In late 2017, I found myself in discussions with an English congregation in Switzerland about their pastoral vacancy; much to my surprise, those discussions were progressing well. After several years of serving parachurch organizations and acting as a consultant, there seemed to be a growing prospect that I would be heading back into local church leadership. It was a daunting prospect. The church near Geneva was full of highly educated people from around the world, including academics, diplomats, business executives, and senior officials in NGOs. There was no doubt in my mind that being their pastor was going to be the biggest challenge of my leadership abilities that perhaps I had ever faced.
Now as 2019 begins, I am the pastor of Westlake Church-Nyon, that English-speaking congregation just outside Geneva. Nyon is situated on the shores of Lake Geneva; it has the Jura Mountains as a backdrop and the majestic Alps dominating the horizon across the lake. It’s a stunningly beautiful place to minister but, as I predicted, I am finding the return to local church leadership a great challenge. However, the biggest challenge any of us face is often ourselves.
I have a book sitting on my desk as I write these words, the title of which now seems either ironic or prophetic. It is called When Leadership and Discipleship Collide and was written by Bill Hybels. In case you have been ministering on Mars for a year, leadership and discipleship did indeed collide in Bill Hybels’ life in a way which has destroyed his reputation, deeply damaged the lives of his victims, terminated the ministries of his successors and shaken to its foundations one of the flagship evangelical congregations in America. I wish this high-profile pastoral fall from grace was an isolated incident.
Over the last year it feels like high-profile pastors, friends and colleagues in ministry have been falling from their ministries like dominos, one after another. It’s been dispiriting to hear of case after case from the Christian press or through the denominational jungle drums. Their fall has been exclusively the result of sexual misconduct: there’s no other way to put it.
As a pastor, my big question has been how to react beyond the initial moments of unbelief and disappointment when I say to myself, “Who?” “Really?” I haven’t had it in me to join the chorus of condemnation that these things stir up on social media and in hushed conversations at pastors’ get-togethers. Nothing I would say would make most of those involved feel any worse about themselves than they do already and the Holy Spirit does a pretty good job of leading people to repentance without my tuppence’ worth on Facebook. But as all of this has been happening just as I am reentering pastoral ministry in a local church, the whole issue is becoming more personal to me.
Reflecting on these current events, I happened to read Eugene Peterson’s translation of 1 Corinthians 10:11-12. It might have been Peterson’s choice of words, but I heard God’s voice through them:
11-12 These are all warning markers—danger!—in our history books, written down so that we don’t repeat their mistakes. Our positions in the story are parallel—they at the beginning, we at the end—and we are just as capable of messing it up as they were. Don’t be so naive and self-confident. You’re not exempt. You could fall flat on your face as easily as anyone else. Forget about self-confidence; it’s useless. Cultivate God-confidence.
“Don’t be so naive and self-confident. You’re not exempt. You could fall flat on your face as easily as anyone else.”
God, as he so often does, put his finger on my soul and pointed out that my reaction toward those who had fallen, to whom I had looked up in ministry and with whom I’d shared ministry, was naïve. I have often thought when hearing of another nose-dive from ministry, “not him?” but underlying that has been a naive attitude that has assumed that it won’t ever be me. The Lord confronted me with a harsh truth: the biggest threat to my ministry is me. I now see that, to use Peterson’s inspired choice of words, I’m “just as capable of messing it up …”
In his book Charis Preston Sprinkle has a great one-liner about King David and Bathsheba: “Within seconds, a man after God’s own heart turns into a man after the woman next door.”Listen, if it can happen to King David, a man after God’s own heart, if it can happen to ___________(insert name of your fallen ministry hero or mentor), if it can happen to ____________ (insert name of your ministry friend or colleague), then it can happen to James Petticrew and it can happen to ___________ (insert your name). I’m not exempt from sexual temptation. Neither are you, my pastor / church leader friend. No matter how close we are to God right now, how good our marriages are, how careful we are with the opposite sex, let’s not be naive enough to believe it can’t happen to us. I bet David thought that; I bet ___________thought that.
When I was training to be a police officer, an instructor told us that, “you are never more in danger than when you think there is no danger.” I have realized that that is true for me as much as a pastor as it was for me as a police officer.
As the pastor of Westlake, I am indeed facing some tremendous leadership challenges: learning a new church culture, navigating a congregation where people come from different countries, continents and theological traditions, seeking a way forward for us with our unique gifting and setting. Yet by far the biggest leadership challenge I face is the self-leadership challenge: leading myself well.
A couple of years ago I had the privilege of preaching from the pulpit of one of the most influential Scottish pastors of the 19th Century, Robert Murray M’Cheyne. God used Murray M’Cheyne in extraordinary ways to bring spiritual revival to parts of Scotland. The current minister of the Church had a quote from Murray M’Cheyne on the wall of his vestry that now faces me on the wall of my study in Nyon: “The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness.” The people of Westlake Nyon have many needs for which ultimately I bear some responsibility: the need for a good preacher, for clear leadership, for help in discipleship. But their single greatest need is my greatest leadership challenge, my personal holiness.
Samuel Rima says in Leading From the Inside Out, “The way in which a leader conducts his personal life does, in fact, have a profound impact on his ability to exercise effective public leadership. There is a direct correlation between self-leadership and public leadership.” If we don’t lead ourselves well, we can’t lead others well and will probably end up leading no one at all. This issue of self-leadership, this need for personal holiness, is one I want to suggest needs to be at the top of your priority list as we enter this new year.
Over the years I have gained a bit of a reputation for my phobia of making any sort of marks on my books, but I read something once that made such an impact that I broke my usual practice and highlighted it so I could easily find it when I got home. The book was The Next Generation Leader by Andy Stanley. I highlighted a question that Stanley asked. “What small thing in my life right now has the potential to grow into a big thing?”
Thinking about that question, I wondered what would have happened if all those high-profile megachurch pastors and my ministry colleagues who had pastored in relative obscurity had asked themselves that question? If they had just taken the time to look for small problems before they became the big problem that brought them down? I wondered what might happen to me in the future if I don’t answer that question honestly now?
Maybe I should put Andy Stanley’s question next to Murray M’Cheyne’s quote on my study wall where I can see it every day. Maybe you should too.