Two hours into my drive home this week from Snoqualmie Pass, I began getting “Driver Attention Level Low” alerts on my instrument panel. Everything seemed normal, but apparently, my vehicle detected a driving behavior that was becoming erratic, suggesting I was tired or distracted. Fortunately, I did not deteriorate to Level 1, where the system beeps, the steering wheel begins vibrating, and a new message appears–“Time for a Break.” I am not sure if my Honda has a Level 0. This would be where the horn begins honking and the message “Get the H*** Off the Road!” screams.
Returning from facilitating discussion with a core of pastors, I couldn’t help but think that a similar warning system is needed for the church. It might serve to reverse the spiritual carnage taking place on numerous ministry roads. Imagine a pulpit that occasionally signaled—“Pastor Attention Level Low” or “Time for a Sabbatical” or “Time for a New Pastor.” These might be triggered when a congregation senses one is getting away from sound exegesis, a staff notices a pastor is beginning to go through the motions, or a board detects a leader of ministry is becoming overly impressed with oneself, insisting on greater power and authority.
The leaders I worked with these past few days are part of a church that has recently lost four pastors, two of them to issues of immoral behavior—drunkenness, deceit, and sexual abuse. Sadly, I no longer find myself shocked. Narcissistic church leaders seem to be almost as prevalent as leaders in the broader culture. More and more churches—especially those at the mega level—are becoming prone to shallowness and superficiality, trading theological and godly credentials for someone with celebrity status, smooth words, and a magnetic draw.
I am seeing this at multiple levels. Our seminary has recently dealt with a professor who took advantage of his position and charisma to sexually abuse others. Over lunch with an area leader today, I was made aware of yet another up-and-coming pastor who allowed power to go to his head and has been summarily dismissed for his abusive behavior. And then there is the Rise & Fall of Mars Hill podcasts that I listened to this summer—which are enough to make one cynical and disgusted with the evangelical scene.
It’s not that God isn’t sending out warning signals. They’re all around. Reading Jeremiah, this is what I read this week: “I did not send these prophets, yet they have run with their message; I did not speak to them, yet they have prophesied. But if they had stood in my council, they would have proclaimed my words to my people” (23:21-22). This gets to the root of so much failure. Too many leaders are not seeking to stand in God’s council. They are too enamored with their own prophetic words, strutting around like preened peacocks (forgetting that today’s peacocks are tomorrow’s feather dusters).
I could go on, but here is one more story from another sector of leadership. Perhaps you heard about the impressive space liftoff yesterday. Blue Origin, the aerospace company that is owned by Jeff Bezos of Amazon, launched four people into space. It’s all part of their vision to one day have millions of people living and working in space. It’s bold and ambitious. Included in yesterday’s crew was William Shatner of Star Trek fame. He and the others were launched sixty-six miles into sub-orbital space. After the brief flight, Shatner described it as the most profound experience of his life. Certainly, a great PR Day, underscoring their motto, “Step By Step Ferociously.”
And yet, if the Monday article in the Washington Post is accurate, much of Blue Origin is a façade covering for a growing rot. Ironically, the newspaper that is also owned by Bezos exposed Blue Origin as a place that is toxic and dysfunctional, where morale is low and turnover is high. Leadership, from the CEO down, reflects an “authoritarian bro” image (men who spend time partying with men like themselves). Condescending and micromanaging describe their style. The work environment is one of mistrust and chaos. Clearly, a “CEO Attention Level Low” warning is going off, but is anyone listening?
What does it matter for a space group or a church—or any organization—to have an impressive mission and a vision, but leave out core values? We are settling for leaders whose charisma outpaces their character. We give them the stage they hunger for, only to watch them eventually implode. Seldom do they express true sorrow or regret, let alone repentance. They simply move to the next opportunity, enabled by another superficial set of sycophants.
If I sound a bit cynical, it is because I am. I am well aware of my own sinful propensities, which keep me on my knees and in God’s council. But I am also sickened by one story after another of authoritarian or sexual abuse committed by people we call pastors, facilitated by communities we call churches.
Needed are pastors who view themselves as servants summoned by God to faithfully speak and live the Word. And alongside, churches who will not settle for anything less than godly, theologically centered shepherds—and are not afraid to be the warning systems that indicate when it is time for one to get off the road.