil converge as a perfect storm that makes succumbing to the pressure and temptation more likely than other occasions. Obviously, not every pastor who ‘falls’ sets out to do so. I’m convinced it’s most always a combination of contributing factors that contribute to the process, just as it is a combination of contributing factors that keep us faithful.