It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way: Sex Scandals and What our Leaders Need

I need this.” Reading the recent investigation on claims of Ravi Zacharias’s sexual misconduct, I was caught by the statement multiple women reported hearing from him.  Having worked with Christian leaders around the world, I hear more in those words than a pick-up line. I hear the plea of men and women caught up in the isolation of their ministry success and feeling desperately in need.

“In need of what?” their admirers may wonder. Beyond fame, fortune, and following, these leaders evidence amazing riches in God’s wisdom and power. If that isn’t enough to satisfy, then what is? Yet so many leaders end up enmeshed in immorality and scandal that news of it is hardly more surprising than that of another dip in the stock market or sighting of a hurricane. Unsurprising, yet damaging, those whose lives they influenced are left to grapple with doubts over what was real and what was not. 

Henri Nouwen, who served in the L’Arche communities founded by now-disgraced Jean Vanier, identified the conditional nature of the world’s love as a source of enslavement, particularly to those in its limelight. Gifted leaders who perform well are elevated to hero status, with the caveat that they consistently meet and exceed expectations. “These ‘ifs’ enslave me, since it is impossible to respond adequately to all of them.  …It is a world that fosters addictions because what it offers cannot satisfy the deepest craving of my heart.” 

Ours has become a culture in which leaders are either sanctified or vilified, with very little room for being human. We are familiar with the idea that power corrupts, but we fail to recognize how our image of leaders undermines their capacity to live as beloved children of God, made of weak flesh and in need of ongoing nurture.  This in no way excuses their indecent behavior or abuse of power, nor does it downplay the devastation of broken lives and disillusioned communities left in their wake. But there are multiple forces at play driving good leaders to end up in bad places. To the extent we can recognize and work to change these, we can alter the increasingly familiar narrative of fallen leaders and discredited ministries.

Without constantly cultivating the childlike intimacy with God that usually defined David, leaders will fall prey to a tempting barrage of unmet needs and entitled excuses.

Sex scandals among leaders are as old as the Bible.  David’s abusive treatment of Bathsheba fits the pattern perpetuated among leaders from Seattle to Sri Lanka. Taken at face value, his public statement of confession (Psalm 51) reveals a heart that did not intend for things to end up where they did. But the toxic mix of unquestioned authority and pedestalized isolation led this otherwise godly leader to seek his next “high” in the wrong place. For the many like him, fanfare as addictive as a “Like” button can combine with a dizzying height of social expectation to create a lifestyle fueled by a perpetual adrenaline rush. Add to that long work hours, constant travel, and the pressure to perform, and it is no surprise that the Davids of our time suffer from a deep inner hunger.  Their souls are starving, and the quickest “bite” they can grab is a shoddy stand-in for true intimacy, not to mention one of the very lambs they have devoted themselves to shepherding.

Leaders are responsible to safeguard their flocks, their families, and their souls. Without constantly cultivating the childlike intimacy with God that usually defined David, leaders will fall prey to a tempting barrage of unmet needs and entitled excuses. Thomas à Kempis’s words, penned long before the invention of global media, point to the need for leaders to regularly step back from the microphone, to abstain from social dialogue, and to engage in guided soul-searching: “No one can safely appear in public who does not enjoy seclusion. No one safely talks but he [she] who gladly keeps silent. No one safely rules but he [she] who is glad to be subordinate.” 

Our leaders need us to see them for who they are and not just what we want them to be

But we also have a role to play in safeguarding our leaders. Paul repeatedly requested the loving engagement of the communities that he led, disclosing his weakness and begging their prayers. Whether or not they invite it, our leaders need us to see them for who they are and not just what we want them to be. 

That is what our leaders need. Our leaders need us to be Samuels and Nathans who mentor and supply needed guidance, Jonathans who provide intimate friendship and peer support, and Abigails who intervene and call forth the best in them when we see danger ahead.  Only then can we work together to put an end to the blight of scandalous shepherds and victimized sheep.

11 thoughts on “It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way: Sex Scandals and What our Leaders Need”

  1. Tiffany, unsurprisingly, you have some really good insight here. And, of course, it is very well-written. Thank you for giving us your experiential wisdom.

  2. A brilliant read. As a senior pastor of some 50 years I have observed this all around me, and thank God that in his grace he spared me from yielding. ‘And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one!’ (Mt. 6:13, NRSV). Thanks Tiffany for your analysis and some very helpful safeguards which can make all the difference.

