Ed Stetzer and Me … and the Evangelical Leadership Disease. The Ashley Madison Case

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I don’t mean to throw Ed Stetzer under the bus. He’s a friend. We’ve had some good dialogues in the past. I respect Ed a lot. Nonetheless, I’d like to take a shot at THIS POST he wrote this past summer on his Exchange Blog over at Christianity Today. (Because he can take it!! 🙂 ) This post illustrates for me what is at stake in protestant evangelical ecclesiology as we try to examine ourselves for a new engagement with our cultures for mission.

The post addressed the Ashley Madison fiasco of this past summer. The Ashley Madison website, a website dedicated to matching partners who wish to engage in adultery/sex outside of their marriages, got hacked and identities of all users on the site were exposed. Supposedly, the hackers revealed the names of a large number of pastors who were users of the site. To say the least, it was a crisis for many pastors, families, and their churches. According to Ed Stetzer, at least 400 pastors would resign in the upcoming Sundays (this is back in August). His question was, what is a church to do? how is the local church to respond?

Ed proceeds to outline a series of steps that a church should take in mitigating the damage this moral failure will have on the church. He urges Christians whose pastor has been caught in such immoral judgment to a.) Focus on God who does not fail. Don’t focus on the pastors’ failure but on God, for He remains on the throne, b.) Support young Christians who might want to quit the church. Come alongside them and care for the less mature who will be most disturbed by this revealing of the fall of the pastor, and c.) Care for the pastor’s family

Ed then goes on to offer advice to congregations on how to guide the pastor who has been found out via the Ashley Madison website. Ed emphasizes the gravity of the situation and the need for pastoral restoration. He advises the pastors to a.) Repent publically. Do not hide the resignations or hush the details. b.)  Repent thoroughly. Tell all. Get it out. Hide nothing. C.) Begin restoration. Enter a time of discipline and accountability. Ed recommends a 2 year hiatus for all such pastors doing restoration.  Ed encourages the church to remember that God’s grace is sufficient for the shepherd who fails.

There’s wisdom in Ed’s advice. It has been the common advice carried out within evangelical church for probably 50 or more years. But for me, alone, it’s lacking. It deals with the individual, but doesn’t touch the system which creates the conditions for these moral failures to keep happening with increasing regularity in the life of evangelical churches.  It’s a miss of an opportunity.

I think instead, we should start by addressing two things in evangelical life.

1.) The Idolization of the Insular Nuclear Family

We have a system of church that idealizes the insular nuclear family as the place where all intimacy/friendship takes place. This perfect nuclear family is put on a pedestal in our churches. It is where we get all our needs met. The church, by default, provides the support for nuclear families to flourish (the stereotype of this kind of support is Jim Dobson’s Focus on the Family). It all breeds a climate where pastors (most pastors in evangelicalism) as leaders of these churches, must look like this perfect family. This high expectation puts pressure on the pastor’s marriage to act perfect all the time. A pastors family thereby becomes isolated. They are unable to reveal or talk with anyone about the marital issues they face with anyone in the church. They therefore must avoid their issues or deal with them in their own minds. Is it any wonder, pastors are prone to fantasy worlds within their own minds.

2.) The Idolization of the Icon (celebrity) Pastor

The problem of celebrity pastorship adds on to this dynamic of isolation. The senior pastor is elevated by the church to a status over the church in a way that now people look up to him  (most of the time it’s a “him”) to embody what we’re all shooting for. The leader somehow inspires through image. I’d say it can even become a dynamic where the congregation leads the ideal Christian life/marriage vicariously thropugh their pastor. (This is evident whenever the average church chooses the pastoral candidate with an attractive looking family to be their pastor). This adds to the isolation and the pressure to be something nobody can be in this lifetime. This is all a very toxic culture for the pastor and his family.

