Isolation: The Soil for Collapse

“Let’s never get past our need for Jesus to carry us.”

The Bible knows the human condition well. It reveals that in each of us there is potential for great good and potential for tremendous evil.

I look back on my days in graduate school with a bit of awe as I see how God has used many of my classmates for good. Two of them are pastors with me at our church in Nashville. Another worships at our church and has spent over a decade making an impact on college students at the university where he serves and across the nation as well. Other former classmates have become authors, teachers, counselors, pastors and thought leaders.

Sadly, there are also a few from our class whose stories have included adultery, divorce, abandoning their families, using illegal drugs and leaving Christianity altogether.

It grieves me to see the moral collapse of those alongside whom I had once studied, prayed, worshipped, served, loved and dreamed about the future of Christianity.

This reminds me of a story I heard about a famous pastor that was told by his former intern. One time at a staff meeting, the intern recalls the famous pastor informing the entire staff that Satan has the power to tempt him in any number of ways but that there is one area of his life that Satan will never touch: his marriage. According to the intern, the pastor was caught in bed with a mistress less than one year after that staff meeting.

For pastors, and all leaders, stories like these should cause us to pause and humbly admit our weaknesses and temptations. It is not only ancient biblical accounts that tell us how frail we are. It is also the stories of moral collapse “from the top” that happen every single day—even among the most well-intended Christian leaders. There is potential in every leader, even the most virtuous ones, to become caught in unimaginable transgression.

Think about it. If Abraham, the father of all who have faith, could offer up his wife twice to be sexually used by unsavory men in order to save his own hide, aren’t we also capable of preserving ourselves while making others vulnerable? If Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, could for many years live out a lie concerning his birthright, aren’t we also capable of becoming liars? If Rahab, who is listed as an ancestor of Jesus, gave up her body as a prostitute, aren’t we also capable of immoral thoughts and behaviors?

If Peter, one of the twelve apostles and writer of two New Testament letters, could fall into xenophobic behavior after Jesus had restored him to ministry because he was afraid of what the other xenophobes might say, and if Barnabas, widely known as “the son of encouragement,” could stumble right alongside him, aren’t we also capable of excluding those whom Jesus embraces? If King David, who gave us beautiful worship poetry in the Psalms and who was identified by the Lord himself as “a man after God’s own heart,” could abuse his power by taking Bathsheba—also the daughter of one of his most loyal friends—to sleep with him and then scheming to have her husband, also a loyal friend, killed to cover it up, aren’t we also capable of abusing our power to get from others whatever we want?

To these, we could also add many of the titans from church history. John Calvin participated in the execution of a man whose crime was disagreement with Christian doctrine. Martin Luther made statements that were racist and anti-Semitic. Jonathan Edwards owned slaves until the day he died. Martin Luther King Jr. was unfaithful to his wife as he traveled the country preaching from the Bible and leading the civil rights movement.

On the one hand, I find the stories of such leaders strangely encouraging. If there is hope for these, then there is also hope for someone like me. On the other hand, their stories, their foolishness and their sin should instruct us and help us live differently. Their stories teach us the importance of guarding our hearts, because our hearts, especially when we think they are not vulnerable or susceptible to sin, are more vulnerable and susceptible than ever.

“Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed,” said the apostle, “lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man” (1 Cor. 10:12–13).

Are you a leader who thinks you are not vulnerable? Are you like the person who looks at the acorn and thinks that such a little thing could never become an oak tree, or a forest or a forest fire? The sin in our hearts is the acorn. It has the power, if not crushed, to germinate, to become a sprout … and then a tree … and then an entire forest.

This is in part why Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, warned not only against adultery but against lust in the heart. This is also why he warned not only against murder but against a grudge in the heart. Every adulterous fling begins with a “harmless” thought or glance, and every murderous rampage begins with a seemingly insignificant grudge.

Wherever our hearts are vulnerable, it is essential to crush the acorn before it becomes a sprout, to dig up the sprout before it grows into a tree, to chop down the tree before it becomes a forest, to plow the forest before it takes over more and more land.

God said to Cain, “Sin is crouching at your door … You must rule over it” (Gen. 4:7). Master the sin, Cain, lest the sin gain mastery over you. Crush the sin, Cain, lest the sin end up crushing you and those around you.

As the wise Puritan John Owen said, “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.”

And then there is P!nk, the rock star, who sings words that should be a daily refrain for every leader—or human being, for that matter—who is self-aware:

I’m a hazard to myself.

Don’t let me get me.

