There’s a diner here in Colorado that has quotes all over the walls. When my wife, Kari, and I were there, we took particular notice of one of those quotes: “The 3 G’s get preachers in trouble—the gold, the glory, and the girls.” While there is some truth to this quote (we often work with pastors who have gotten themselves into trouble in one of these areas), these troubles are not the real problem. They are symptoms. Much deeper temptations are the root issues that make Christian leaders susceptible to the glory, the gold, and the girls.
Peter was the golden boy for his denomination. He had accomplished what most pastors dream of: each of the three churches he started or took over was very successful numerically and financially; he was a sought- after speaker and writer; he was asked to lead an international parachurch ministry; and his attractive wife had a growing writing and speaking ministry. Life was good, until one of his mistresses couldn’t keep the secret anymore. In the tsunami that followed that week, Peter lost his ministry, marriage, reputation, and nearly his will to live.
Henri Nouwen, in his book In the Name of Jesus, reflects on the temptations Satan offered to Jesus and how these same temptations are offered to those in Christian leadership today. Nouwen interprets the first temptation, Satan’s challenging Jesus to turn the stones into bread, as the temptation to be relevant. Or in other words, it is a temptation to be effective, to accomplish something practical and clearly beneficial, something the world believes is the answer to the problems at hand. What could possibly be wrong with this? At first glance, it seems harmless and even biblical—are we not to be salt and light to this world, to make a difference, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, with whatever resources we have available? What’s wrong with relevance?
Nouwen suggests that the root temptation is putting our worth in our achievements and not in Christ. “The question is not: How many people take you seriously? How much are you going to accomplish? Can you show some results? But: Are you in love with Jesus? Perhaps another way of putting the question would be: Do you know the incarnate God?” The temptation in desiring to be relevant is that being “relevant,” not our love of Christ, guides our steps. Visible success in ministry can become an idol and dangerous for the soul.
“The great message that we have to carry, as ministers of God’s word and followers of Jesus,” writes Nouwen, “is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life.”
The temptation in seeking to be relevant or effective is that we not only seek our own sense of worth in how we are doing in changing the world, but that we also burden those we lead with the same expectation that worth comes only from visible results. We have worked with many ministry leaders who have embraced the pressure of performance, and it became their first love, their idol, their obsession.
Peter had fallen into this trap. He had begun ministry with sincerity and good intentions. His first ministry was in a semi-rural church in Kansas. He was gifted as a communicator and soon “outgrew” this ministry even though the church had doubled in size in five years. Word began to spread throughout the denomination of his potential and leadership, and seizing the opportunity, the denomination molded him to be the next face of their movement. At first, it was exhilarating for Peter and his wife. Peter had once defined success as 25 baptisms in a year, but now that seemed like small thinking to him.
Many, but not all, of the pastors we have worked with who have had sexual affairs, were having the affair during a season of “high effectiveness” in their ministry. Explosive church growth, book writing, expanding influence … and they began an affair.
The question they bring to counseling is “How did this happen? Why did I do this?” Returning again to Nouwen and In the Name of Jesus, he reflects on a time of outward success: “Everyone was saying that I was doing really well, but something inside was telling me that my success was putting my own soul in danger.… I woke up one day with the realization that I was living in a very dark place and that the term ‘ burnout’ was a convenient psychological translation for a spiritual death.”
While the pressure of keeping up with continuing the success played into the attractive escape of an affair, the underlying issue is that often the successful pastors are themselves eating empty spiritual calories and their soul is malnourished and the affair offers a substitute source of affirmation which in the end not only is another source of emptiness but destroys all they have worked so hard to build.