Why Men Like Me Shouldn’t Be Pastors

Why responding to the scourge of pastoral malpractice in evangelicalism starts in the pulpit itself.

Last August, Daniel Mattson wrote a heartfelt essay for First Things entitled, “Why Men Like Me Shouldn’t Be Priests.” Mattson made a gut-punching case that the sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church owed, at least in great part, to another, persistently ignored crisis: Unrepentant homosexual priests. The presence of large numbers of same-sex attracted, sexually active priests had severely undermined, Mattson argued, the church’s moral authority on sexuality, and blunted its ability to enforce chastity and (consequently) protect vulnerable seminarians and laypeople from abusive situations. “If it is serious about ending the sex scandals, the Church needs to admit it has a homosexual priest problem and stop ordaining men with deep-seated homosexual tendencies,” Mattson writes. “The first “Uncle Ted” scandal was “Uncle Ted” becoming a priest.”

Mattson writes from a position of bracing honesty and realism. He is same-sex attracted and struggles with the sin of homosexual activity. Near the conclusion of his essay he relates a story about going to confession to tell a priest about a recent sexual sin with another (anonymous) man. To Mattson’s shock, the priest dismisses the confession and tells him to “get a boyfriend” and that “the church will change.” Mattson soon found out the priest who heard his confession was gay.

I’m not Catholic, but Mattson’s connection between systemic failure in the church and besetting sin in the pulpit feels very right to me, especially this week. On Monday the Houston Chronicle rolled out a brutal expose on sexual abuse and cover-up in Southern Baptist Churches. Two of the common threads running throughout the Chronicle‘s many testimonials are churches’ ignoring credible allegations of abuse and the abusive pastors’ ability to find new ministry even after losing their churches. That should sound familiar.

To what extent does a church or denomination’s inability to identify and respond to a pastor’s besetting sin set the table for abuse, cover-up, and scandal? If Mattson is right to suppose that Vatican indifference to homosexuality in the priesthood emboldened abuse and incentivized denials—and I think he is—could indifference to repeated sins by pastors be part of a similar dynamic in evangelical churches? One answer to that question also happened this week. James MacDonald was fired by Harvest Bible Chapel after a near decade’s worth of serious accusations of bullying, arrogance, and deception came to a head. The “head” was a hot mic that captured MacDonald making shockingly crude and hateful comments about his critics in the media.

On this side of the controversy, it’s extremely difficult to imagine that MacDonald’s fitness for pastoral ministry was clear until only recently. The question weighing on my mind in the aftermath of MacDonald’s fall is the same one that’s there after almost every report of a dynamic pastor’s exit from ministry: Why did it take whistleblowers and journalists to identify disqualifications that should have been obvious to those with the biblical mandate to do so? The answer may be that whistleblowers and journalists are less dazzled by charisma, smarts, and strong personality than the average evangelical churchgoer. But it could also be that, as Mattson observed in the Catholic church, there is in evangelicalism a complacency with sin in pastoral ministry that in many cases bottoms out in things like denial and cover-up.

In 2016, Barna released a report on cultural attitudes toward pornography. The survey found that 41% of Christian laypeople believe a pastor should resign if he is discovered using porn. Pastors were asked the same question, and the results were stunning: Only 8% of pastors agreed with this. The immense gap between the beliefs of laity and pastors strongly suggests an element of self-defense has come into play.

A question that most evangelicals aren’t asking but should is, to what extent does a pastor’s porn struggle affect his ability to protect himself from temptations to abuse? To what extent does it affect his ability to respond well to an allegation of sexual abuse against someone in his church? Comparably, to what extent does a pastor’s ongoing lapses into anger, whether at home or church, compromise his ability to receive criticism and accountability? Note that I’m not asking about a pastor who is clearly addicted to porn or clearly enslaved by selfish rage. I’m talking about the pastor who has installed measures of accountability in his life, is warring against sin, making progress and experiencing victory, but succumbing occasionally to temptation. Such a description should in no way disqualify a Christian from membership in the church or from lay service. But the epidemic of abusive (sexual and otherwise) pastoral leadership that we see demands a sober consideration whether there are certain kinds of besetting sins that the church should accept as part of the normal daily striving for sanctification among members, but reject as disqualifying in most measure for pastors.