This was King David’s problem. His adultery and murder began with what we might call “smaller” or “lesser” sins. First, he grew complacent in his duty as a leader. We are told that the Bathsheba incident occurred during the time when kings go out to war. Israel’s armies, which included Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, were away fighting the Ammonites. But David, who could have been fighting with his men and leading the charge, sat at home isolated in his castle in the same way that many compromised leaders isolate themselves from community and accountability. It is also significant that Scripture says David, when he saw and sent for Bathsheba, had been napping on his couch in the middle of the day. As the men of Israel were out risking their lives at war, sweating and bleeding and putting their lives on the line and exhausted from battle, David, their king, was by himself in the comfort of his castle taking an afternoon nap.

Why did David exempt himself from fighting alongside his men? One can only speculate. But perhaps he did so for the same reason he would send for, and then take for himself, somebody else’s wife:

David thought he had earned the right to do whatever he pleased.

After all, he had spent several years running as a refugee and living in caves to escape the jealous, murderous Saul; he had rescued Israel in the slaying of Goliath; he had endured the capture of his own family members at war; and he had lamented the death in battle of his best friend Jonathan. Furthermore, he had endured wrongful shame and ridicule from his wife Michal; he had been a man of faithfulness and integrity and prayer; he had given refuge and shelter to Jonathan’s orphaned son with special needs, Mephibosheth; and he had fought more battles than just about anybody. Through all of these things, hadn’t he earned the right to enjoy some leisure and to live however he wanted to live?

“After all that I have done for these people and for this nation,” David might have said to himself, “what’s the harm in a little bit of illicit sex on the side? What’s the harm in a little bit of cover-up when she reveals that she is expecting my child? What’s the harm in arranging for the death of Uriah to cover our tracks and create plausible deniability so the world will think that the child belongs to Uriah instead of me? I have the stability of an entire nation on my shoulders. Things would erupt into turmoil if this got out. I’m plagued by stress. I feel so much pressure. I feel so alone. Nobody knows what it’s like to be me. I deserve this.”

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It’s what Tim Keller once called “magisterial self-pity.” Forgetting the privilege of leadership, we come to view ourselves as victims instead of servants, as being above the law instead of living under it like everybody else, as being entitled instead of being grateful recipients of an undeserved grace.

And so I will ask again, have you ever thought that Satan couldn’t get to you too? Have you ever said with Peter—the disciple who would later deny and betray Jesus not once, but three times—“Even though they all fall away, I will not” (Mark 14:29)? Have you ever thought that you aren’t capable of denial and betrayal and adultery and murder and other such things?

You are. And I am too.

That part of us that thinks it’s harmless to flirt with lust, gossip, greed or anger—just so long as we don’t get into bed with it—is the fool in us. Quite possibly, we could end up in bed with it sooner than we think.

In the past two years, five of my pastor friends have lost their ministries.

Not just one or two friends, though that would be tragic enough. Five of them have fallen.


Most of these pastors are widely known beyond their local contexts as authors, conference speakers and movement leaders. From the outside, they appeared to be at their peak.

For reasons beyond my ability to understand, God has graciously protected me from moral collapse over the years—so far. Knowing the fragility and fickleness of my own heart, sometimes I am perplexed at how this could be. Why them and not me? Sometimes I wonder if, under different circumstances, I, too, would collapse morally. As the famous hymn goes, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it …” Indeed, I feel my proneness to wander every single day. The lustful, murderous David and the cowardly, self-protecting Peter always lurk within me.

There is another person from Scripture who lurks in me. He is not the adulterer or the murderer. Neither is he the coward or the self-protector. He is the one whose name means “my God is the Lord.” He lives and serves and leads courageously, goes against the grain and would rather die while being faithful to God than be rich, comfortable and unfaithful. He is the prophet who publicly takes on hundreds of false prophets and wins. He is the man of faith who prays rain down from the sky and brings hope to a hopeless widow. He is the man of God who speaks truth to power only to have a bounty put on his head by Jezebel, the paragon of evil herself, who will stop at nothing to have him discredited, silenced and destroyed.

This prophet’s name is Elijah. He, too, succumbs to the pressure and isolation of leadership—and not by falling into sin, but by falling into despair. Though he has seen much victory and experienced abundant provision from the Lord, Elijah grows tired and weary. When he hears the news that Jezebel wants him killed, he enters a dark season of floundering faith and deep depression (1 Kings 19:1–18). He collapses into himself, hides in a cave and comes to believe that he is the only servant of Yahweh who remains. Then, at his lowest point, Elijah prays the prayer that, no doubt, many other leaders have prayed:

“[Elijah] went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, ‘It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers’” (1 Kings 19:4).

Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great Baptist “Prince of Preachers,” once told his students that if they could be happy doing something besides ministry, they should do it. I’m sure there were several reasons why Spurgeon gave this advice. But the reason his advice makes sense to me is this …

Being a pastor—or any kind of leader—can be very, very hard.

