3 Occupational Hazards for Pastors

Every occupation has its hazards. As John Calvin noted, “The nobility is full of vanity, of excessive pomp, of pride, of licentiousness and insolence. . . . Justice is full of favors, of avarice, of tricks. . . . Merchandising is full of lies, of crooked deals, of perjury, of deceptions. . . . In brief, there is no vocation in which a great deal of abuse is not committed” (Treatises Against the Anabaptists, 278).

We still hold stereotypes about the sins most common to each vocation. We believe financiers are prone to greed, traveling salesman to philandering, chefs to gluttony, construction workers to lasciviousness, bureaucrats to sloth, entertainers to addiction, and baggage handlers to wrath (just kidding, maybe).

Ring of Truth

Stereotypes tend to elicit both agreement and disputation. To some they ring true, but to others they sound prejudicial. But Scripture seems to support the notion that certain temptations and occupations line up. Consider James 3:1–2, which warns: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. . . . If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.”

Distressingly, after James describes the sins of the tongue, he adds, “No human being can tame the tongue” (James 3:8). At a minimum, therefore, teachers should guard the tongue since we talk so much. Beyond that, the Bible warns leaders to watch themselves. As Paul commands leaders in Galatia as they correct sin in the church, “Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Gal. 6:1; cf. 1 Tim. 4:16).

Temptations Facing Ministers

Do certain sins especially tempt pastors? James seemed to think sins of the tongue come first. In his commentary on James, Luke Timothy Johnson, a brilliant and self-aware lecturer, observes that public speech before a frequently captive audience “provides temptations to virtually every form of evil speech: arrogance and domination over students; anger and pettiness at contradiction or inattention; slander and meanness toward absent opponents; flattery of students for the sake of vainglory” (263).

Johnson’s series of temptations begins and ends with pride: his first word is “arrogance” and his last is “vainglory.” Pride does indeed assault spiritual leaders. As Paul puts it, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1). The apostle confessed even he was prone to conceit; God sent him a thorn in the flesh to keep him from it (2 Cor. 12:7). Scripture shows kings are prone to pride and the trailing vice of cruelty. We remember Saul, Rehoboam, Nebuchadnezzar, and Herod Agrippa, to name a few. Jesus also charged the scribes and Pharisees with pride: “They love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others” (Matt. 23:7–8; see 23:1–12). Their envy of Jesus—so unlettered, yet so popular—was a fruit of that pride.

Christian leaders face additional temptations, too. If we serve a large, prosperous church, we may become greedy. If our church has low expectations, we may become lazy. If our peers outdo us, we may become envious. And pastors are prone to lust. Shortly before I was ordained, a pastor in his 60s with an impressive voice and appearance pulled me aside for a blunt warning: “There is a kind of woman who likes to tempt a pastor and seduce him if she can. Stay away from her.” The warning startled me. It also seemed a bit vain or sexist, since men try to seduce women too. But he spoke with such conviction that it stuck. His warning aligns with Proverbs 5 and needs to be heard today.

Three Common Snares

Still, pride seems to be our greatest danger. My work causes me to travel widely, and my years as a senior pastor and seminary professor make me an unofficial consultant after I speak. The stories I hear suggest that three temptations—all related to pride—commonly beset Christian leaders, especially if they have growing, prominent ministries: (1) adulation invites narcissism, (2) opposition provokes tyranny or cruelty, and (3) long toil induces exhaustion or depression.

1. Adulation invites narcissism.

Christians adore strong, gifted leaders. You’re so bold, so authoritative, they think. You read the Bible, you read the times, you read my soul! When people tell a leader, “That was great,” they often mean, “You are great.” And the proof that the praise is right, one pastor confessed to me, is the success of the ministry. So it’s tempting to believe the accolades.

2. Opposition provokes tyranny.

A growing ministry creates a stunning volume of work. It starts with the time required to fashion compelling messages. When the message hits home, that leads to counseling. And overall success leads to the need for new staff, more space, and capital to fund it. Then opposition comes (it always comes) because the bigger the leader, the bigger the target. Whether he intends to initiate it or not, change occurs when a ministry grows. As Machiavelli observed, perhaps too pessimistically, there’s nothing more difficult to lead than the creation of a new order. Everyone who’s done well under the old system is an enemy and those who may do well in the new are lukewarm friends. Whatever the reasons, leaders always face opposition and resistance.

Pride, then, can cause leaders to push too hard and too confidently to achieve their vision. The workload and the press of time create impatience. Eventually the leader pushes aside opponents and puts the indecisive in their place, perhaps even by bullying or threatening them.

3. Long toil induces exhaustion or depression. 

The work is never done. In pride, Christian leaders can act as if the Sabbath principle applies to everyone but them. But this creates exhaustion. We tell ourselves we’re indispensable (pride again), but there’s never enough time and it is impossible to satisfy everyone, and that leads to depression.

Humbling Gospel

“Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall,” Paul wrote (1 Cor. 10:12). But let us not be pessimists. Every Christian leader is a sinner, but for every leader who falls more shine like lights in the world (Phil. 2:15). More to the point, if the problem is pride we have biblical and theological resources for gospel humility. We know the Lord doesn’t take pleasure in human strength, wisdom, might, or riches; he takes pleasure in those who know and fear him (Jer. 9:23–24; Ps. 147:10–11). As Jesus said, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11;18:14).

The gospel radically humbles true believers. It shouts that our plight was so desperate that God’s radical intervention was essential for our redemption. Our powers are pitiful, our weaknesses terminal. Pastors know this. When we remember it, we both restore our equilibrium in ministry and receive what’s been promised: “God opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble” (James 4:7).

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