Reflections from the Cheap Seats on High-Profile Christian Ministry

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Hello, my name is Zach, and I am a nobody.  I am a pastor of a church of about 150 people.  I have not written any books.  I don’t have a podcast.  You won’t hear me on the radio.  I don’t preach at conferences.  I am quite certain that if you are reading this blog and 1) are not a member of my family, 2) a member of my church, 3) a personal friend, nor 4) one of the other writers of this blog – you do not know me from Adam.  A high-profile pastor or ministry leader, I am not.  I observe the happenings of high-profile Christians and Christian ministries from afar; from the “cheap seats,” as they say.  And in recent days, there has been quite the abundance of noteworthy happenings to observe, many of them rather troubling, at least from where I’m sitting. 

I have no desire to dive into any of the particular happenings I’m referring to.  You likely know what kinds of things I’m talking about.  Sex scandals.  Firings.  Debates about the value of third-party reviews.  Apologies for public statements.  And things like these.  I have no inside track perspective about any of these things, and I am woefully under-qualified to wade into public debate about who should’ve done what, and when, and why.  But, watching a number of recent situations involving high-profile pastors and Christian leaders unfold, is leading me to a number of conclusions.  And I thought there may be some value in sharing those thoughts here.  So, here goes…

The spiritual dangers that attend wide visibility & influence are myriad.

It is widely assumed among Christian leaders that the more eyeballs that you can attract to your ministry, and the more influence you can gain in the wider body of Christ, the better.  That assumption is certainly one I’ve held in the not-so-distant past, but I am starting to think it is entirely wrong-headed. What seems like success as it concerns the spread of the Gospel (gaining visibility, a wider hearing and influence, etc.) evidently poses a serious threat to the souls of those who see such success.  The more people who listen to you, and who work for you, and who praise and defend you in public, the easier it becomes to think highly of yourself and over-estimate your own importance to the advance of the Gospel. If pride comes before destruction, that’s a dangerous place to be.  I think more of us need to chew long and hard on this reality.

No quality is more important in a leader than spiritual integrity.

In the spirit of the Apostle Paul, if I have thousands of Christians eagerly devouring my sermons every Sunday; and I am a well known conference preacher; and if I get to sit in the VIP seats at T4G and TGC and the SBC, and have a team of paid research assistants, and write books that are treasured by millions; and if I lead globally influential ministries and institutions – but have not integrity – I have nothing.  I am nothing if I do not have integrity.  Ministerial success without spiritual integrity is like a gold plated cow pie.  Shiny on the outside, but putrid within.

The godliest & best known pastors/leaders are but sinners in need of grace.

I am confident that not every Christian embroiled in public controversy is a bad person; but they are merely people.  The tendency to idolize Christian leaders is strong within the church.  It’s always been this way, I suppose (1 Corinthians 1:12), but it’s never been healthy.  No leader should be idolized.  They simply cannot bear the weight of your reverence.

The only man worthy of centering an entire institution around is Jesus.

As good and godly and skillful of a man or woman a Christian may be, to build an entire institution around him or her is a recipe for disaster. Doing so also obscures Jesus and his Gospel.  What happens to the institution when the great leader proves unstable and unreliable, or has a moral fall, or (as is inevitable) dies?  Though I’m not sure it’s possible to build a church of, say, 10,000+ people unless it has one specific gifted and dynamic leader; that point aside, it simply should not be that a church of 10,000+ Christ-followers should crumble when a single leader goes away.  Yet, this has happened on more than one occasion.  Does this not testify to the foolishness of building an institution around someone not named Jesus Christ?

No human institution / organization is worth preserving at all costs.

In just about every situation I can think of where a high-profile Christian leader has had a moral fall, or has become ensnared in scandal, there has been a long history of scrambling to keep things covered up and keep the organization standing, preceding the fall or scandal.  This, in my view (though others have pointed it out as well), is one of the reasons many organizations do not deal with the sins of its visible leaders directly and openly.  They are afraid of losing the organization completely.  Perhaps the greatest challenge facing any successful and influential Christian institution is remaining willing to see, openly (i.e. publicly) admit, and humbly correct sinful & unwise patterns within it.  It is very easy for individuals working in successful institutions to forget that just as no human being is crucial to the success of God’s sovereign purpose; every human institution (Christian or otherwise) is ultimately dispensable as well.  No institution is worth covering up sin and employing sly public relations strategies to protect.

No leader is too important to have meaningful accountability in his own local church. 

One of the dangers of becoming an “important” Christian leader (apparently) is the temptation to think that you are above meaningful moral accountability.  And in many cases it seems, becoming very “important” makes it very easy to insulate yourself from direct confrontation and correction.  I suspect this is probably because if you are an “important” leader, there are not too many others around you who are quite as “important” as you. 

Now obviously, if you are an “important” leader, you probably are not reading this blog.  But if you are, would you hear me when I say that you are not too important to be known by real people in your own local church, and known so well as to be confronted and corrected when you get out of line.  All the rules that apply to every Christian apply to you.  If everyone else needs accountability in their local churches, so do you.  No exceptions. 

Ministering in obscurity is a blessing, not a curse.

More and more, all I want is to serve the Lord faithfully, love my family, preach his Word, love the church, reach out to lost sinners, and then go home to be with Jesus.  That’s what a successful ministry looks like, whether it reaches tens or thousands. I used to want to be a high-profile pastor.  Now, I’m afraid I if I gained the whole world I might forfeit my soul.  Fame and influence is highly over-rated, as I believe is becoming all the more evident with every new scandal.  Let’s just be faithful to the Lord, and learn to see obscurity as a blessing and not a curse.

Don’t be deceived. Your sin will find you out.

If there is anything every high-profile scandal testifies to, it is the fact that you can only cover your tracks for so long.  No Christian leader and no Christian organization is too big to fail.  No matter the breadth of your influence, the depths of your sinfulness will bring your little kingdom to nothing, if you do not take heed.  If this is true for the highest-of-profile leaders, it is certainly true for scrubs like me (and maybe like you).  Take heed, lest you fall, brothers and sisters.  Your sin will find you out, no matter how skilled you may become at covering it up.

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Zach Putthoff

About Zach Putthoff

Originally from Tonganoxie, KS, Zach, serves as pastor for preaching at Shepherd's Community Church, in Lafayette, CO. He received his B.A. in Biblical Studies at the Moody Bible Institute and put in a few years of graduate level study in biblical counseling at The Master's University. Zach is happily married to his best friend Noelle, and has three awesome kids.