On any road, it’s always good to know where the potholes are. That pothole you didn’t see can ruin a perfectly good tire, knock you front end out of alignment or even damage your suspension. While potholes are bad, sink holes are worse. In February 2014, a sink hole opened up beneath the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky and eight Corvettes, including two highly prized ZR-1’s were swallowed up. You don’t even have to be a Corvette lover to know that’s really bad!
The highways of ministry are full of potholes. The journey is always smoother when we have friends, mentors and coaches who help us avoid them. Ministry leadership potholes are best avoided, but while painful and temporarily debilitating, they are seldom fatal. Ministry leadership sink holes are another thing. They often swallow up not only reputations but sometimes whole careers. From recent headlines, just two words: Ashley Madison.
In the hope of helping us all avoid the sink holes that can swallow us up, I want to talk about three causes of catastrophic failure I have observed over the years. It’s not an exhaustive list. You, no doubt, could add some, including some you think are more common or more important. But here’s my top three.
Sink Hole Number 1 – Moral Failure
Might as well start off with the obvious one, moral failure. Among ministry leaders, the two most common forms of moral failure are sexual indiscretion or sin and financial impropriety. Not surprising, since they are two of the three most seductive temptations in life – sex and money. The third is power, but that warrants a whole different discussion.
I do not need to list the careers that have been swallowed up in the sink holes of sexual sin or financial impropriety. Any of us can create our own list of leaders in no time flat. So instead, let’s talk about avoiding the catastrophe of moral failure.
First, Admit Our Propensity to Sin
Now there’s a word we don’t use every day, but it’s the perfect word here. Propensity is a strong natural tendency to do something. In our sinful, fallen state, we all have a propensity for sin. Avoiding life’s sink holes starts here. We are all capable of sin. Any sin. Especially the more seductive sins related to sex and money.
While still in seminary, I served part-time as a youth pastor. One of my team of adult sponsors came to me one day in great distress. He had just learned that his best friend had been having sex with the family baby sitter. Over and over, he kept saying, “How could he do it?” At the time I didn’t think much of it, dismissing it as his shock over such a betrayal of trust and good judgement.
About a year later, I discovered this same sponsor was engaged in an affair with another man’s wife. In talking with him, I learned the affair was new, started within a few weeks of being discovered. Over time, in reflecting on that incident, I came to realize when he kept asking “How could he do it?” he honestly could not see himself committing the sin of adultery. He was unaware of his propensity for sin, any sin, including sexual sin.
Avoiding the sink hole of moral failure starts with facing the truth that any of us, all of us are fully capable of succumbing to any sin at any time. It starts with living in an honest, wise and holy fear of our own frailty.
Second, Practice Transparency
The Bible says, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.” (John 3:19-20)
Since, in our sinful, fallen state, we all “do evil,” it stands to reason that we all hate any light that reveals our sin. In avoiding the sink hole of moral failure, here’s our flashing red light. The more we are inclined to hide something, keep secrets, and be “private” about what we are doing – the more likely we are nearing a sink hole.
Transparency is our protection. In practical terms that means things like our spouse always knowing where we are and what we are doing there, allowing others access to our computer’s search history, and answering probing questions honestly.
Transparency leads us to the third guard against moral failure, Accountability. But accountability leads us to the second sink hole.
Sink Hole Number 2 – Unwillingness to be Held Accountable
The unwillingness to be held accountable extends far beyond the issue of moral failure and so it warrants its own consideration. Accountability is about giving others permission to speak into your life. Accountability is about heeding what they say, especially when you don’t want to hear what they say or do what they suggest you do. Let’s take a look at two areas where a willingness to be held accountable can help us avoid this particular sink hole.
First, Be Accountable for Your Time
Some resist being held accountable for their time. As pastors and ministry leaders, a perk of the job is that we have a great deal of control over our schedules. And we can get pretty bent out of shape whenever questioned about our schedules. But our schedules reveal our work ethic and those who write our paychecks do have the right to expect a day’s work for a day’s pay.
Most pastors I know work far more than they are being paid for, so they have no reason to resist being held accountable for their work hours. If you bristle at being asked about your hours, you might be approaching a sink hole. The best way to avoid this sink hole is to be willing to be held accountable for your time.