I come at this question sincerely because, like Mattson, I see myself as someone who should almost certainly not be considered for pastoral ministry. My besetting sins are no match for the means of grace that Christ has poured into my life, and I praise God for his work of progressive holiness. But their particularities are of such a nature that I do not believe I could or should (now or in the immediate future), without reserve, shepherd a church, especially through a crisis that would call on mature, proven intuitions.

(I should say that I am not passing any sort of critical judgment on men who have struggled with pornography or any other sexual sin in the past and are now pastors, nor am I saying that it or any comparable struggle permanently disqualifies a man from ever being a pastor. My point is not to lay down an absolute, extra-biblical rule, but to provoke consciousness of the relational responsibilities of a pastor.)

Some will read the above paragraph and think I am either confessing to an extreme bondage or else arguing that pastors should be sinless. Neither. Both interpretations betray how thinly many Protestants, evangelicals in particular, think about the church and pastoral leadership. Nothing is more commonsense to me than the idea that few men are qualified to be overseers, and that the ones who aren’t qualified should be able to have a hearty confidence in the leadership of the men who are.

In other words, it should be obvious from the way Christians “do church” that pastors aren’t merely smarter, better-spoken, stronger-personality versions of everybody else. Rather, those who are qualified for the “noble task” of pastoring are men who have been both especially equipped and especially preserved. There are men who have not spent years trying to gain victory against lust. There are men who do not lapse periodically into emotional outbursts that wound and intimidate others. There are men whom God has kept, by his grace, “above reproach” in the qualifications of an elder. These are the men who should be leading God’s church—not me.

I fear that in the Reformed evangelical subculture I live in, this reality has become obscured. It’s become obscured by the financial aspirations of seminaries that lead to “recruiting” which indiscriminately encourages certain personalities to train for the pastorate. It’s become obscured by a defunct theology of vocation that still leads many to believe that professional ministry is a place for real Christians and the pews are for the B team. And of course, it’s become obscured by an infatuation with leaders who draw crowds, sell books, and promote brands, rather than leaders who labor faithfully in the obscurity that often aids holiness.

This isn’t the only way we must answer the scourge of sexual abuse and pastoral malpractice in evangelicalism. There is so much more that needs to be said and changed. But we must start somewhere, and the first place accessible to reform is the church itself and the men who watch over it. We need more than Christians willing to receive the power and privilege of an overseer. Yes, the church needs pastors. It does not need pastors more than it needs qualified pastors. The costs of this getting this wrong couldn’t be higher—or more apparent.

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Evangelical Christianity and the Teen Depression Epidemic

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have written an important new book titled The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. It’s a lucid, eye-opening and (in my opinion) convincing work. I’ll have more to say about it in a future post. But I wanted to highlight a particular chapter that left me absolutely gobsmacked—and very worried about how evangelical churches are(n’t) responding to it.

One of Haidt and Lukianoff’s premises is that iGen, the generation that came of age in the late 2000s and accounts for most undergraduate students today, is exhibiting extraordinary levels of anxiety and depression. iGen’s mental and emotional struggles are a key component of the “coddling” ethos of the modern US college campus, the ethos that promotes “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and administrative over-protection of students. In the authors’ view, because iGen students are entering college with these struggles, they expect and receive a disproportionate amount of deference from college administrators. This deference, though, is misguided, and it feeds the students’ perception that they are fragile and that the world outside them is threatening and must be held at bay—which in turn increases anxiety and emotional suffering.

Put aside for a moment whether you track with that argument (I do, but that’s for a later post). What Haidt and Lukianoff suggest is that there is a serious mental health crisis with young Americans, so serious that it has substantially transformed the philosophy and administration of centuries-old colleges and universities. If they are right, then I would submit that the anxiety and depression of a whole generation of Americans merits the focused attention of Christians and churches no less than their sociopolitical views or churchgoing habits.

Using data from the CDC, the authors put together a chart on adolescent depression rates that floored me:

According to the data, in 2011 about 11% of adolescent girls reported having had a “major depressive episode in the past year.” By 2016, that number had reached 19%. In other words, the depression rate for adolescent girls nearly doubled in just five years. For adolescent boys, the depression rate did not spike this dramatically, but it has risen. In fact, the suicide rate for adolescent boys has spiked:

From 1999 to 2007, the suicide rate for adolescent boys went on a fairly consistent trajectory downwards. Around 2008, however, the story is flipped: A consistent upward trajectory that results in an almost 20-year high suicide rate in 2016.

