December 3, 2020

IM Recommended Reading: Mark Galli on Today’s Vulnerable Pastors

By Chaplain Mike

Must Reading:
The Most Risky Profession, by Mark Galli at CT.

I do not have time to do a full post on this at the moment, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this article since I read it last evening. I encourage you to go read it tonight, come back and comment as you like. I will take it up on Sunday afternoon in more detail.

Here’s a little of what Galli has to say:

The modern American church is very much a product of its culture—we’re an optimistic, world-reforming, busy, and ambitious lot, we Americans. In business, that means creating a better widget, and lots of them, and thus growing larger and larger corporations. In religion, that means helping more souls, and along the way, building bigger and better churches. Alexis de Tocqueville marveled in the 1830s how American Christians seemed so blasé about doctrine compared to their enthusiasm for good works. Religious busyness will be with us always, it seems.

Translate that into church life, and we find that American churches exalt and isolate their leaders almost by design….

…The inadvertent effect of all this is that most pastors have become heads of personality cults. Churches become identified more with the pastor—this is Such-and-Such’s church—than with anything larger. When that pastor leaves, or is forced to leave, it’s devastating. It feels a like a divorce, or a death in the family, so symbiotic is today’s relationship between pastor and people.

No wonder pastors complain about how lonely and isolated they feel. The success and health of a very demanding institution have been put squarely on their shoulders. They love the adrenaline rush of success—who doesn’t? But they also live in dread that they may fail. Wise pastors recognize that unique temptations will assault them, and some set up accountability structures to guard their moral and spiritual lives. They try to have people around them who can speak truth to their power. But in reality, since this is an accountability structure that they have set up and whose membership they determine, in the end it can only have limited effectiveness.

And so we have a system in which pride and hypocrisy are inevitable….

Mark Galli’s point is that we should not be surprised when pastors and church leaders like C.J. Mahaney (see iMonk Bulletin Board) become exalted and then have to take leaves of absence because of charges of pride and authoritarianism against them. Apart from the individual accountability of the ministers who eagerly embrace this organizational system (and I think Mark downplays that part of the story in his article), the structures and expectations of megachurch culture put leaders in positions of great spiritual vulnerability. Even those with the best of motives and intentions struggle with being “stars.” They need our prayers.

Start there. More to come Sunday.


  1. Great article. I think one reason why so many pastors can get away with things like pride and greed is that you can’t really prove it the same way you can something like adultery. The pastor will always find some flimsy way to justify his behavior (“we need a fifteen million-dollar new building because we want more people to know jesus! you want more people to know jesus, right?”)

  2. The church (and employer) I just walked away from is going through a situation extremely similar to CLC. From what I’ve read by angry dissenters posting on the internet, it seems that our congregation was a microcosm of their experience. While it may seem at first that sins of pride are grossly inferior in scope to sins of adultery, keep in mind that all sin hurts somebody. Adultery strikes closest to home, but pride can strike a wide audience.
    To their credit, I believe that the sincerity of people like Maheney and Piper has created for themselves environments of sufficiently high theological ideals so that these issues actually matter. I believe in many churches, the same things happen, but nobody confronts it and deals with it. There is no rebuke, repentance, and restoration. I certainly believe these reformed pastors are guilty as charged, especially since they own it themselves, but mostly because they are human. Here is my major concern: could this all simply be symptomatic of the consequences inherent in congregational autonomy? Presbyterian and Episcopalian structures have built within them, at least to some extent, systems of accountability that are larger than any one individual member. While obviously all man-made systems are flawed, just look at the Episcopal church, I believe congregational autonomy combined with free enterprise is a recipe for spiritual disaster. At this point I am willing to embrace the red tape of synodical politics just to be playing on a team that wins and looses together.

    • David Cornwell says

      “willing to embrace the red tape of synodical politics just to be playing on a team that wins and looses together.”

      And the losses or scandal become a matter of record and history of the church, not a cover-up, or acting as if the previous pastor was never there.

  3. “Share a couple of cute stories about your family, or a time in college when you acted less than Christian, and people will come up to you weeks and months later to thank you for your “wonderful, vulnerable sermons.” Preachers are not dummies, and they want approval like everyone else. You soon learn that if you want those affirmative comments—and if you want people to listen to you!—you need to include a few personal and, if possible, humorous stories in your sermon.The inadvertent effect of all this is that most pastors have become heads of personality cults. Churches become identified more with the pastor—this is Such-and-Such’s church—than with anything larger.”