In my mid-twenties, while studying to become a pastor, I came across a suicide note published in the local newspaper. It had been written by a local pastor, and it included these haunting words:

“God forgive me for not being any stronger than I am. But when a minister becomes clinically depressed, there are very few places where he can turn for help … It feels as if I’m sinking farther and farther into a downward spiral of depression. I feel like a drowning man, trying frantically to lift up my head to take just one more breath. But one way or another, I know I am going down.”

The writer was a promising young pastor of a large church in Saint Louis, Missouri. Having secretly battled depression for a long time and having sought help through Scripture reading, prayer, therapy and medication, his will to claw through yet another day was gone. In his darkest hour, the young leader decided he would rather join the angels than continue facing demons for years to come.

Some of those “demons,” it turned out, were high-powered members of his church whose expectations of him were impossibly high.

Not many months after this man’s tragic suicide, another Saint Louis pastor asphyxiated himself because of a similar secret depression.

As an aspiring pastor myself, the news of these two pastors’ suicides rocked my world.

How could these men—both gifted leaders who believed in Jesus, preached grace and comforted others with gospel hope—end up losing hope for themselves?

As more people heard the stories of these two men, it became clear that both of them shared an all-too-common reality for pastors. Both had allowed themselves to become relationally isolated … especially in their churches.

They had plenty of adoring fans.

But they had few, if any, actual friends.

In his suicide note, the first pastor said that he felt trapped. He was isolated and depressed, but he didn’t tell anyone because he thought it would ruin his ministry. He had come to believe that pastors and leaders weren’t allowed to be weak. Nor were they allowed to be human, like everybody else.

Unfortunately, the two pastors from Saint Louis are not rare. Many of us pastors have fallen into the emotional abyss—not in spite of the fact that we are in ministry but because we are in ministry, just as many leaders also fall into the emotional abyss not in spite of their leadership positions but because of them.

Studies show that pastors experience anxiety and depression at a rate that is disproportionately high compared to the rest of the population. Because of the unique pressures associated with spiritual warfare, unrealistic expectations from congregants and oneself, the freedom many feel to criticize and gossip about pastors with zero accountability (especially in the digital age), failure to take time off for rest and replenishment, marriage and family tensions as a result of the demands of ministry, financial strain and self-comparison, pastors are prime candidates for relational isolation, emotional turmoil and moral collapse.

Studies also show that some pastors face unreasonable, even impossible, demands placed on them by their people. I am not one of those pastors, thanks to a church that receives my gifts and acknowledges my limitations. All in all, the people of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, treat me with extraordinary love and understanding. But, sadly, not all pastors are as lucky as I am.

Dr. Thom Rainer, a leading pastoral ministry expert, conducted a survey asking church members what they expected from their pastors. Specifically, Dr. Rainer wanted to know the minimum amount of time church members believed their pastors should give each week to various areas of ministry, including prayer, sermon preparation, outreach and evangelism, counseling, administrative tasks, visiting the sick, community involvement, denominational engagement, church meetings, worship services and so on. On average, the minimum amount of time church members expected their pastors to give to the ministry was 114 hours per week. That equates to working sixteen-hour days, seven days a week!

As in all positions of leadership, ministry can take a toll on the pastor’s family. When church members don’t like the pastor’s sermon, when they don’t like the direction of the church, when they think the music is too loud (or too soft), when they believe the pastor should wear a suit instead of jeans (or jeans instead of a suit), when the pastor messes with someone’s “sacred cow,” the pastor’s spouse can become a sounding board for disgruntled church members.

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Second only to those who are married to public officials, no spouse in the world is thrust into the line of “friendly fire” more than the pastor’s spouse. For this very reason, it took my wife, Patti, forty-five minutes to say yes to my marriage proposal! The pastor’s spouse can also experience loneliness: in some churches, the pastor is expected to be as available to the church as he is to his own family.

Then there are the pastor’s kids—the “PKs”—those little ones who are sometimes expected to behave like mature grown-ups. Consciously and subconsciously, the pastor’s kids don’t believe that they are allowed to be kids like their peers. They feel a unique pressure to please, to play the part, to be on their best behavior at all times. For some, this pressure leads to perfectionism and stress. For others, it leads to rebellion. It can be difficult for PKs to blend into the crowd and develop their own identities and personalities because, unlike most kids, they live their lives in the public eye.

Sharing a last name with the pastor fuels a lot of unspoken (and sometimes spoken) pressure for a young person to navigate.

So why am I telling you all of this? For a few reasons …

First, if you are a pastor or a family member of a pastor, I want you to know that the pressure and isolation you sometimes feel is normal. Yours is a unique calling from God—an unspeakable privilege, to be sure—but it is also sometimes unspeakably hard.