Upon graduation from seminary, God allowed me the privilege of being pastor of a 100 year old, rural, South Dakota church. My board consisted of farmers and one furniture salesman who sold furniture to farmers. They were wonderfully supportive, trusting, generous people. I came to one of my first board meetings with a report in hand. My report gave a detailed accounting of my time and how I had spent it over the past month.
The chair looked at me with a puzzled expression. “What’s this?” he asked. I explained it was my time report. The board members looked at each other with universally puzzled expressions. Finally, with a shrug, the chair said, “You don’t need to give us reports like this.” I said, “Oh yes I do.” I went on to explain my reasons. First, I knew myself. I knew that I might be tempted to sleep late, spend far too much time with the morning paper and golf way too much. I needed the discipline of being held accountable for my time. Second, I needed others to be watching over my shoulder to help ensure I was spending my work time wisely. And third, if anyone questioned my work ethic, I wanted to be sure that at least seven men in the church could knowledgably come to my defense.
They agreed that presenting such reports had merit and that began a discipline which I maintained for the next 35 years of my ministry.
Second, Be Accountable For Outcomes
We often resist being held accountable for outcomes, but outcomes speak to our effectiveness. No matter how often it happens (and it does happen often) I am amazed at the resistance among pastors and other ministry leaders to be held accountable for measurable outcomes. Some speak of their faithfulness as though that is all for which we will be held accountable. But we are called to be, not only faithful, but also fruitful. In Matthew 25, Jesus praises the “good and faithful” servants. The praised servants were not only faithful but also productive. The praised servants had all produced results.
So the more you find yourself resisting being held accountable for actual results, the more likely you are nearing a sink hole that can derail if not destroy your ministry.
The best way I know to avoid this sink hole, is to establish personal and ministry wide goals. Share your personal goals with others who can and will hold you accountable for working to achieve those goals. Set ministry goals and make them known to those who should and will hold you accountable for leading in their achievement.
Sink Hole Number 3 – Failure to Take Responsibility
An essential foundation stone of spiritual maturity, mental health, and a high-functioning family (or church) is a willingness to take responsibility for all we say, think or do.
The willingness to take responsibility for all we think, say or do is fundamentally essential to mental health, community life and spiritual maturity. The degree to which one accepts personal responsibility separates adults from children. Responsibility is the primary characteristic of the fully integrated, fully functioning human being. Responsibility goes hand in hand with success, achievement, motivation, happiness and self-actualization. It's the absolute minimum requirement for the accomplishment of everything that truly matters in life.
If you are old enough, you remember the classic Flip Wilson routine, “The Devil Made Me Do It.” In the comedian’s monologue, the preacher’s wife didn’t want to buy that dress (her third new dress that week), but she did because the Devil “made” her do it.
Failing to take responsibility and blaming are inseparable soulmates. They joined forces in The Garden. Eve’s sin wasn’t her fault, it was the serpent’s fault. Adam’s sin wasn’t his fault, it was God’s fault, because the woman God gave him “made” him do it. Ever since Eden, our human default when confronted with failure or sin is blame.
First and Last, Own Your Own Stuff
There is only one way to avoid this most destructive of all sink holes. It’s to own our own stuff. By “stuff,” I mean our shortcomings, inadequacies, failures, our sins of omission and commission. We all fall short. We all fail. We all have “flat sides.” We all make bad choices. We all sin and we know it. That’s what’s so stunning about us. We know it’s true and we know that everyone else knows it’s true and yet we have such a hard time admitting it.
It’s so human to deny responsibility and blame our circumstances, our “upbringing,” our mother, our spouse or children, our boss, the weather, the traffic, the moon or our horoscope. Stop and think about it and it would be really funny if it weren’t so tragic.
It’s so human, we desperately need God’s help if we are to own our stuff. Thankfully God has imbedded in us by His Spirit, “His incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms...” (Ephesians 1:19-20) Therefore we are able to “do all things through Him who strengthens us.” (Philippians 4:13)
Avoiding this third sink hole begins with declaring our commitment to stop blaming and start owning, followed by a daily reliance on His grace and power to follow through on our determination. May God help us all!
By Bill Hoyt, President
NexStep Coaching and Consulting