Wisdom from Tim Keller on Why Pastors Fall

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On the surface, this might seem like a post about Tullian Tchividjian’s recent resignation from his pastorate at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. In reality, it was motivated by a pastor in our network of churches (CrossPointe) that was disqualified from ministry a couple of months ago. He had been the pastoral apprentice at our congregation the second year we were there before planting his own church in another part of the city. I am tempted to say I knew him well, but we basically talked here and there on Sundays and had coffee once or twice. My brother in law knew him better since he was part of the core group that planted the other congregation. Although he was no longer at that congregation, it still hit very close to home.

It also seems to be a trend here in Florida. Though the pastor closest to us didn’t make the news, another pastor from last year, who subsequently committed suicide, did. In that case, I didn’t know him, but my wife did since she grew up in his dad’s church and he was a big reason she started taking her faith seriously and wanted to go into ministry. There was another high profile case as well at a mega church in south Florida. And now Tullian.

I realize in some sense that each case is unique. I also realize that the first impulse shouldn’t be analysis, which is why I felt like I should preface this as analysis unrelated to Tchividjian. My initial response when I heard about the pastor at our sister church was to examine my own heart. The areas in which he was disqualified were the same areas you would guess if I told you to think stereotypically. I know things like that don’t happen overnight, so I wanted to know what led him to where he ended up and see if any of those trajectories are present in my own life.

Very similar to suicide, you always feel like you should have known a moral failing was imminent after it happens. In the case of a pastor’s moral failing, this is even more acute because they are still around to help you see what you were missing. Predicatably, there is usually a lack of accountability. But saying that a pastor’s fall could have been prevented by more accountability isn’t necessarily true. Any guy who has been in an accountability group because of porn consumption knows this is true. Accountability doesn’t solve problems in and of itself. If that were the case, I’m in pretty good shape since I meet with a couple of older men regularly who will ask me difficult questions.

As I was wrestling through how to process this pastor’s fall, my hunch was that there seeds of his destruction in his everyday rhythms and habits and accountability may or may not have uncovered them. It seemed likely that these seeds could easily be there without setting off any accountability checkpoints. I hadn’t really come to a complete explanation other than to note that I was not immune to a similar fate.

Then last week, I started reading Tim Keller’s latest book, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism. While it might seem unrelated to the topic at hand, that’s the beauty of Keller’s books. In the final chapter, which I read first, Keller discusses “Preaching and The Spirit.” Early on, he makes a distinction between gifts and graces:

Gifts are things we do, but spiritual fruit or graces are things we are.

Gifts and talents can operate when the speaker is spiritually immature or even when the preacher’s heart is far from God. If you have a gift of teaching, for example, the classroom situation draws out your gift, and you may be very effective. But that can happen in the absence of a strong walk with God. (194)

Having experienced this first hand a couple of years ago, I can confirm this is dead-on. From here, Keller, drawing on Edwards, expounds the difference between gift operation and grace operations:

Gifts will usually be mistaken for spiritual maturity, not just by the audience but even by the speaker. If you find people attending eagerly to your address, you will take this as evidence that God is pleased with your heart and your level of intimacy with him – when he may not be at all. If anything, we Christians living today are in greater danger of this misperception than at any other time in history, for our era has been called the “age of technique.” No civilized society has put more emphasis on results, skills, and charisma – or less emphasis on character, reflection, and depth. This is a major reason why so many of the most successful ministers have a moral failure or lapse. Their prodigious gifts have masked the lack of grace operations at work in their lives (195-196).

This is both humbling and helpful. Humbling in that it means the only difference between a faithful and failed pastor is grace. That means when I see any pastor with a moral failure, my first response should be, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” On the other hand, it is helpful because it actually explains what I can and can’t do in order to avoid a similar tragedy in my own life. These “grace operations” can come through a variety of means, but chiefly it means having a vital devotional life that is centered on the Word and dependent on God in prayer. Coupling this with accountability and you’re in good hands. Remove both, and you have the pattern for disaster.

To be clear, I can’t just approach either as something to check off a list, but I need to check the status of my heart in the process. It means that I also need to be attentive to pursuing holiness and godliness and close enough with other people that they can attest to fruit in my life that isn’t the result of giftings. That is certainly much harder to do, but to stay faithful for the long haul requires it.

Author: Nate

I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

2 thoughts on “Wisdom from Tim Keller on Why Pastors Fall”

  1. Nate, thanks for this. This further shows that we can be preaching correct theology on the outside and, yet, still be struggling to actually believe it on the inside.

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