IS IT ANY WONDER? we have an epidemic of failing marriages, sexual infidelity, mind games and sexual fantasies going on with pastors? I am sure Ed has written elsewhere on these topics. He’s a brilliant church leader. Nonetheless, in my opinion, Ed’s post misses the point of the Ashley Madison revealing. It is only in a community of vulnerabilty, where we regularly share life in forgiveness, confession, reconciliation, being with the poor, presence around Table fellowship in the Spirit, prayer and worship, that our lives can be shaped and sanctified together in the Spirit (I take this to be the lesson of Eph 4, but of course several passages on sanctification and fruits of the Spirit in the Pauline epistles.) Sanctification does not happen in isolation but in a community of the practices of living before His presence.


Here’s my 3 quick off the cuff recommendations for churches dealing with the Ashley Madison moral crisis in a pastor (or any other moral crisis).

1.)  Demythologize the Single Head Lead Pastor and instead develop a core group of three to five pastors that lead communally in mutual submission one to another where they all meet regularly to live life as sinners before one another.   Let them depend mutually on each other and exhibit their individual limitations and ongoing sanctification before the rest of the body as the way we all should be living communally one with another.  

2.)  Demythologize the Nuclear family as the insular place we get all our needs met. Broaden the practice of friendship and communal life together in our churches. Make more central to the church the neighborhood practice of table fellowship in the neighborhoods where married people, single people, kids gather together to share life around a table in Mission.

3.)  DeMythologize individual singular discipleship and recognize discipleship happens together as we practice reconciliation, proclaiming the gospel, forgiveness, truthtelling, and Table relationally into our everyday lives.

Let us no longer overlook the latest moral failure of a pastor as a one off rare event and see it as a symptom of our evangelical leadership disease. When these moral failures happen, let us to look more closely at “us.” and ask what is this saying about who we are. Let the Ashley Madison debacle (or any moral failure of the senior pastor) afford the opportunity for us to reshape who we are and our politics of leadership. I am thankful people like Ed Stetzer and others are asking these questions and leading us to a reevaluation of the pastor’s place, role and location within an congregation, and how that mal-shapes us all for ministry in the Kingdom of God .

What do you think? 

We extend this conversation on the Theology On Mission podcast this week with a discusssion on what does Ed’s post assume about the doctrine of sanctification. Listen to the podcast HERE. 

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13 responses to “Ed Stetzer and Me … and the Evangelical Leadership Disease. The Ashley Madison Case

  1. Wow, Dr. Fitch. This is excellent; it is revealing; it is spot on. It’s also scary. I have yet to experience this type of vulnerable community. I long for it; I think about it daily; but, it almost seems so utopian. Thanks for writing this. Change has to happen.

  2. Great post, Dave. Well thought out and well said. As one who has lived through a couple of "moral failure" situations, I appreciate being helped to see it through the ecclesiological lens. Of course, as Tara Beth gets at, this type of community seems utopian, but I’m thinking more and more that someone’s got to make the first move. Of course, that "someone" is me – and countless others who long for more than the church community we’ve been given by our predecessors. Moreover, as someone who has – at times – failed greatly, it’s only been the Spirit working through my surrounding community (even if that’s 3-4 friends) that has brought about true restoration into life and renewal. Thanks for pointing the way yet again.

  3. Pastoral teams have been a longing and vision for me for years, so as I read this, I am encouraged and energized! To the point of nuclear families being the sole support group, let’s face it, this is not reasonable as we consider God’s communal design for us. It also doesn’t work for numerous reasons, not least of which is that the family is fractured and is itself suffering from lack of support!

  4. I think the title you’re looking for is, "Ed Stetzer, me, and the Evangelical Leadership Disease."
    Grammar aside, you nailed it. Playing "whack-a-mole" with bad-pastors is never going to move the church toward wholeness.

    I appreciate your critique of the single lead head pastor. At the same time, most churches simply will not move away from this model. Are there any thoughts you might have along the lines of, "If you must have a single lead pastor, then at least adopt these practices…"?