I’ve been trying to get my mind around these statistics, and there’s something I can’t stop thinking about. Having been raised in evangelical church culture my entire life, and having quite a bit of experience in youth ministry and outreach, I don’t believe I ever, once, read or watched any treatise on discipling teens that emphasized anxiety and depression. I saw a lot on virginity, drugs, peer pressure, and the like, but never anything substantial about pointing the gospel directly and explicitly at these emotional and mental struggles. If the church hasn’t been helping here, who has?

Answer: Schools. I’m starting to believe that in the absence of serious attention to anxiety and depression within evangelical approaches to ministry, students have found their best resource in the guidance counselors and administrators of their schools. This has handed public education institutions a singular crisis that these administrators are unable to handle with anything more meaningful or life-giving than the creation of safe spaces. Conservative evangelicals like myself who rigorously criticize contemporary campus culture must awaken to the reality that this culture was created because spiritual and emotional problems went unaddressed by the people and places most in a position to offer help—not to mention the people and places that literally receive money to help!

Is there any serious movement afoot within evangelicalism to address anxiety and depression? If not, how can we blast the coddling of the American mind on college campuses, a coddling that very well may have roots in the silence of our culture’s Christian ministers on what amounts to an epidemic in our society? My thinking here is straightforward. Pastors and church leaders: think of anxiety and depression as just as real, just as serious, and just as worthy of your preaching, counseling, and attention as pornography, abortion, transgenderism, and divorce. Youth leaders: If you’re assuming that your students need help in overcoming temptation to sexual immorality, you should also assume that they need help in overcoming depression and emotional distress. We need within churches a culture of help, not of ignorance. The evidence is staring right at us.

Is There a Place in Evangelicalism For Non-Ministers?

A few months before I started there, I took part in a preview weekend for the Bible college that I eventually attended. At one point I had the opportunity to ask the then-dean of the college what the vision of the school was for people (like me) who did not intend to go into vocational ministry. His answer was one I quickly became accustomed to hearing: Every Christian is a “minister” in the realest sense of the word, no matter his or her vocation. Therefore, there would always be a reason for Christians to get a theological education. Wherever we are—the church, business, or the arts—we are ministers.

I think this is true. But I also think it didn’t really answer my question. It seems to me that the question this dean actually answered was, “Why should I give a Bible college money if I don’t have intentions of pastoral ministry?” But that’s a different question. What I wanted to know that evening was whether there was a space to belong for people like me at an institution that is explicitly commissioned to train pastors. I wanted to know whether this college had a category for me (and whether I could have a category for it). To this day, I’m not sure  I completely understand the relationship between evangelicalism’s most important institutions and her non-pastor members. I don’t think I’m alone.

Asking whether there is space for non-ministers in evangelicalism can feel a bit like asking whether there is space for non-members in the local church. On one hand, of course there is! The church is always open like that. After all, if only existing members ever darkened the doors, the church would die. But to say there is space for non-members in this sense is not to say that the church commits to, listens to, or cedes any kind of authority to those attenders. A healthy congregational polity, after all, doesn’t let its non-member attenders cast crucial votes or wield spiritual authority. I often wonder if this is the kind of posture evangelicalism is liable to assume toward its non-ministerial members.

Conservative evangelicalism’s most important, most formative institutions are its churches and its seminaries. One might assume the seminaries exist to serve the churches, but the reality is far more complicated than that. Add in the parachurch ministries and affinity networks to the mix, and you start to get a sense how overlapping the leadership cultures of evangelical institutions really are. The overwhelming majority of influence and institutional capital in my quadrant of evangelicalism is owned by pastors and seminarians. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” The question for me is not whether this is a good or bad thing. Rather, the question for me, as a non-pastor, non-seminarian evangelical who is nonetheless invested in the life and doctrine of evangelicalism: How then shall I live?

