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When Pastors Lose Their Way; Part 1

By Raul Rivera

He pastored a longstanding and very successful church. Sunday services were always full to capacity as he delivered the Word of God with passion and conviction.  Now running multiple services, it seemed that everything his church did flourished.  Moreover, the church also started separate nonprofit community outreach corporations to reach deeper into the troubled areas of town. As a result, the efforts of the church ministered to thousands of people each week. "He never judged me, no matter what I did; he always loved me with the love of God," were the words of one young man who had left gang life. Now having been forgiven and restored, that same young man served in one of the outreach programs of the church. What a beautiful ministry it was! To all who met the pastor, it was evident that he was someone special, fulfilling a unique call. Then came an IRS audit of the church, followed by harassment accusations.

Improper use of funds

It actually began as a personal audit that extended into inquiries of the church and summonses being issued. At the end of the audit, the IRS charged the church with allowing their pastor to improperly use $122,000.00 of church funds, constituting a section 4058 "excess benefit transaction." Tax authorities filed federal tax liens under section 6321 totaling $309,000.00 against the pastor and his wife. Moreover, the IRS said he owed a large amount of self-employment taxes that he had never paid. Ministers are allowed to file IRS Form 4361 and become exempt from paying self-employment taxes without losing their ability to receive Social Security benefits when they retire. This is section 1402(g). In his case, however, the pastor said he filed the form with the IRS many years earlier but lost his approval letter. The IRS stated that they did not have a form on record for him and therefore ordered him to pay the Social Security taxes due for the last 17 years.

A series of shortcomings

Despite the IRS troubles, the ministry continued, but membership at the church slowed and then began to dwindle. The financial burden of the IRS tax liens continued to weigh heavily upon him. He often wondered if he would ever feel free again. What happened next made the IRS problems look small. He received court papers indicating that a former church assistant was suing him for sexual harassment. What next? Soon after, the church board of trustees also discovered that the pastor had sold church properties, the proceeds of which could not seem to be found. Furthermore, the pastor had signed papers for the church to purchase a small mansion and make it his parsonage, all without the knowledge of the board of trustees. How could a pastor that full of promise, giftedness, compassion, and passion for God's people lose his way? It all has to do with the structure for success you build around yourself to prevent the ministry from causing you to lose your way.

Reasons why pastors lose their way

If I had to sum up into one word the reason why pastors lose their way that word would be SUCCESS.  It was also the main reason why God's chosen people lost their way over and over again. Let me identify three dangerous attitudes successful pastors must avoid.

1.    Pastor justifies indulgences. The workload is heavy, and oftentimes, when others are resting, the pastor is working. The smaller the church, the harder the pastor works. For years, he labors and toils, getting involved in the messy lives of the sheep. Then the church grows and success begins to manifest. Many pastors begin to feel they are owed something. After all, they have paid the price. Now it's their turn to reap some of the benefits of the success of the church, right? It begins as just a small thought, but then it festers into something terrible. I know how it felt when I toiled as a young pastor. I know the feelings I had to fight of thinking,"It's someone else's turn to the do the heavy lifting." A pastor can begin to justify why doing this or that is OK. He justifies why it's OK to be waited on and served by others at the church. I have had many conversations with successful pastors and can easily identify when he is festering this attitude. The conversation shifts from being theocentric to egocentric.  Lord, please help us!

2.    Why should I wait? When a pastor surveys the success of his/her church, there is a temptation to believe that it's all because of his/her hard work and dedication. This produces a mindset of "I and I alone should have the power to make decisions", which develops a pattern of disregarding the board. In turn, the board of directors becomes dysfunctional, leaving the pastor to justify why he acts alone or with a few "yes men".  That is a dangerous place. 

3.    Pastor disconnects more from those around him/her. Tiredness often plagues successful pastors. The amount of time involved, meetings to attend, and decisions that need to be made at this level create a relational depletion. The pastor is now running on relational fumes. Rather than choosing to be refilled and to reconnect with people, the pastor can start to make the mistake of separating himself/herself from the very people to which and alongside which he is called to serve. As I said earlier, getting involved with God's sheep is messy. After years of loving people unconditionally, success tempts a pastor to create shields of protection in an effort to guard his/her heart from those who have caused (and can cause future) pain.  In fact, even in the symphony of love and admiration hailed on a successful pastor, he most often still hears loudest the voice of a disgruntled member and remembers the pain caused by him/her. "I won't let that happen again" can become the unspoken motto of the pastor's heart.

4.    Pride: This is certainly a greater trap than any other for the successful pastor. The anointing, the grace, the momentum all begins to make the pastor feel better than he really is. Oftentimes, this can come with overconfidence as the pastor starts to believe his/her own press releases. At this point, the pastor stops seeking out the counsel of those he once turned to for advice.

What if you succeed?

Take a minute and think of what success in ministry looks like to you.  Ask yourself, "What if my ministry succeeds?" "What if God grants me increased stewardship?"  What are you doing today to deal with success? I prepared myself to make sure that I would not lose my way. I am always mindful that success without structure corrupts, and that is precisely why I built in restraints. Having said that, there are thousands of pastors who are making it to the end, staying fixed on their goal of living a legacy of uprightness. Proverbs 4 says, "Mark out a straight path - and stick to the path." Structure is the lattice upon which success grows! You can do it. You can make it to the end. We would love to help you look at your ministry and see where you might be vulnerable. I write this because I believe in God's vision for you to go the distance. Join me at our next conference and let me show you ways to build the structure that can help your church grow, stay the course, and find success." 

In my next article, I will share the rest of the story with the pastor and show three things you can do to create the proper structure for success and prevent you from losing your way when you succeed. Stay tuned.


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