    Hmmm….reason #847 that the “post-evangelical wilderness” exists…

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Churches become identified more with the pastor—this is Such-and-Such’s church—

      At least until his son inherits it.

    • I would argue to an extent the “post-evangelical wilderness” existence perpetuates this problems (though unintentionally). I find this within myself, if we aren’t willing to surrender to human institutions then we have no accountability. The postmodern/post-evangelical within me keeps harping “to thine ownself be true” and yet accountability only occurs when I agree that I don’t need to agree with someone to be in submission to their authority. This simply won’t happen in the current wilderness.

  4. I’m not sure if this question is on-topic, but I THINK it is … is what we expect a pastor to do really Biblical?

    The average pastor of an average (say, weekly attendance of 75-150) evangelical or Pentecostal congregation is expected to do 90-99.999% of the preaching. He (it’s almost always a he, thus screening out over half of the qualified applicants) is doing most of the evangelism (in the form of “altar calls”), almost all of the counseling of members, most of the visitation of the sick and homebound. He oversees the business end of the operation as well, and represents the congregation to the community and to other congregations. In a significant number of congregations, he also leads the musical performances, teaches Sunday school and/or maintains the physical plant.

    Is there any Biblical grounds for one person in a congregation taking on all that responsibility?!? (Leaving aside that he’s also expected to have an exemplary marriage and a well-behaved family — another culling of available options; no single people need apply to preach about an unmarried Savior — and do all of it at the salary level of a first-year public school teacher, with far less job security.) I’ve looked in Scripture myself, and I don’t find it. But … if we’re going to give a pastor the workload of a micromanaging dictator, why should it be even remotely surprising that he might think he can ACT like a micromanaging dictator?

    In short, is it that some pastors are monsters … or that because of our conception of all that a pastor should be and do, we have created a monster?

    • i’m not sure an aritificial monster has been groomed into what is a celebrity status pedestal.

      compare all the personalities & their various talents+skills of the most recently mentioned heavy-hitters in the ministry limelight today. obviously something they have is sufficiently attractive to be noteworthy & therefore results in a following. nobody at the pinnacle of such a position is going to be weak-willed or without passion/zeal, drive & an ego to stand out/up above the rest. the ability to garner loyalty & give vision to their ministry efforts+focus a definite requirement. i think this narrows down the potential qualifiers to an artificially select few that then can accommodate or minimize the usual faults+flaws that also come with such a personality type. to expect humility & approachability to suddenly be the new expectation unrealistic. we have artificially breed out that trait in the sole pastor, top-dog, CEO, dictator (benevolent or otherwise). just like any trait wanted in domesticated animals, so we put the same selective pressure to ‘fill’ a specific religious evolutionary nitche. and so it will be the case that similar inbreeding flaws will keep showing up in the resulting candidates for such a ministry/calling/anointing/raising up, etc.

      • So basically, that we’ve created a position where the people who fit it best are also the most likely to abuse it? That makes some sense, Joseph — especially since that’s the same thing we’ve done with political office …

    • I like your thinking Ray. I don’t know if the chicken or the egg came first, but I bet if people in a given church quit pretending that they need a personality cult-leader/micromanaging dictator/attractive show-off to put on a pedestal and live vicariously through, then far fewer raging narcissists would be interested in becoming the pastor. And the ones who were genuinely pastoring would struggle less with the false humility and perfectionism because, well, people wouldn’t notice them all the much. Who would they be noticing? Hint: his name starts with J and ends with -esus.

      I’m struggling with this in my own church right now. I’m waiting for people to notice Jesus, but all some of them seem to be doing is affirming whatever the pastor says, which has little to do with Jesus. What needs to change first..him, or the rest of us?

    • I’m late to this post, but I 100% agree with the thought that pastors today are asked/expected/trying to do way more than what it seems like the Bible ever describes/teaches. We’ve set it up so that one person is supposed to have, at a minimum, the spiritual gifts of teaching, shepherding, and mercy, and is supposed to be the main church member exercising these gifts. And you could easily tack on many/most of the rest of the spiritual gifts on to most actual pastors.

      Historically, I think it comes out of two things.

      1. The office of priest over the history of the Church has gotten us used to the idea of one person having so much power/responsibility in the church. I think people use the examples of the original apostles in Acts as justification of this, but I think they certainly a special situation in the course of history. A plurality of elders and a plurality of responsibilities and gifts seems to fall much more in line with the rest of the new testament.