Here’s an example of the issues this dynamic can create. Jen Michel is right, I think, to ask whether there is a “gender gap” when it comes to Christian nonfiction. Rather than framing the issue as a case of men refusing to read women, though, I believe I would frame it as a problem of institutional identities. When Jen says “men” here, she of course means Reformed, complementarian men. Who dictates what Reformed, complementarian men read? Well, to a certain extent, Christian publishing does. But what dictates Christian publishing? Aye, there’s the rub. The most doctrinally sound, most ecclesiologically minded publishing houses in evangelicalism tend to invest a large amount of their attention and resources toward pastors and seminaries. Why? Because that’s where the heartbeat of our particular theological culture lies. Again, this isn’t a bad thing. There is something healthy about not totally divorcing the teaching authority of the church and the teaching authority of trade nonfiction (though I think they’re not the same). But it does create, as Jen points out, practical consequences for those of us who don’t live at that heartbeat.

What do Christian writers and speakers do when they’re not ministers? How should they think about their calling? In case you think these are relatively insignificant questions, perhaps put the question a little more bluntly. “Who’s in charge” of, say, the evangelicals who think and writer and speak, but not from the seminarian nexus of evangelical authority? It’s tempting here to appeal to people like C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Elisabeth Eliot, and Nancy Pearcey: all of them hugely influential evangelicals and none of them pastors, seminary presidents, or church network founders. But these are exceptional examples, both in talents and context. The question is not whether we have any more Lewises or Schaeffers or Eliots or Pearceys among us. The question is whether there is a visible path, in the era of Patheos Progressive and narrative-as-authority sub-evangelicalism, for lay writers to become genuine leaders.

Part of the challenge is, I suspect, that for much of conservative evangelicalism, a truly trustworthy leader is one who prioritizes evangelism over intellectualism. That’s at least one reason why the death of someone like Billy Graham looms so large over the evangelical movement, and inspires a meaningful introspection into our identity and future. Make no mistake; Graham is, humanly speaking, the most important American evangelical in history. But such a judgment also implies that evangelicals think of preaching in a way they don’t necessarily think of other things. To borrow some philosophical terms, we might say that in the worldview of evangelicalism, intellectualism and cultural engagement are accidental, but preaching is essence.

It bears saying an umpteenth time: This isn’t bad! It does, however, necessitate evangelical conscientiousness about our movement and its culture. It might also invite some uncomfortable questions about whether pastoral ministry has been inappropriately incentivized, pitched as the only serious vocational option people who want to make a difference for the kingdom. And, as Jen Michel and others have pointed out, it creates a need to articulate more about gender and evangelical authority.

I love both the pastorate and the seminary, but I know (at least as well as one can know these things) they are not in God’s sovereign design for my life. And yet I also know that I want to talk to Christians, have skin in the game, and use whatever resources and time I am given to help both believers and unbelievers see and feel glory. Whether there’s room for me to do this seriously without being a minister, I’m not sure yet. I hope so. Not just for my sake, I hope so.

Why the “Billy Graham Rule” is a good thing

One of the highest privileges of being a pastor’s kid is seeing, over the course of two decades, the inner life and thought of a ministry family in a way that no other eyes can possibly see. I’m grateful to be a “PK” for many reasons, but chief among them is the empathy and grace for those in ministry (surely not enough, though) that come from spending many years watching genuine love meet genuine care in what is almost certainly one of the most emotionally demanding and vulnerable vocations in the world. It’s nearly impossible to watch a truly Christian, truly compassionate minister wear a congregation like a burden on his soul and not come away with a measure of sober thankfulness and understanding for others like him.

I get reminded of this often nowadays. That’s part of the reason I tend to push back against broadly sweeping, wholesale criticism of organized religion and its clergy. I recognize that there are indeed many people who have suffered at the hands of self-seeking ministers or power-drunk churches; and I freely acknowledge that a prophetic word of rebuke needs to be spoken to these people, urgently. But my own experience growing up in ministry has left me indelibly convinced that overstating the villainous nature of the clergy or the problems with the American church is not only untrue, but Satanically prevents people from experiencing the grace of Christ in a life-changing way.

I say all that to reinforce a principle that I think is important: When godly men and women share wisdom and practical counsel, gleaned from a lifetime of faithfulness to Christ and to others, we ought to listen. It would be a profound mistake to instinctively look for the error or the selfishness in the advice given by those whose lives are a testimony to Jesus, even if–and this is crucial–the advice grates against our modern sensibilities or individual personalities.

