If there’s one collective group that could use a significantly better year than last, it's pastors and church leaders. I’m serious. The majority of those who serve in the role of spiritual leadership have responded to a very high calling. For some, the calling did not remove them from earthly temptations and struggles—including depression.
Pastor Andrew Stoecklein became the face of pastor suicides in 2018. He took his own life while working inside the church that his father had founded. It had become a megachurch with mega responsibilities. Andrew seemed unable to live up to the expectations he had placed on himself.
Andrew Stoecklein left behind his wife, Kayla, and three sons. He had recently returned from a sabbatical. The much needed break was an involuntary four-months-long timeout to deal with depression and anxiety, according to the Christian Post. Earlier, he had advised his congregation to be more aware of the mental health crisis in our country.
And then there was the abuse by ministry leaders. The most glaring and horrifying seemed to center around Catholic priests. A 1300-page report from Pennsylvania chronicled the abuse of more than 1000 children by 301 priests over several decades.The State Attorney General, Josh Shapiro, described it vividly in saying "Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing, they hid it all.”
Protestants had plenty of guilt to go around. The Fort Worth Star Telegram uncovered hundreds of sexual abuse allegations within Independent Fundamental Baptist churches. The widespread abuse was found in 40 states and Canada. Another church organization, Sovereign Grace Ministries, was accused of covering up sexual abuse.
Of course there were ministry leaders who stepped down because of individual indiscretions. Among the most well known was the founder and senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. After several accusers came forward, Bill Hybels resigned from his pastoral position and the highly popular Global Leadership Summit.
A different kind of abusive activity of a well known Chicago-based ministry leader surfaced in the latter part of 2018. A well documented report in World Magazine by Julie Roys cast a dark view of the management style and financial difficulties of Harvest Bible Chapel’s leader, James MacDonald. Further damage to his reputation came after an extensive Facebook post by a former employee, Matt Stowell. At this point, James MacDonald remains as pastor.
These multiple reports from 2018 have led to a trust crisis for clergy. A Gallup poll, conducted between December 3-12 last year found that only thirty-seven percent of respondents had a "very high" or "high” opinion of the honesty and ethical standards of clergy. The poll reported forty-three percent of people gave clergy an average rating. Some fifteen percent had a “low” or “very low” opinion of this profession.
Leadership in a church setting has a pretty high bar set for the individuals called to that role. Here are the criteria Paul the Apostle gave in Titus 1:6-8:
“An elder must not be guilty of doing wrong, must have only one wife, and must have believing children. They must not be known as children who are wild and do not cooperate. As God’s managers, overseers must not be guilty of doing wrong, being selfish, or becoming angry quickly. They must not drink too much wine, like to fight, or try to get rich by cheating others. Overseers must be ready to welcome guests, love what is good, be wise, live right, and be holy and self controlled.” (NCV)
Like I said, it’s a high calling. Unfortunately, it took a very low turn in 2018. Let’s pray for better character for those called by God in the days ahead.
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