Writings by Cole Huffman

Candles in the Wind

I hope I’ve learned by now to ache for the fallen pastor rather than pounce on him. God told Cain it is the impulse of sin to pounce. Self-righteous sin has especially strong quads.

It doesn’t matter whether I personally know the fallen pastor. I know the job. It doesn’t matter whether his temptations beset me or not. Anyone is vulnerable to his basest desires.

When it comes to the downfalls of public-figure pastors, we’re all in plaza seating in social media settings. I’m the young man in the 22nd row, to borrow a line from Elton John’s classic, “Candle in the Wind,” an ode to Marilyn Monroe. In his song John says he saw Monroe “as something more than sexual.” Some choice ministry leaders are regarded as nothing more than sexual it seems, like pinup centerfolds of conference quality insights. Christianity Today once surveyed whether we should even still listen to the sermons of fallen pastors.

Some fine people front our evangelical movement. Even Paul spoke of “the brother who is famous in all the churches for his preaching of the gospel” (2 Cor. 8:18). Most in the spotlight didn’t seek it. But some will by that light work well into the night “building their identity through ministry and media platforms.” That’s how one prominent church put it in removing their pastor for ill effects.

We all react to pastoral downfalls. I want my heart in this to be like the octogenarian father I met at a celebrated worship leader’s home a couple of years ago. Our conversation turned to his son’s experience on a church staff domineered by a diva pastor (in whose honor there ought to be a National Staff Offender Registry). But the older man was more sad than outraged. In ministry himself, he knew somewhere along the upward way of ecclesial mobility the abusing pastor forgot, as Samuel told Saul, that he was once small in his own eyes.

Saul’s grandson limped to mind recently. I was honored by one of the seminaries that trained me and recalled Mephibosheth’s words when David gave him a place at his table: What is your servant, that you should notice a dead dog like me? If a public fall brings a pastor face-to-face with his Brother Ass, as Francis of Assisi referred to his embodied state, stubbornly unyielding to mortification, so does public honor. Paul tells all Timothys everywhere to keep a close watch on our life and doctrine both. These coalesce in an axiom I try to abide: My best days are never so far from my worst.

My high school English teacher showed us a film version of Moliere’s Tartuffe. It’s a seventeenth century satire on the hypocrisy of French clerics, and lingers with me still as a warning to heed for the tortured logic Tartuffe employs. Full of desire for Elmire, his patron Orgon’s wife, Tartuffe justifies his lusts even as he tries to get Elmire to gratify them:

“If you’re troubled, think of things this way:
No one shall know our joys, save us alone,
And there’s no evil till the act is known;
It’s scandal, Madam, which makes it an offense,
And it’s no sin to sin in confidence.”

There’s an oxide word for you—confidence. It’s the air of projected persona and the airlock of protected trust at the same time. It’s the very thing Tartuffe was abusing on both fronts, and my heart can be just as insidious. But confidence is what’s yielded in the space between competence and character (this is a Stephen Covey insight). If one has sound character but doesn’t know what he’s doing, we don’t put confidence in him. The same goes for one with outstanding abilities sans character. While competency is expressed in gifting and skill, character is expressed in relationship to others.

When character is assumed and competency elevated, things inevitably turn out poorly. I think this happens too often in the ministry celebrisphere. The guy who holds the room with Atlas insights (and to the better if he’s in shape and de rigueur in fashion) but consciously hurts his staff and/or members, even just by pushing them too hard to achieve something in service to his passion—he straddles an ever-widening gap. Yeats put it to verse: “The falcon can no longer hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the center cannot hold… The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

The church caught in the success syndrome puts too much premium on passionate intensity. We all know Paul’s words, don’t we, that even if he preached with the tongues of angels but did not know how to love, he was nothing? That’s the passion that counts in the end. If I have passionate intensity I may be thought to be something. But if I don’t have relational integrity, I am nothing.

Most pastors who fall out of relational integrity into adultery or abusive leadership practices feel like nothings in surveying their damage, I’m sure. Ministries are lost but not the man in Christ. In Him no one is ever really a nothing.

Every pastoral downfall is an occasion for self-examination: Are we seeking great things for ourselves with such passionate intensity? Or are we seeking the greatest thing, the thing that makes the difference between something and nothing in practice? The one unifying passion of life (and ministry) is to learn how to love. It is to keep ourselves, as the Iowan pastor in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead put it, “in the way of the gift.”

Posted by Cole Huffman at 3:14 PM
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