For that reason, I think Marvin Olasky is exactly right in urging us to take the “Billy Graham Rule” seriously. Olasky, pivoting off the recent confession of marital infidelity and consequent resignation from ministry of Graham’s grandson, Tullian Tchividjian, wonders whether the recent upshot of ministerial sin (particularly sexual sin) could have been thwarted if more ministers had emulated Graham’s famous personal dictum to never meet with or travel alone with a woman other than his wife (This point is evergreen and doesn’t require any further query into the details of Tchividjian’s resignation).

Olasky also responds to criticism of the principle in the form of a ChristianityToday.com piece by Halee Gray Scott. Scott criticizes Graham’s rule for stifling the influence of women in ministry and argues that the rule unhelpfully plays into the “hypersexualization” of contemporary Western culture. Scott:

It’s the refrain recurring throughout many ministries: male and female working relationships are tricky and fraught with tension.

As a researcher who focuses on female Christian leaders, I hear it over and over. The first female vice president of a Christian organization confessed she missed out on opportunities to advance her projects because the president made businesses decisions over lunch, and he promised his wife he wouldn’t eat lunch alone with women. It was enough to make her want to quit. A female pastor in Minnesota told me about being overlooked for staff development opportunities, while the lead pastor invested in her male coworkers. A female seminary professor shared the too-familiar struggle of trying to find a mentor among her all-male colleagues. But it’s a tension the gospel demands we work through. In Ephesians 4, we see God’s intention for ministry is a productive, collaborative environment between men and women.

Such a collaboration is impossible, Scott argues, when the church unwittingly affirms the world’s worship of eros by prohibiting close friendship and ministry partnership through policies like the Graham rule.

Olasky’s response is, I think, a fair one:…

[B]ut since the real root issue is original sin, and the way it noetically affects our ability to recognize our weaknesses, shore ourselves up, and build relationships, it’s not enough to say, as Scott does, that “We can pioneer a middle way. … We can stand firm against the tide of culture by committing to relate to one another as family members.” That’s a worthy goal but an abstract one. With [pastoral sin] in front of us, we should begin with something concrete.

I agree. The problem is not that Scott’s concerns about an unnecessarily partitioned church are unfounded (they’re not), it’s that her approach to the question of opposite-sex relationships doesn’t seem to prioritize in accordance with Scripture. Biblically, the primary relational obligations of a husband and wife are to each other first, preempting other relational obligations in the church. This doesn’t undermine biblical community but instead forms the basis of it by privileging the one interpersonal relationship that in its very existence portrays the Gospel. Marriage is not something in which individuals gain membership but a spiritual reality that transforms individuals into a mysterious one-flesh union, a union that is in its very nature different than and relationally primary to all other relationships.

The “Graham rule” is not valuable because it is a 100% effective tool against sexual sin (nothing this side of glorification is that). Actually, the opposite is true–the Graham rule is wisdom because it is honest and self-aware about how precarious the fight against sin really is. Scott’s critique that the Graham rule “hypersexualizes” male and female relationships confuses a cause with an effect; it’s not the rule that creates hypersexualized relationships but our own indwelling sin. Personal principles like the Graham rule are indeed only necessary because we live in a fallen world, but we should be careful of an over-realized eschatology: The Church is an embassy of the coming Kingdom, but it is not a rabbit-hole escape from the fallen culture we live in now.

My father practiced, to my knowledge, the “Billy Graham rule” his entire ministry. It was not out of a desire to mute the women in the church or showcase his own godliness. It was instead a personal principle that safeguarded Dad and the people he ministered to. If a woman needed counsel, Mom would come along. Oftentimes it would be my mother who was able to speak most powerfully into another woman’s life. Those situations reinforced Dad’s belief that his marriage was indeed part of his ministry, not merely an accessory to it. And it was helpful: Again, to my knowledge, my father was never once accused, falsely or truthfully, of an inappropriate sexual relationship.

We should, like Scott says, strive to bring men and women together in the local church for Kingdom work. That is part of the reconciliation that Christ has accomplished for us. But such union need not preclude being zealous for the purity that God demands of all of us. Billy Graham’s rule isn’t Scripture, but it is a Scripture-honoring habit that comes from years of godly ministry and experience. That’s not something we should sidestep lightly, or, I think, at all