    1. Erroll, I am always impressed by your humility in reading and wisdom in responding to my blog. I wonder if your habit of life-long learning plays a part in your capacity to resist temptation. What other habits would you encourage leaders to cultivate as they seek to draw closer to God (and strengthen their ability to resist the devil)?

  3. I’m humbled by your response, Tiffany. Quite honestly, your article covers so many helps for those privileged to lead as men and women in today’s Church. I think the willingness to keep learning is one of them, it has been for me. In my country, before you get your driver’s licence you have to obtain a ‘learner’s licence.’ During the latter period you drive with a large red ‘L’ in your car back-window. I’ve used this from time to time in our organic house church groups to illustrate the point of our life-long apprenticeship to Jesus. In this regard you and your many readers are aware of Prof. Dallas Willard’s classic, ‘The Divine Conspiracy,’ which spells out this apprenticeship so well. He also deals with the classic ‘spiritual disciplines’ of the Christian life, which I think have helped to steady my own ship in rough waters over the years. I would also endorse your appreciation of Henri Nouwen and his insistence that our true identity lies in being and living as ‘God’s Beloved’ alone. Frankly, since childhood days I have struggled with performance and driven-ness in order to please others, so I have HAD to learn, especially in the last 20 years, to ‘live as one loved’ and ‘abiding in the Vine’ rather than defaulting to striving in self-effort. Unfortunately too many pulpits today still preach the ‘gospel of trying harder.’ The saintly Dr. Andrew Murray of revival and missionary fame here in South Africa has also been, through his many writings, my mentor in so many ways. We are all called to be ‘apostles of abiding love.’ Added to the above I would promote the helpfulness of daily prayer with one’s spouse, where possible; a special Christian friend with whom we can be ‘weak’; faithfully attending intimate, inter-denominational ‘ministers fraternals’ prepared to hold us lovingly accountable; the willingness to die in obscurity; putting family before ministry (at times I failed to do this in my very demanding pastorates – it’s not worth it) (God is a family, and family is the basis for all good ecclesiology); being aware of the dangers of church institutionalism and systems, which can ruin us and our family – hence my personal (!) choice to leave the institutional Church 14 years ago to facilitate smaller house churches after the pattern of Acts 2:42ff (what a safe-guard this is for all believers, when one can literally practice the body-life of Heb. 10:23-25 and Jam. 5:13-20, etc); wow, I got carried away, apologies! Love to all the saints.

    1. Dear Erroll,

      I’m humbled by your wise reply. 🙂 You have obviously been living in and meditating on the way of Christlike leadership. “Willingness to die in obscurity” is the one that continues to draw me–what an antidote to the rabid pursuit of significance through ministry! Thank you for these insightful words that come out of your long life of apprenticeship to Jesus. I wonder if you are familiar with the work of Trevor Hudson, a fellow South African? I have found his writings deeply pastoral and spot on. He quips about being a recovering “try-er.” I’m grateful God loves us as we are, and loves too much to leave us that way.

      Your sister,

      1. Ironically, when I was pastoring a Baptist-like congregation on the East Rand many years ago, Trevor was at the local Methodist Church. I used to sneak off whenever I had a free Sunday to hear him preach. Over the years I’ve followed some of his seminars and read some of his books. Just a great guy! He’s been a true ambassador for Jesus and his love wherever he has gone.

  4. I think you are spot on when you say that a simple childlike intimacy with God is protective. In practice it is often not so simple, but involves digging through many layers of artificiality built over the years. Childlike intimacy, like childhood seems so far away.
    I also feel that so often there is an absence of equals, and genuine friends, and for those in leadership it becomes increasingly difficult to find support among the crowd who look up to them.

    1. I wonder what drives this loss of childlikeness and of intimacy with God and friends? It seems the world’s way of doing leadership, in which a leader is put into a different category from regular people, counteracts the capacity to love and be loved. How would you encourage a leader to dig his or her way back out from under the manure pile of artificiality and develop the capacity to engage in authentic relationships, both with those he leads and with peers who may be better able to relate with him holistically?

      1. I believe that the Willow Creek type seminars around the world (I attended many here in SA, with my leadership – there’s one in our coastal city shortly) exalted leadership of a ‘worldly’ kind and never really got to the grassroots, servant-leadership Jesus demonstrated and taught in Jn. 13:1-20. How do you dig yourself out?? For me (personally) there was only one answer, get out of that ethos and start something more Jesus-like, in cross-pollination with like-minded leaders. Would love to hear from others on this topic.

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