3 ‘Worst Practices’ to Knock Your Church Off-Course

By Justin Orr

Two years ago, a wonderful church called me serve as their senior pastor in the aftermath of scandalous pastoral failure. Here's what I can tell you about the three “worst practices” that had knocked the church off-course.

Two years ago, during the initial spike of the COVID pandemic, I was called to serve a wonderful church as their senior pastor. I accepted the call in the aftermath of significant pastoral failure. The church had been planted by the founding pastor in 2001. They grew – and grew fast – because of their unconventional services, willingness to engage the lost, strong relational culture and commitment to stand “in the gap” alongside those in urgent physical and spiritual need. Over the next 17 years, they grew to average approximately 1,800 people each weekend across all services. They sent out missionaries, supported local non-profits (several started by church members), mobilized resources to serve various churches in Haiti, India and Vietnam.

Everything was flourishing … until the elders discovered their founding pastor had been hiding a secret, criminal sin. Initially, several elders confronted him with the evidence and begged him to do the right thing for the sake of the church. Rather than heed their warning, however, the pastor refused a righteous, repentant response (such as King David’s confession in Psalm 51) and lawyered up to fight. The curtain of his heart was drawn back and the faulty (pragmatic) construction of his ‘spiritual house’ fell into view. In meetings, counseling appointments, testy conversations and countless visits, I have often heard the church taking up the words of Isaiah 64:11-12 — “Our holy and glorious temple, where our ancestors praised you, has been burned with fire, and all that we treasured lies ruins. After all this, Lord, will you hold yourself back? Will you keep silent and punish us beyond measure?”

A months-long law enforcement investigation led the D.A. to deliver notice that the state would be proceeding with a case involving multiple felonies. Soon detectives stood with the elders after a service and shared the outcome of their investigation in meticulous and agonizing detail. The scope and scale of the confusion, doubt, disappointment, discouragement, anger and betrayal was staggering. Its impact was wide-ranging and deeply felt.

For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open. (Luke 8:17, NIV ’84)

After learning of the charges and seeing no way back from his public undoing and precipitous fall, the pastor tragically took his own life. He left behind a wife, children, grandchildren and indescribable personal and communal pain, as well as emotional, spiritual and financial debris.

Pastor, “beware, sin is crouching at your church-door; its desire is to have you, but you must rule over it” (Gen. 4:7; NIV). “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Satan is keen to be your accuser, and he is probing for leverage so he might dethrone the Lord from your heart and consume you from within. He offers you the shiny lure of success, recognition, respect, influence and disposable income. When the hook sets, you will be caught up in pride, greed, guilt and shame. Submit yourselves then, to God. “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:7-8).

One consequence of serving in the aftermath of a scandal, is whenever I meet another local pastor, I am met with a consistent reaction: “You work at that church? You guys are still around?” And then the question: “How did it all happen? How could he do it for so long at that level?”

What pains me isn’t that the only association locals have with our church is so contrary to the “Good News,” but they have only seen the tip of the dysfunctional iceberg. They can’t see the way power was exercised and fear weaponized. They haven’t seen the impact of marginalizing women, or the harm caused when one’s “yes” is really “no” and their “no” is “yes.” They didn’t experience the constant threat of job loss that hung over those few pastoral staff members who dared to challenge authority – or the spiritual lethargy that set in when senior leadership slandered congregants who asked questions. Finally, a poor ecclesiology offered a final layer of protection to the status quo and hid the pilfering of the widow’s mite from an anesthetized people.

Truthfully, it was predictable. The warning signs were there like they have been in other churches across the country. Even worse, it could happen at your church too. What I learned from numerous hours in conversation with staff, former staff, elders, confidants and congregants can be summarized in three “worst practices” that knocked the church off-course. I’d like to share them with you and offer a few encouraging reminders about what the Bible calls us to as ministers of the gospel.

1. Isolation/Autonomy. When you become the senior minister or lead pastor, you’ll be tempted to give yourself license to be the exception to every rule or guideline – especially if you’re working on a small staff or are planting without the added benefit of a church-planting team. One of the main benefits is the ability to freely respond to each need or opportunity. What might begin as a single act, justified by acutely stressful circumstances or unusually busy weeks, will eventually morph from “just this once” to a regular part of your pastoral practice.

When you become the exception to the Sunday rehearsal “call time,” ignore best practices for submitting receipts for reimbursement, avoid availability post-service for prayer, neglect counseling or abandon visitation, eventually you become the exception to every rule. This posture of heart is at odds with the calling to shepherd and serve God’s people. It also can lead you down a path you never would have walked otherwise.

At the church I serve, the pastor was the exception to most rules, and this led to his increasing isolation from all but a few friends – no colleagues – and family members. No one knew him, because he would not let himself be known, even as the church grew and the staff grew. More than covering up his own insecurities, he was hiding what he had done and had become. He presented like a true introvert and the ministry was “successful,” so it was easier for him to establish a very private life free from accountability and oversight. As for the rest of it, unfortunately, he was charismatic enough to explain it away.