    1. yeah … I changed it. I couldnt’ decided whether I wanted to make myself the object or the subject in the title (since it’s not a complete sentence)

        1. This is a culture change we’re discussing. So I think the problems of the senior pastor ‘model’ can be lessened with the senior pastor shaping a different culture in his or her church. There are many things he or she can do. Include other pastors alongside in the preaching task. Create communities gathering in homes as central to the life of the church. In the end, however, maintaining a senior pastor in the typical icon role works against the culture change.

  5. The issue is not the insular family, but legalism. Every pastor bar one of my father’s seminary class of 1950 left the ministry after an affair… long before James Dobson showed up. Your commentary regarding the inability for a pastor to deal with weakness is spot on… your criticism of Dobson is not. We raised our family learning from focus on the family, but not living as legalists. The fruit was good.

    1. Maybe this: "the insular family can be a contributing factor" … I’ve seen it time and time again not just related to adultery, but the inability/unwillingness/deeply held belief that the insular family is the sole place where community/accountability happens (and on the accountability perhaps doesn’t happen) for the almighty Pastor.

  6. David

    You write…
    “1.) Demythologize the Single Head Lead Pastor and instead develop a core group of three to five pastors that lead communally in mutual submission one to another where they all meet regularly to live life as sinners before one another.”

    But, wouldn’t having “a core group of three to five pastors that lead communally…”
    Also be a myth?

    I mean, in the Bible…
    Can you name one group of believers who had one pastor? Or five pastors? Leading?

    And, wouldn’t having someone who called them self, had the “Title,” pastor, and leader…
    Also be a myth?

    I mean, in the Bible…
    Can you name one of His Disciples who called them self pastor? Or shepherd? Or leader?
    Can you name one of His Disciples who took the “Title” pastor? Or shepherd? Or leader?
    Can you name one of His Disciples who called another Disciple pastor/shepherd/leader?

    Seems life as one of His Disciples is often a MYTH… 😉

    Sometimes a MYTHtory

    Sometimes a MYTHconception

    Sometimes a MYTHstake

  7. The American love affair for all things celebrity which has taken deep root in evangelicalism in form of the "personality driven church" is a malignancy. The identity of the church becomes so closely linked to the identity of the guy preaching every Sunday that when that guy is gone (for whatever reason) a good portion of the church immediately falls away and others weep or get angry for what they have lost. Without "the personality" in place they don’t know what to make of the church. They simply do not know who they are as the people of God in our part of the story. They’ve somehow been satisfied to live vicariously through the upfront personality.

    It doesn’t have to be that way. But to lead and form a body of people another way is deeply counter-cultural in America. Most simply prefer to be successful in terms of the world or, even more sadly, don’t know there is a difference.

  8. Point #1 doesn’t work for 80% or so of churches that are small and can only afford one hired pastor. The real myth is that there is a benefit to the church for at least one man to never work in the marketplace so he can devote "full time" just to the church. This "full-time" pattern is a myth.
    1. When one man works "full time" for the church, many men will work zero time for the church. This reality is played out in every single church with even one hired man. This is the fault of the system. The men are trained by the system to be lazy. I can elaborate on this.
    2. Paul speaks to his teaching and modeling the opposite of this. Acts 20; 1 Cor 9 (the whole chapter); 2 The. 3; 2 Cor 11; 2 Cor 12. Working in the marketplace is ministry. 1 Cor 15:58; Col 3:23 and others. Paying even one man is what demands many people in one room. What happens in that room is mostly one-way communication. One way communication plus many people are two strikes against "one another" oriented community. The third strike is that church life is divorced from the home where "hospitality" takes place. Hospitality is rare when church is separated to a separate campus. This is very hard for Bible experts to grasp. I have to say they are addicted to church in a separate building with one man lecturing the Bible in perpetual dependency mode and calling it teaching or preaching.

    Additional myth: The man who knows the most Bible, and has been trained in the institutionalized practice of mostly ceremonialized faith will be the most mature man in the fellowship.

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