5 Signs You’re An At-Risk Pastor

[Originally published at The Gospel Coalition]

In the early 2000s, Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru) experienced an inordinate number of morally failing campus ministers. Men and women in various ministries and varied contexts—who’d seemingly followed the Lord faithfully for decades—embezzled money, harbored addictions, and cheated on their spouses.

Under the leadership of Marc Rutter, and with the help of Henry Cloud, Cru examined these moral failings, seeking to identify common patterns of behavior in hopes of preventing them in the future. The patterns were clear and the profile of an “at-risk leader” emerged.

Sadly, these patterns are just as present and identifiable in today’s church-planting movement—and have contributed to recent public falls.

Four Basic Profiles

Here are four categories identified by Marc Rutter and company.

1. The narcissistic star who rises quickly.

These pastors are extremely successful at their craft. People are drawn to them and sometimes idealize and idolize them. Their success can either blind people to their faults or prevent people from feeling they still need to grow. For this pastor, success is the chief friend, irrelevance the chief foe. He tends to think he’s right on almost every subject, and anyone who pushes back is an enemy. This pastor will create an organization where he’s a king surrounded by “yes men.” His fall usually makes the news.

2. The narcissistic star who doesn’t rise.

Imagine the same person, but without the gifts or opportunity to rise. Or imagine a fallen star striving to do whatever he can to be seen again, but without success. This pastor will feel victimized, blaming everyone around him for his lack of success. He usually won’t examine his own heart. The core problem with both narcissistic personalities is that they crave the externals and neglect their inner life. Their personal hell is drowning in an ocean of irrelevance.

3. The no-boundaries leader.

These are pastors don’t like to hear no, and they don’t like to tell others no. They lack the ability to create the necessary boundaries for people to focus and thrive. This pastor isn’t as much of a threat as the first two, but can get an organization into real trouble through lack of focus, lack of personal development, and high-risk ventures.

4. The floater.

This pastor has no accountability. In fact, he actively avoids accountability by making lateral moves to remain in a feedback-free environment. He won’t be as harsh as the narcissists, but he’s just as at-risk because he naïvely thinks his ministry will flourish if people just leave him be.

‘How Did I Miss the Signs?’  

One refrain is common in the aftermath of almost every pastoral fall: How did I miss the signs? People who attended the church or worked there struggled to put their finger on it, but something felt off.

Some, though, were able to anticipate these falls long before they happened, since they had categories to understand and identify—either from training or intuition—the type of leader most likely to disqualify himself. The dots may have included lying, cheating, and stealing, but they did eventually connect.

So, what are the dots? Here are five questions that should raise the red flag on an at-risk pastor.

1. Do they resist authority?

The easiest way to resist authority is to not have any. When possible, this pastor will create a polity where he is functionally at the top. While he might have elders or a board of some sort, they are rubber stampers, not robust voices.

The easiest way to resist authority is to not have any.

2. Do they resist critique?

Attempts to critique the pastor in areas of practice and heart will be brushed off or rebuked. The more skilled the pastor, the more subtle and manipulative his dodging tactics. He may even make you feel guilty for engaging him, which is one way he ducks criticism. Critique is a reality of living in a fallen world. We all need it.

The at-risk pastor, though, will respond to critique with denial, anger, blame-shifting, or manipulation—anything but humility.

3. Are they isolated?

It’s possible to be surrounded by people, but remain alone. A healthy person opens his heart to others—not to everyone (that would be a different kind of unhealthy), but to at least a few trusted friends. Matt Chandler once said that if someone approached him saying they know a secret about him, his response would be, “You don’t know anything that these five men don’t also know.” That should be the goal of every healthy pastor.

An isolated pastor, meanwhile, doesn’t look to connect with other people; he looks past them.

4. Do they see it as their church?

There was one tragic fall of a pastor several years ago, and afterward his staff was asked what contributed to his fall. The response was telling: “He functioned as if it were his church, not God’s church.” In other words, he seemed to work out of a deep sense that the church’s success depended on him. He’d try to keep people from seeing his flaws (which further isolated him), and he couldn’t relinquish the pulpit in seasons when he or his family needed rest, since it was all on his shoulders.

No pastor is going to say the church is his, but his actions can scream it.

5. Are they a young pastor leading a large church?

Increasingly, counselors and pastors agree that, as a general rule, young pastors who lead large churches are often unhealthy. There’s something about the at-risk pastor—due to wrong ambition, craving for approval, lack of patience, or a need to prove something—that makes him more likely to lead a large church before he has the age, training, and experience to handle it.

There will be exceptions, and not all young pastors in large churches will fail, but the risk is higher.

Twin Magnets

The core issue can be boiled down to this: the pulpit and pride seem to be twin magnets that attract narcissists. For the at-risk pastor, ministry exists to serve him, not the other way around. And the common organizational denominator fueling the rise and fall of an at-risk pastor is lack of accountability.

The pulpit and pride seem to be twin magnets that attract narcissists.

There are two components of good accountability: relationship and authority. In a perfect world, you’d have both within your elder board, but that’s not always the case. Still, a healthy pastor has—or labors toward having—elders with authority to critique. A healthy pastor also has friends, often outside his church, with whom he has deep relationships. Those friends know each area of his life. He can tell them everything, including actions that could be disqualifying.

Are You At-Risk?

If you’re an at-risk pastor, you’re likely thinking about other pastors who fit these categories, not yourself. You’ve failed the first test. We’re all at-risk in some way or another.

A healthy, humble pastor will reflect first on ways he can grow and protect his sheep. May we all ponder the words of Paul: “Therefore, let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).

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