Ministry: Spiritually Hazardous to Your Soul
Dr. James Emery WhiteJames Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
- 2010 Sep 27
Note: This piece originally ran in September, 2010.
Another well-known Christian leader has come under fire for sexual immorality.
I won't go into the details. If you are at all dialed into church world, you know the megachurch pastor I'm talking about, and can find all the salacious details on the internet.
He's denied the allegations and vowed to fight the charges. I hope for the kingdom's sake that he's innocent, and is fully exonerated.
But whether that proves to be the case or not, many leaders have fallen.
Why is this happening so frequently?
Some would argue that there aren't enough checks and balances in large ministries today; some would say there is a lack of personal accountability in leader's lives.
But if that's what it takes to keep a leader clean, well...
So I've got another theory to throw into the ring.
Ministry is spiritually hazardous to your soul.
First, it is because leaders are constantly doing "spiritual" things, and it is easy to confuse those things with actually being spiritual. For example, you are constantly studying the Bible in order to prepare a talk. It's easy to confuse this with reading and studying the Bible devotionally to apply to your own soul.
You are praying - in services, during meetings, at pot lucks - and it is easy to think you are leading a life of personal, private prayer pouring out your praise, your confession, your thanksgiving, your needs, to God.
You are planning worship, leading worship, attending worship, and it is easy to believe you, yourself, are actually worshipping your God in spirit and truth.
Again, chances are, you're not.
What's at play here? It's actually quite simple. When you are in ministry, it is easy to confuse doing things for God with spending time with God; to confuse activity with intimacy; to mistake the trappings of spirituality for being spiritual.
But there's a second reason why ministry is hazardous to a leader's soul, and it's even more subtle than the first. It is because as a minister you are constantly being put on a spiritual pedestal and treated as if you are the fourth member of the trinity.
In truth, the people you lead have no idea whether you have spent any time alone with God in reflection and prayer over the last six weeks; they do not know what you are viewing online; they do not know whether you treat your wife with tenderness and dignity.
They just automatically afford you a high level of spirituality.
Here's where it gets really toxic: you can begin to bask in this spiritual adulation and start to believe your own press. Soon, left unchecked, the estimation of others becomes your own bead on things.
This is why most train wrecks in ministry are not as sudden and "out of the blue" as they seem to those who just "hear the news." Most leaders who end up in a moral ditch were actually veering off of the road for some time. Their empty, or "false front," spiritual life simply became manifest; or caught up with them; or took its toll.
You can only run on empty for so long.
I had a defining moment on this in my life when I was around thirty years old. A well-known leader, who had been a role model for my life, fell through an adulterous affair.
I was devastated.
But more than that, I was scared.
If it could happen to him, then I was a pushover. It didn't help my anxieties that I was in a spiritual state exactly as I have described: confusing doing things for God with time with God; accepting other's estimation of my spiritual life in a way that made it easy to bypass a true assessment of where I stood.
I was like a cut flower that looked good on the outside, but in time would wilt dreadfully and display quite plainly how divorced I was from any roots of life.
It was a life-defining moment.
I remember so clearly the awareness that I too, could fall; that no one would ever own my spiritual life but me; that I needed to realize that the public side of my life was meaningless - only the private side mattered.
This was not flowing from a position of strength; it was flowing from a deep awareness of weakness.
From this, the gun went off.
I began to rise early in the morning for prayer and to read the Bible.
I began to take monthly retreats to a bed-and-breakfast in the mountains for a more lengthy immersion in order to read devotional works, pray, experience silence and solitude, and to journal.
I began a two-year, intense mentoring relationship with a man who had many more years on me in terms of age, marriage and ministry.
There were many more "begans" as more disciplines, acts and choices found their way onto my agenda, but you get the idea: I was going to be a public and private worshiper; I was going to be a student of the Bible for my talks and for my soul; I was going to pray for others to hear and for an audience of One.
I hope you hear my heart on this. It's not to boast, it's to confess.
I still could end up in a ditch. You could too.
Let's keep working to make sure that we don't.
James Emery White
Original publication date: September 26, 2010