Satan is not fond of your life’s mission. He is threatened by it, so he is going to attack you. Sometimes he will attack and accuse you through the very people God has given you to shepherd and love. When this happens, please don’t get cynical about God’s people. Stay hopeful about the church like Paul did with Corinth. Look at the cracked seed, and envision the flower or the fruit tree. Even when you are unfairly criticized, look for a nugget or two of truth in the criticism. You may find something fresh to repent of … and every opportunity to repent is also an opportunity to draw near to Jesus anew.

But we pastors must also admit that there are times when we, and not congregants who struggle with our leadership, are the actual problem. When we feel under pressure, we can become sensitive, defensive, snippy and even aggressive—unless we are careful to guard our hearts. As pastors, we are vulnerable to paint ourselves as victims on the one hand or to become bullies or crooks or adulterers on the other.

What should we do when criticism comes and the criticism is actually fair, when we have hurt people, compromised integrity or even disqualified ourselves from leading? Our task is to apply the things we have taught others … to take full ownership of what we have done, to repent to God and to make restitution to those who have suffered because of our decisions wherever possible.

But this isn’t all. Our task is also to do battle against the guilt and shame that haunt us, the guilt and shame that linger even after we have owned up to God and made restitution to and sought forgiveness from those who have suffered because of our actions. Even if the consequence of our actions ends up being the loss of our ministry, Jesus can still work within us. I dare say that he is eager to do so.

If there was hope for Paul in his coveting (Rom. 7), hope for Peter in his racial insensitivity and cowardice and denials of Jesus (Mark 14:66–72; Gal. 2) and hope for David after his adultery and murder (Ps. 51), then we can be sure that no matter how far we have fallen, we have not fallen beyond the reach of God’s grace and concern. Jesus came for sinners, not for heroes. Perhaps the recognition that we are not heroes can be an occasion—maybe the first one in quite some time—to fall into his healing arms. Though his rod and staff of discipline may seem harsh for a time, may they become our source of comfort down the line … just as they did for David (Ps. 23).

Pastors and all other leaders—let’s pray for each other. Though the spirit is willing, our flesh is weak.

Let’s never get past our need for Jesus to carry us. Without him, we are vulnerable. We are vulnerable when our ministries and spheres of leadership are struggling, and—as the moral collapse of my five friends attests—we are vulnerable when our efforts seem to be soaring and accomplishing great things. Paul called this “living in plenty” and “living in want.” Regardless of our situation, we can do all things through Christ, who gives us strength (Phil. 4:11–13). Let’s believe this together. And let’s hold each other’s arms up when we struggle to believe.

If you are not a pastor, I beg you to remove your pastor from the pedestal where you and others may have been tempted to place him. Under the right circumstances, we pastors can be some of the best friends and advocates. But we pastors make very, very bad heroes. Turning us into heroes not only hurts our churches; it also hurts us.

It hurts a lot more to fall from a pedestal than it does from the ground where everybody else is standing. Plus, only Jesus belongs on a pedestal. We pastors are shepherds … but we are also sheep just like everybody else. We have struggles and fears. We sometimes get depressed and anxious. We can be unsure of ourselves, and we go through seasons wondering if we really belong in ministry. Many of us are more frustrated with ourselves than you could ever be with us. Sometimes we see our hypocrisy a lot more clearly than you do. Sometimes we grow more tired of ourselves than you grow tired of us. And sometimes we get puffed up and need a faithful Nathan, just like David did, to help us see how we fail to live up to the things that we preach.

For these and other reasons, part of my daily prayer includes this:

Father in heaven,
Always grant me character
that is greater than my gifts
and humility
that is greater than my influence.

If you are a congregant, please don’t stop holding us pastors to a high standard. Don’t let us off the hook from the high calling to lead with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. But as you do, please remember that we need those things from you too. All of us are incomplete works in process who are on a journey toward perfection. But we haven’t reached it yet. What Herman Melville said seems to fit:

“Heaven have mercy on us all—Presbyterians and Pagans alike—for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.”

The best grace you could give to pastors is this: Pray for us, live in community with us and insist that we live in community with you. Please don’t put us on pedestals or treat us as heroes. Rather, recognize us as fellow sojourners with you. When this happens, the chances of our becoming isolated and domineering and snippy and untruthful and full of ourselves and greedy and adulterous—and whatever else could eventually disqualify us—will be significantly reduced.

Thanks for allowing me to speak honestly here. I suspect that whatever kind of leader you are or want to be, some part of what is written here resonates with you. Perhaps you, too, have been sobered by stories of emotional and moral collapse. Perhaps you, too, are lamenting over friends who have fallen.

And perhaps you, too, wonder why it was they instead of you.

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Excerpted from From Weakness to Strength: 8 Vulnerabilities That Can Bring Out the Best in Your Leadership by Scott Sauls. Copyright © 2017 David C. Cook. Used with permission. Permission required to reproduce. All rights reserved.