      2. Followers of God have always had a problem with following an intangible God and have always done better, and in fact asked for, a human leader to follow. They’d rather have Moses than relate to God directly. They’d rather have Saul as a king than follow God directly. I believe we are no different today.

  5. It is so sad as I have witnessed the evangelical world create and destroy men. We first put them on a pedestal and isolate them, then they become narcissistic monsters, eventually leading to their fall. Once they fall, there is no one to help pick them up again.

    I blame the system and the congregations, more than the pastors. The system inflates their ego, then destroys them when their sinfulness becomes apparent.

    “Pride [goeth] before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”

  6. ross d b says

    I avoid large churches now… when our congregation exceeds 250 I will be in the forefront of a ‘daughter’ church plant in a heartbeat! I know this is not a cure-all, but the accountability in a smaller setting is necessary for spiritual growth. It just ain’t there in a larger setting.

  7. More fuel for my desire to take everything I’m learning in seminary and apply it to people their own real life situations. Like my coworkers at my “regular” job (good fruit over the last few years) That or the mission field abroad. No desire to rise to the top of this system, yet somehow I still fear I may find myself there despite myself.

  8. One more Mike says

    Galli gives pastors a pass. As I see his article, he blames arrogance and worship of “successful” celebrity pastors on the expectations of congregations/Americans. He doesn’t explore or acknowledge the phenomenon of egomaniacal celebrity wannabees who pastor a 150 member (or less) church who need a full-time staff to deal with “christian education”, “worship”, “youth ministries”, and an adoring clerical staff. Pastors who pack “elder boards”, which ostensibly provide the pastor with “accountability” and “overseeing” with toadies to insure that they get their way, who lead mission trips to India or Turkey because their celebrity man crush is doing this so naturally he “hears a call” to do the same thing? The pastoral profession is attracting people who think they are entitled to push their own agendas. “Don’t be messin’ with what God is blessin'” (attributed to Rick Warren, but whoever spoke them should repent and spend much time in sackcloth and ashes for them) are the most poisonous words ever spoken by a “pastor”, and too many “wannabees” have taken them as a war cry and last word/killshot of any argument against their agendas.

    Sorry for the rant, but I am sick of fake piety and the blaming of the culture for the egomanical pathology infecting the pastorate. Raging pastoral ego appears in church plants and small churches as much as it does in the megas, size doesn’t matter. It has nothing to do with evangelism or “reaching the lost”, it has everything to do with entitlement and ambition and as long as that runs unchecked the wilderness will thrive.

  9. The article by Galli is excellent as is all his writing. Prescient and present, it all needs to be said. I’m just not sure the occasion of what is happening in SGM is when to say it all. Maybe. But I cannot get over the suspicion such thinking is a jumping of the gun. If the accusations against CJ and SGM are on the mark (and some must be by their own admissions and actions) these reasons should be kept in check so they do not become excuses. Regardless of the reasons for these sins, they are no excuse. Our quick response of looking at the milieu we find ourselves in and looking for cultural forces to explain it all could get in the way of dealing with the reality of the accusations, which are very serious.

    • Thanks, Matt. I agree with you. As I will say in my post tomorrow, I think Mark downplays the responsibility of the pastor himself in his post. I understand why he does so, because he wants to make his one point as strongly as he can—that the way we have conceived of “church” in this megachurch age is spiritually perilous. Nevertheless, each individual situation must be handled in its own context, with regard to the facts of each case. I don’t think Mark Galli has a dog in the fight with regard to SGM and C.J. Mahaney; I think he was simply making some pertient observations on a more general level.

  10. Interesting article….I have many reservations about Sovereign Grace Ministries. There are pages, and pages on the internet by individuals called “Survivors of Sovereign Grace”,’ blogs about excessive church discipline, etc.. I didn’t know what to make of it. One of the down sides to the internet is that anyone can blog, start a webpage and say anything about anyone. As a result I think there is more of a propensity of have issues of libel, gossip and slander today than you did in the past. That said, it bothered me as to how many pages existed on the web, so what I did was to ask 3 people who I respect to look them over and offer their insights. Each one of them came back and said that these pages should be a red flag and a reason to be cautious about Sovereign Grace. That more of less confirmed my gut feeling. But Sovereign Grace has a lot of issues outside those webpages, the issue of how Larry Tomczak was handled should be disturbing for anyone who claims to have faith in God.

