My heart was deeply saddened yesterday when I heard about another resignation of a well-known pastor of a mega-church. This time, it was Tullian Tchividjian, pastor at Coral Ridge in Miami. This came about, he said, because of ongoing marital issues. His wife admitted to adultery. He developed an “inappropriate relationship” with someone in the aftermath of the news from his wife. God is grieved by this, that church will be greatly affected, and two people (Tullian and his wife) must deal with the destructive effects of sin. It breaks my heart. But I believe God is gracious and he can bring redemption to the darkest valley. I pray he does.
I’ve pondered this story a bit more deeply than other readers perhaps. I have a different perspective. Why? Because I’m a pastor.
Reading this as a pastor, I’m looking under the surface. I’m wondering what else was going on. I’m thinking about how it might have been avoided. I’m trying to see themes and trends and triggers that are plain as day in hindsight and might have signaled something like this was coming.
Now, hear me clearly, adultery is a human problem. People sin. Pastors are not exempt. What’s more is that sinners are responsible for their sin. We can’t shift blame elsewhere. Because of the gospel, we can own up to our sin and confess it, knowing that we have an advocate before God, Jesus Christ the justifier of the unjust. So yes, we are responsible for our sin, but the good news of the gospel is that Jesus takes responsibility for our sin on the cross.
And yet, as we learn to deal with failure, we learn that life is complicated. Sin is complicated—adultery is complicated—and there are always multiple factors and variables in play. This is a tension that, as Westerners, we would probably rather not acknowledge much less deal with.
While adultery is sin—and sinners are called to repentance—this does not mean environment is unimportant. You can’t make a plant grow but you can improve the environment, the conditions, so that the seed has everything it needs to flourish. No rain? Find a hose and a sprinkler. The same goes for people—including pastors. A quality, genuine, redemptive environment doesn’t guarantee spiritual fruit. But by God’s grace, it helps.
This leads me to ask: was there something about this particular pastoral environment that made holiness more elusive? More specifically, was there something about Tullian’s mega-church environment that was not conducive for growth? Holiness is hard because of our sin nature—the Spirit of God and the flesh oppose each other to keep us from doing what we want (Gal. 5:16). It takes work (Phil. 2:12-13). Throw us into a garden where the conditions are not optimal—or even good—and growth can be “more elusive.”
In Tullian’s case, he was in a mega-church environment that exalted him to celebrity status. Christianity Today, reflecting on what brought Tullian to the church in the first place, wrote, “[Coral Ridge] elders hoped that Tchividjian’s youth, vision, and name could revive the fortunes of the aging congregation.” This mega-church environment centered on the lead pastor’s personality, charisma, preaching ability, and energy. Sadly, this isn’t unique to this church. It’s a mega-church trend. Building around a dynamic, visionary, CEO-type. (This is what happened with Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill, though with a different issue and over a longer period of time.) No human can bear this burden. So the pastor grows into a celebrity and becomes isolated and beyond accountability. And when this happens, he’s vulnerable.
This is not just a mega-church trend. What about churches in different contexts that are smaller and relatively unknown? Like many mega-churches, a small church could still be centered on the pastor. Maybe not his personality or charisma or vision, but his ministry credentials, his administrative skills, his ability to be available to everyone all the time (or his sense of guilt to be so). He does all the preaching, all the counseling, all the hospital visits. He is “the minister,” the one “doing ministry.” No human can bear that burden. So the pastor becomes desperately needed yet at the same time, curiously, he’s lonely. He becomes isolated. Now, he’s vulnerable.
I don’t know all the reasons for pastoral failures when it comes to adultery or “inappropriate relationships.” The sinful nature is, of course, bent on desiring other things above Jesus. We are fighting not against flesh and blood here and I’m not making any excuses because sin is sin, sinners are responsible for their sin, and we repent and trust that Jesus has taken care of not just our sins, but us.
But in the North American church, we seem to be quite adept at centering ourselves around our leaders. We cultivate pastoral environments that make holiness elusive for pastors—the people who are to take the lead in modeling a gospel-shaped life. And anytime we center our communities of faith on a pastor—even a very good one with much to offer the church—and not the Person of Jesus Christ, that pastor is doomed to fall.
We (pastors), too, are great sinners in need of a great Redeemer and we need help. Surely there is something churches (including the pastors) can do to help pastors fight for holiness, see fruit, and finish the good fight of faith. In my next post, I’ll look to the Scriptures to find out just how we can do this.