Are Moral Failures in Ministry a Growing Trend?

Let's remember to check our dark closets for the monsters of sin that can destroy us, too. Contributing Writer
Updated Jun 27, 2024
Are Moral Failures in Ministry a Growing Trend?

Over the last two weeks, I have heard about two well-known pastors who have either been forced to resign or have stepped down from being a pastor of their megachurch for moral failures. Both of these pastors are probably around 60 years old and in the later years of their ministry leadership. If it wasn’t for what they did, both of them probably would have retired well in the next five to ten years.

Because of this, pastors started the churches they pastored for many years. And because of their age and success, these pastors have written books, taught at conferences, and made video curricula that you or someone in your church has probably watched. These pastors were what you would call “celebrity” pastors. Their names were Tony Evans and Robert Morris.

I hate to group them together because although Morris’s haunting sins are clearly despicable, cruel, and criminal based on various news reports, I have no idea why Evans stepped down. It could have been anywhere from murder and adultery to not prioritizing his family or being greedy. Because speculating or assuming never ends well, we need not do that.

Nevertheless, both of them fell short of the standard of Scripture for overseers/elders (or what we normally call “pastors” today). For example, Paul explains to us in 1 Timothy 3:1-7:

“The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” (ESV)

When I read about these fallen pastors this week, my mind quickly began to populate with several other names of prominent pastors who have fallen just in the last couple of years. As a result, my initial feelings were disappointment, frustration, and even some anger. I even began to wonder why it seems that Christian pastors are dropping like “flies” from their positions across America. In fact, if I take to heart some of the reports and commentaries that I have heard, I might even think that the modern, evangelical church is falling apart.

What is happening? But then, after thinking about the issue a little more deeply, I landed on these four responses:

4 Responses to the Increasing Number of Pastors Stepping Out of Ministry:

1. A high standard means fewer people will meet it.

The most important qualities that pastors and church leaders need to have are not their skill but their character. And in my opinion, those character qualities are not even extreme. Here is another list that Scripture gives (in addition to the one in 1 Timothy that we just looked at):

“For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” - Titus 1:7-9, ESV

You could argue that each of those qualities ought to be true about every Christian - not just pastors and elders! For example, we see in this Titus passage that church leaders are called to be at least respectable, patient, sober, generous, and disciplined. None of those traits are excused from the life of any Christian. No one has a license to be greedy, violent, or a drunkard just because they are “not a pastor.”

Nevertheless, men and women in church leadership roles are clearly called to set an example in these things for others to follow because they will be in the limelight and expected to teach others. So when leaders fall short of those expectations or qualifications and no longer meet them, it is wise and respectful for them to step down for at least a season in order to repent and recover. I have known of some pastors who have done just that. 

2. It is more newsworthy to read about a pastor’s failure.

The world is not nearly as clean and innocent as I thought when I was a child. I’m not saying that the world has changed - but my awareness of it has. Almost anywhere you look, you will find someone failing morally by being shady with their money, unfaithful in their relationships, lazy with their time, and unhealthy in their habits. The story of the moral failure of an athlete, celebrity, teacher, contractor, or entrepreneur rarely makes the news. But when a church leader fails (or is even suspected of failure), it gets covered on the news media, especially social media, almost instantaneously. This is because our eyes are naturally drawn to disasters, and there are few things more disastrous than when someone who was supposed to be “holy” is found to be rather “unholy.”

However, for every celebrity pastor, popular teacher, or church leader who steps down or is removed because of sin, there are countless others who have not. I’m not saying that most pastors are perfect. I am saying that most pastors are, in fact, remaining faithful to their spouses, present for their families, honest in their dealings, and living a healthy Christian life of repentance. But those men and women of integrity will never make the news.

3. I am a few bad decisions away from wrecking my life.

It is only by God’s grace and because of the accountability and encouragement of other Christians in my life (including and especially my wife) that I have not already fallen into destructive sin myself and hurt my witness, family, and ministry. That is not me being self-deprecating, pessimistic, or fatalistic - I am realistic because I know myself well enough to know that I have a very real sinful nature that will lead me into moral failure if left unchecked.

Hopefully, you realize the same thing about yourself. If any of that is surprising to you, then maybe we (the church and all of us in it) have wrongfully created a system that elevates some people beyond regular scrutiny, leaving them even more susceptible to falling. As Paul wisely wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:12, 

"Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall."

4. Maturity is recognizing my own problems.

Hearing these stories of church leaders stepping down reminds us that every one of us has sins that we must regularly confess to and repent from. That is one of the main ways we can live in light of the gospel and give our lives as “living sacrifices” to God (Romans 12:1-2). If we did, we would have fewer destroyed marriages, families, churches, and lives. Christians (including pastors) are not perfect. However, the more mature Christians are, the more they humbly realize their imperfections and the bolder they repent from them. 

I totally respect a pastor who is willing to step down for a season to repent and (if allowed) be restored to leadership. If more pastors, church leaders, and Christians in general did this, we would have fewer marriages, families, churches, and lives destroyed. Tony Evans, in particular, made this comment in one article I read:

“I have shared this with my wife, my children, and our church elders, and they have lovingly placed their arms of grace around me. While I have committed no crime, I did not use righteous judgment in my actions. In light of this, I am stepping away from my pastoral duties and am submitting to a healing and restoration process established by the elders. This will afford me a needed time of spiritual recovery and healing.”

So, the next time you read about a pastor or church leader who has stepped down or been forced to remove, let’s remember to check our own dark closets for the monsters of sin that can destroy us, too. As we do, remember that God is faithful and just to forgive us when we confess them and ask him for forgiveness (1 John 1:9). There is much at stake. Let’s do everything we can to remain pure and holy instruments in God’s hands.

Photo Credit:  Image created using DALL.E 2024  AI technology and subsequently edited and reviewed by our editorial team.

Robert Hampshire is a pastor, teacher, writer, and leader. He has been married to Rebecca since 2008 and has three children, Brooklyn, Bryson, and Abram. Robert attended North Greenville University in South Carolina for his undergraduate and Liberty University in Virginia for his Masters. He has served in a variety of roles as a worship pastor, youth pastor, family pastor, church planter, and now Pastor of Worship and Discipleship at Cheraw First Baptist Church in South Carolina. He furthers his ministry through his blog site, Faithful Thinking, and his YouTube channel. His life goal is to serve God and His Church by reaching the lost with the gospel, making devoted disciples, equipping and empowering others to go further in their faith and calling, and leading a culture of multiplication for the glory of God. Find out more about him here.

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