Some Thoughts about Evangelical Superstar Pastors and Evangelists and Why They Fall
In recent weeks and months another American evangelical superstar pastor (also author and popular speaker) has fallen off his pedestal—if not completely at least partially and with a loud noise. As always when this happens, his followers and fans are divided. Some support him almost unconditionally while some accuse him of spiritual abuse, abuse of power and various misdeeds. It has all gone viral. This time, fortunately, the national secular media are not paying attention. I assume that’s because there’s no sex scandal to feast on. (In my opinion America’s secular media exudes a rare combination of prurience and Puritanism.)
Anyone who has been around in American evangelical life for fifty years (and probably less) can remember so many evangelical superstar pastors and evangelists who fell off their pedestals with a thunderous crash. Sometimes the thunder is only local (as in the case of a pastor I once worked with and knew very well); sometimes its echoes and shock waves spread out nationally and even internationally. But it always leaves behind disillusionment and confusion.
Our tendency is always to point our accusing fingers at the minister who fell. He (it’s almost always a he) let us down, betrayed us, humiliated us (for being his fans), besmirched the reputation of evangelicalism. That’s understandable.
However, my concern is that we evangelicals (and others) take a deeper look into the causes of this pattern. Why does this happen so often? Could we have met the enemy and discovered it’s us—as much as the persons who fell?
Here’s my diagnosis and prescription for this chronic evangelical problem.
I believe we tend to put too much trust in mere mortals once they attain a certain crucial level of evangelical ministry “stardom.” We want to believe there are men who rise above the temptations and sins the rest of us face and fall into. We want to believe in near, if not total, Christian perfection. So we gradually allow, even encourage, lack of accountability. “That person,” we think, “is so close to God he doesn’t need to be accountable to mere mortals like us.” Gradually these evangelical superheroes, with their inevitable feet of clay (that we try to ignore), fall—partly because they are mere mortals and power corrupts mere mortals and unaccountability is power. We set them up for failure.
My first question about any minister or evangelist is “To whom is he accountable?” Too often it’s nobody. I once worked for a world famous evangelist who founded a university. People close to him told me there was only one person besides God to whom he would allow to hold him accountable—his wife. I wasn’t surprised when I saw financial ruin slowly rising up to engulf his ministry. Its final denouement didn’t appear until he retired, but given his near total lack of accountability it seemed inevitable to me.
Earlier I referred to the local minister with whom I worked for four years who fell and fell hard. He ended his fifty-plus years of ministry in prison. When I looked back at my four years at his side, but definitely under his power and control, I realized that he had created, with his congregation’s help, an atmosphere or total trust—in him. He counted the church’s offerings and recorded giving—alone in his office on Mondays. He traveled around the country to places and events without anyone knowing where he was or what he was doing there. He came and went and led as he pleased. The members of the church board who could have held him accountable and demanded answers didn’t—until it was too late. I participated in that and will always bear some shame for it. (But I also plead special circumstances as he was a close relative.)
My prescription is this: Never put total trust in any human being. Combined with that: Expect every human being to fail—especially if they are not accountable to others (and held accountable by others). There is no perfection this side of paradise and the kingdom of God. No human being deserves total, unconditional freedom and trust—to come and go, to handle money alone, to decide alone which ministry associates stay and which leave, etc.
To be perfectly blunt: The moment you hear someone say in response to criticism of a spiritual leader “Touch not God’s anointed,” beware and prepare to flee. Frankly, I blame those who take that attitude toward “great spiritual men of God” as much for their downfalls as the allegedly great spiritual men of God themselves.
Every pastor, minister and evangelist, like every government leader, whether elected or appointed, needs an accountability network with real authority and power to check him. At least some of the people in that accountability network need to be independent of the minister or evangelist—not under his influence.
Unfortunately, we American evangelicals have created a system of ministry superstars on pedestals that sets them up for failure. When it happens I tend to look around at his followers and ask “Why did they flock to him and trust him so eagerly and unconditionally?” When everyone else is pointing fingers at the fallen one, I tend to point at them. My advice is simply this: Never follow a leader who is independent and unaccountable. And if you find yourself in such a situation, flee. There should not be such situations. And if you stay, you are part of the problem. And if he falls, you have yourself partly to blame.