In years past I would watch the crash-and-burn of others in ministry and simply shake my head. “Should have known better.” “Well, that was easy to see coming.” “I’m sure glad I would never do anything like that!” All that was ignorant foolishness on my part. It was also the kind of thing that Jesus would lash out against. . . and for good reason.
Now that I’m older, what scares me the most about these crash-and-burn stories is me. Two things that have brought me to this point are ever-present realities that I hope have set me on a path to thinking, being, and doing the right thing.
First, I’ve experienced a growing appreciation for God’s grace. That’s been fueled by a deeper understanding of human depravity. There’s no need for or appreciation of the former without a deep and growing sense of the latter. You can’t read the Scriptures seriously and come away without that growing sense of both.
Second, God’s gracious shining of light into my own life continues to force me to reckon with the darkness of my own heart. Trust me. . . it’s not pretty. I’ve learned that our lives are like a landscape covered with landmines. If we walk forward foolishly without regard, care, and concern for what we might step on, eventually its all going to blow up. But if we walk carefully and with self-awareness, listening to the Master tell us how and where to walk. . . well, then we are walking wisely. To walk wisely begins with the recognition that our universal human tendency is to walk foolishly while all the time telling ourselves, “That will never happen to me.” Keep that up and you’re bound to set off an explosion. Know yourself.
Yesterday I spent a good portion of time reading newspaper articles, media accounts, and elder-board statements regarding the latest high-profile ministry scandal. At this point, I’m not sure what to believe. What I do know is that the potential for these kinds of things lives in all of us. . . and much closer to the surface than we’d like to think or imagine. Time will tell which allegations are true. . . if any. . . and which allegations are false. . . if any. We need to let the process play out.
But as I read the accounts a few things jumped out at me that appear to be beyond argument. These things aren’t the “what happened” allegations that are being argued back and forth. Rather, they are the “where it allegedly happened” parts of the story that seem to indicate consistent patterns of foolishness. I couldn’t help but think of the contrast between what’s become known as “The Billy Graham Rule” . . . which is rooted in the wisdom that grows out of a deep sense of one’s own depravity. . . and the foolishness of place/time decisions that not only lend themselves to the appearance of evil, but opportunities for evil itself.
So rather than responding to this latest story with the stupidity of a disapproving finger-wag or arrogant shake of the head that says “I’m sure glad I’d never do anything like that,” our response should be to remind ourselves of best practices and lessons to be learned.
Because I live in the world of youth workers, let me share some thoughts with my youth worker peers sparked by the “where it happened” allegations that serve as a clear path that always seems to lead to the “what happened” allegations. I’m listening too. . .
First, endeavor to know yourself and your human depravity. You and I are horribly broken people. Our default setting is to do the wrong thing. Theologian David Wells writes, “Knowing about sin is vital knowledge. There are none quite so lost as those who know little or nothing of their sin. Knowing about our sin, therefore, is something for which we should be deeply grateful.”
Second, be constantly reminding yourself that outside of the enemy of your own self, there is an enemy of your soul who would want nothing more than to see your collapse. No ifs, ands, or buts.
Third, run like hell from thoughts and opportunities that put you in places where sin is crouching at the door. Don’t have meetings in your hotel room. Don’t ride in cars or boats alone. Don’t invite others over to your house for meetings alone together. No long dinners or walks alone on the beach. The list goes on and on and on.
Fourth, surround yourself with accountability. Face it, you have the potential to have “star power,” even if it’s just in your small local circle or with the kids in your youth group. If you cultivate that power in ways that lead you out of accountability because you 1) don’t let people get close to you, and 2) create an environment where people are so enamored by you that they won’t do anything to confront you. . . well, you’ve put yourself in a very, very dangerous place. You need those people who know you well and who are welcome to call you out when they sense you might be crossing a line.
Fifth, don’t contribute to the potential downfall of others through Christian celebrity worship. In Romans 12:3 Paul reminds us to not think more highly of ourselves than we ought. Well, we shouldn’t think more highly of others than we ought. Let’s be honest. . . we do this in our youth ministry world, don’t we? I’m not helping you if you I do that to you. You’re not helping me if you do that to me.
Finally, immerse yourself in God’s Word. And if you think you’re doing this already enough. . . ramp it up! Filling your well with the Word of God will serve you well. It yields a deeper understanding of your own depravity, a richer sense of God’s grace, and the discernment needed to navigate the mines, snares, and footholds that can bring it all crashing down.