What did it look like in practice? How did it play out here? The pastor built out the church staff with family or those who had grown up in the student ministries he led in the area. As a congregation, the church was not part of a denomination or affiliated with any network, nor did they receive certification with financial accountability organizations like ECFA. He reported to no outside boards nor were there any wise men or experienced pastors who spoke truth in love to him on personal or professional matters. The senior pastor only went to the office for a few hours each week and often skipped elder meetings.

He also limited his work to preaching (and teaching) but wasn’t available after services for prayer or for counseling during the week. In fact, he left the stage and the auditorium as soon as he was done. Yes, he had multiple services, but there was an hour between them. He felt free to spend significant church resources on meals each Sunday afternoon at the finest restaurants in town. Functionally, the church never had a formal budget and leadership did not perform an audit until Year 18. This provided the ultimate atmosphere of enablement and the fertile ground needed for seeds of secret sin to sprout up and thrive.

Pastor, you’re responsible to keep your life right before God (Rom. 12:1-2; 1 Cor. 4:1-2; 2 Cor. 4:16; Gal. 5:17-25; 2 Pet. 3:1-11). Your call is to guard and maintain your life, piety and gifts (1 Tim. 4:14-16; 2 Tim. 2:19-20). If you depend on your personality or professional competency, then you’ll likely be tempted to circumvent development of Christ-like character. If you do it long enough, you’ll be, in Jesus’ words, like a white-washed tomb. When you’re spiritually dead, it is impossible to lead a church toward health. Watch your life and doctrine closely (Acts 20:28).

How? Invite others into your life and give them access to those areas of your heart/life where sin might get a first-foothold. Self-awareness tools abound (Enneagram is a personal favorite) and they can help you know yourself well enough to predict where you are prone to wander. Establish relationships with godly men (and women) who you empower to speak truth in love to you. Yes, accountability and vulnerability bring constraints, but they promote a Genesis-like environment that is “very good.” God’s work in us is personal and intimate, but it was never meant to be private, according to Eugene Peterson. While sin leads us to customized selfishness, the gospel of grace draws us into and conforms us to community.

Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” (2 Cor. 4:2; see also Jude 4)

2. Lack of Accountability. The church I serve was started with an explicit desire to provide greater freedom to the leadership team. The founding pastor had served under micro-managers and been constrained as an associate pastor by rigid elder bodies. In the beginning, he wanted the money to be used for ministry and not tied up by leaders who each had their own competing agenda. However, he swung the pendulum too far. It’s a familiar story and one we’re all prone to repeat: Liberty gave way to license, and license to larceny. He was lost to a spirit of entitlement that would go on to affect the leadership team until they had justified “privileges” sufficiently to assuage any guilt.

But that guilt had a caustic effect: It eroded spiritual life and many of the remaining staff experienced burnout or they lost the joy of their salvation over time, as they witnessed the abuse of power and the weaponization of fear. Being manipulated and lied to snuffed out enthusiasm and internal drive. Due to numerical “success,” however, elders felt they did not have justification to share concerns regarding what they observed over time. Honest dialogue was not fostered. Because elders were appointed by the senior pastor and rotated on/off annually at his discretion, accountability was lacking. In the end, there was no one to warn, rebuke, stop or save the senior pastor from making the mistakes that led to staggering shame and cost him his very life. Pastor, do not reject accountability, embrace it. It is limiting but necessary to safeguard you from the idols of your heart.

Where would Israel have ended up without Nathan to speak to David about Bathsheba? Where would Saul have been without the prophet Samuel – who even spoke rebuke from beyond the grave! How effective would Peter have been if Paul had not confronted his hypocrisy before Gentiles? Can we not understand the importance of Paul rebuking the “foolish Galatians” and the Corinthian churches? Were Ananias and Saphira cautioned from lying to the Holy Spirit? Just think if someone had been around them to draw that line in the sand for the couple! Doesn’t Jude exhort us to snatch our friends from the fire? (Jude 23) Surely Jesus was justified in delivering a word fitly spoken to the seven churches in Revelation!

Accountability is necessary for the Christian and for the Christian leader. Accountability takes several forms: personal, relational, professional, spiritual, etc. The Bible is replete with verses that deal with the importance of accountability (c.f. Rom. 14:12; 1 Thess. 5:11; Lk. 17:3; 1 Tim. 3:4; 2 Cor. 5:10; Col. 3:16; Eph. 4:25, 32; Gal. 6:1-2; Heb. 10:25). As ministers, we may be able to avoid or deflect accountability, but we would be wise to embrace it. Otherwise, we cannot preach and practice the whole counsel of God. The spiritual health of our lives, our families and our people may depend on it. When the moment comes that you most require accountability, you’ll never actually regret it. Leadership invites accountability. Will you?

