The lot used to be home to a large antique store, three houses, a small apartment building, and a few small small sheds. But the houses were empty, the apartment building was boarded up, and the antique store had a closing sale.
One morning, on my way to the job, someone was working around the apartment. When I came home in the afternoon, it was gone. The next afternoon the former antique building was a pile of rubble. And the next day they demolished the houses and outbuildings.
None of those buildings were necessarily pleasing to the eye, but they inhabited a large corner lot near us for several decades. Over time someone had a business or two, and people raised families inside those apartments and houses. Though I know very little about construction, I’m sure it took months for the various structures to be built. But compared to how long they had been on that site, they were gone in a moment.
A reputation is like that, you know. It takes time to build it, to earn people’s trust, to gain their confidence. But we can destroy it in a moment. I’ve heard stories just like you have, but I’ve also seen it with my own eyes.
A man I considered a mentor when I was in my late high school years made a horrible choice and jettisoned not only his ministry, but his marriage. He and his wife were discipling another couple, and they went away on weekends and swapped mates. Hearing about it shocked the boots off of me.
We often think of moral failure as the reason so many pastors end up losing their reputations and ministries. Some leading figures within the evangelical community have fallen this way, and the damage done to their lives is only exceeded by the damage done to their own churches and to the broader reputation of the Church. But a moral failure is not the only way to ruin a reputation.
I’ve written elsewhere of the pastor who met a heartbroken member of his congregation who was seeking counsel with these words: “I did not come here to wipe your noses.” I’m pretty sure I’ve also told about the small-town pastor who, after being cheated by a car salesman, punched the guys lights out and put him out on Main Street via the dealership’s front plate-glass window. There’s a guy who had lied about his education when he was hired, and after twelve effective years had to resign in shame. And there are others I could recount. But I won’t. You do it. If you know people who fit this category, name them, silently, to yourself. It will help this be more real to you.
Pride, carelessness, dishonesty, immorality, a lack of compassion – these and other qualities can bring a ministry to an end. And just as the failure of prominent evangelical leaders left an effect on those who were followers, there are congregations large, small, and in between all over the world who have been torn apart by one awful choice, or the fruit of that choice.
We are all subject to failure. And by God’s grace we are all able to find forgiveness. Sometimes, depending on the sin, a fallen pastor might even get a second chance. But it’s hard to shake a shattered reputation.
Proverbs 4:23 is a familiar verse, and it says, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (ESV). Proverbs 4 starts out with Solomon repeating words his father David had taught him. It’s hard to know where David’s instruction ends and where Solomon starts talking. But either way, Solomon wanted his son(s) to learn the importance of being morally and ethically diligent, and he knew that those things are matters of the heart. Sadly, Solomon turned away from his own wisdom, and one can only wonder if his sons saw their father slide and as a result, Rehoboam displayed hubris instead of humility (read 1 Kings 12). Neither man’s failures surprised God or disrupted his plan, but think of the impact of those choices on Israel.
Younger pastor (or veteran pastor, if you’re reading this), please don’t fail! Please guard your heart, share your struggle with a friend, get help before you make a choice that will bring you to ruin. And if your struggle is with anger or pride or even a lack of compassion, repent of that and find help before you sabotage your ministry and hurt who-knows-how-many people.
It takes time to build, but only a moment to turn to rubble.