    In regards to C.J. mahaney I don’t think he is alone in this issue. Evangelicals do a good job of identifying idols outside the evangelical church. (ie…alcohol, pornograghy, etc..) but they have done a terrible job identifying idols within the church. For many pastors can become idols (ie John Piper, C.J. Mahaney, Brian McClaren, Mark Driscoll, Rick Warren, Andy Stanley, etc..) and are worshipped. The evangelical church today creates these mega star church pastors and then expects them to be super human. They are expected to be perfect which they are not, They are also expected to be “Biblical” (however that may be described….) which carries its own problems. For example…how do you define, “Biblical?”

    When I lived in the Dairy State my pastor who I got to know well told me of the pressure he faced regularly in this Third Wave Charasmatic church of which I was a member. On one side you had the charasmatics that pushed for more more spiritual gifts, more speaking in tongues, and more healing “sessions” of which demons could be driven out. When the pastor refused they responded by saying that he stifled the “spirit of God” and prevented God from working within the chruch. Then he also had the Baptist, evangelicals, (cessationists) etc.. on the opposing side who didn’t like the charasmatic movement, etc.. and chastised the pastor for being unBiblical and letting error be practiced in the church. It was a damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Either way he was going to be screwed!!!. And It became a contributing factor to why he left.

    But the pressure that many fundgeclials place on others is extreme. My gut tells me that more Ted Haggards are in the wings waiting to happen. Why? Because people are human and fundgelicals expect their pastors to be perfect. Before Ted Haggard went down in flames could he stand before New Life Church on apacked Sunday morning and say, “Hey I’m stepping back due to some drug issues, etc..” No..New Life would not let him. Ted Haggard had to be perfect and his fall is not only his own responsibility but the creation of those who attended New Life and worshipped him. For Ted Haggard and others the only real out is a “moral failure”. And while that may not be the case with C.J. Mahaney (I still don’t understand what the issue of pride is with him? I wonder if its related to the claims made by former Sovereign Grace members) I wonder how many pastors choose to have an affair, pick up a prostitute, etc.. becuase they can’t handle the stress and they want out.

    But it also raises other issues. So many evangelicals are co-dependent on their pastors today it makes you wonder what happens when they leave. For example, due to the “personality cult” what will happen to Mars Hill when Mark Driscoll calls it a day? What will Bethlehem Baptist do when John Piper decides to pack it in and start collecting sea shells that he can tell God about 😉 What is Grace Community Church going to do when John MacArthur decides to leave? Maybe through C.J. Mahaney many members of Sovereign Grace can see as to what type of idol they have made and worshipped through this “leave”.

    For some reason evangelicalsim seems to suffer from narcissim. Maybe that’s the result of how the church operates. It practically adapted so many other aspects of American culture that it becomes a source of concern. As a former Christian I certainly don’t see grace, love, compassion in many churches; at least the ones that I was a part of.

    • I wonder how many pastors choose to have an affair, pick up a prostitute, etc.. becuase they can’t handle the stress and they want out.

      A friend of mine who is a megachurch pastor tells a story of a meeting he had with 10 other megachurch pastors. In that meeting he was the only one who actually liked his job. One pastor said aloud, “what sin do I have to commit to get out of this job?”

  11. WenatcheeTheHatchet says

    “What will Bethlehem Baptist do when John Piper decides to pack it in and start collecting sea shells that he can tell God about?”

    They can give him a complementary copy of “Don’t Waste Your Life”. 😉

  12. Clay Knick says

    Spot on, as usual, by Mark Galli. Love his writing. He really gets what being a pastor is like today.

  13. A basic element of the problem pertains to all churches not just the ‘mega’ ones, and that is a failure to teach the basics.

    C. S. Lewis warned us that we should be thankful to those who have helped us but that we should never put them on a pedestal. (American Christians love idols and oscars.) ‘There are a lot of nice things you can do with sand, but do not try building a house on it.’

    We also love the lack of responsibility that putting it all on the pastor gives to us.

    The Biblical model of Ephesians 4 got lost somewhere in the fog.

    “And He Himself gave some to be … pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ…”

    Of course, the saints, don’t want to work; that’s what the pastor is paid for. And the pastor has his programs; can’t be bothered with equipping the saints to do the work.

    The emphasis over a lifetime is the same old misconception of “inviting people to church” not inviting them to Christ. It is seeing the church as a Billy Graham evangelistic event rather than as the disciplined body of Christ.