3. Resentment (burnout, bitterness and greed). Most people I spoke to pointed to a particular business meeting in 2014 as a turning point. The church was growing and the senior pastor began to develop a vision for what the church might become. He gathered members and pitched his vision for a 1,200-seat auditorium with a state-of-the-art children’s wing, a gymnasium, a student center, coffee bar, etc. In the business meeting, the church was stunned as illustrations and artistic renderings were revealed. Members were unanimous in their opposition to the proposal and refused to pursue it further.

The pastor was crushed and consequently experienced a season of discouragement, disillusionment and detachment. To his credit, he sought professional counseling, but people paint the picture of a man who felt betrayed by the church’s unwillingness to finance the new building. Their unwillingness to follow his leadership, as he processed it, was a personal affront. Staff recalled him feeling that, if they wouldn’t buy in to his vision, his hard work had been for nothing. At the end of the day, he didn’t feel appreciated.

He began to discuss a five- to seven-year transition plan, in which his son would assume the role of lead pastor while he provided oversight from a distance. His personal spending also increased dramatically, and those closest to him believed he felt that if people weren’t going to follow his vision, then they owed him in other ways for all of his sacrifices. He allowed little blows to his pride to plant seeds of bitterness and entitlement in his heart. Many ministers have felt similarly but, by God’s grace, have not acted out in a similar manner.

Pastor, after serving the Lord and attending to your life in Christ, you are to give yourself (pour yourself out) to serving others – particularly God’s people. What’s more? You are called to serve your neighbor through self-sacrifice (John 10:11, 15; Lk. 10:34-35) and faithfully steward your God-given ministry (1 Cor. 4:1-2; Titus 1:7) in the same way that Jesus himself stewarded his (Matt. 20:25-28; 23:11-12; Mark 10:43-44; Luke 22:26-27; John 13:1-20).

What does that mean? It means a pastor is meant to pray for others (Acts 6:4; Col. 1:9). Pray for believers to mature in Christ and for unbelievers to place their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior (Acts 6:4; 2 Tim. 2:1-8).

Pastors are called to serve as under-shepherds to our Great Shepherd (John 21:15; 1 Pet. 5:1) by ministering the Word in a variety of ways and means. The bulk and main thrust of our work is done or accomplished in the Spirit’s power and through the authority of the Word of God. The teaching ministry of the Word includes reading, hearing, preaching, praying, explaining, applying and obeying the Word, in season and out (1 Cor. 1:17; 1 Tim. 4:13-14; 2 Tim. 2:2).

You are to teach: the truth handed down generation to generation (2 Tim. 2:2); godliness in Christ (1 Tim. 5:24-6:6); and older men to be sober, reverent, self-controlled, sound in faith and patient (among other things according to Titus 2:1-2). Counted among these other duties of the pastor are to correct and convict with gentleness (2 Tim. 2:25); to bring comfort to your flock by encouraging them and strengthening them (1 Cor. 14:3; 31); to confront sins (1 Tim. 5:1-2; 2 Tim. 4:1-2; Gal. 6:1); to chide rebellious believers to obey the Word of God (2 Thess. 3:15); to confront those with bad/suspect doctrine, in love, for maturity (1 Cor. 13:1; Eph. 4:15); to train/prepare your people in/for spiritual warfare (2 Cor. 11:13-15; Eph. 6:10-18; James 4:7; 1 Pet. 5:8-9); delegate administrative tasks of lower priorities to deacons and other leaders in order to prioritize prayer and the Word (Acts 6:4); to identify, train, empower and release godly men who aspire the office of elder (1 Tim. 1:11, 3:1-7) through the laying on of hands to commission them (Acts 6:6, 13:3, 14:23, 19:6, 1 Tim. 1:5, 2 Tim. 1:6).

While surely there are others, this is the work we ministers of the gospel have undertaken. What protects us from resentment (in its varying forms) is that the work is always offered unto Lord as an act of worship. This offering is given to the one before whom we will one day stand and give an account. We do not work for people – to please them or make them happy – nor is our work offered to them. They benefit from the work, but the work is always God’s. To confuse these realities is to move from health to unhealth.

At the end of the day, you are to equip the saints for the work of the ministry and to conform the community of God’s holy people into the full, mature image of Jesus Christ in love (Eph. 1:15-23; 4:11-13; Col. 1:22-29; 1 Thess. 3:11-13). The best news is that you are able – by the Spirit’s enabling power and through the sufficient and effective Word of God. Faithfulness is required, fruitfulness the promise and blessing the reward. God is with you and God is for you. He will lead your church; continue to follow Him.

Published January 26, 2022

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Justin Orr

Justin Orr was born in Baltimore and grew up as a "missionary kid" in Brazil. He has served Weems Creek Baptist Church in Annapolis, Maryland, McLean Bible Church in metro District of Columbia and now serves as a pastor in Traverse City, Michigan. He holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Mobile, master's degrees from Southeastern Baptist Seminary and the University of Maryland and has participated in graduate fellowships at the Catholic University of America and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He and his wife, Valerie, have three sons, Ezra, Isaac, and Jonah.