How to avoid being the next fallen leader


The news comes with depressing regularity – another shiny, charismatic, high-profile Christian leader has gone and had an affair. We'll find out via the grapevine, the Christian media, a carefully crafted statement on a website – nothing too detailed or sensational.

There will be those who greet the news with schadenfreude or gossipy glee but for most of us it hurts. It hurts because as Christians we are a body, and when one bit of the body malfunctions it damages the whole. It hurts because it undermines our ability to trust our leaders and even each other. And it hurts because it dishonours God in the eyes of the rest of the world.

When Christian leaders get involved in inappropriate sexual relationships there is a lot at stake. They stand to lose their jobs, their homes, their marriages, their reputations, their self-respect and even, although by no means always, their faith. Clearly they are not making this decision with their brains. However, despite the Saudi Millionaire Ehsan Abdulaziz's accidental sex plea accepted by Southwark Crown Court in February this year, sex rarely happens by accident. There are many, many opportunities along the way to avoid the personal and church-wide calamity of a scandal. Prevention, as the old saying goes, is better than cure. Here are some ways to make sure you are not the subject of the next sad announcement:

Prioritise your inner life with God

'Professional Christians' need to work harder than anyone to put down deep roots. It is all too easy to put on a good show of spiritual vibrancy while the leaves whither for lack of nourishment. What this means in practical terms will look different for different people, but ancient practices such as silence, meditation, fasting, Bible study, and prayer are tried and true ways to draw near to God. A close relationship with God is the best way to guard against temptation; as Paul wrote to the Galatians, "Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature" (5:16).

Fight the Messiah-complex

People who end up in key leadership positions, on big platforms with high public exposure, often have certain qualities like confidence, vision, a big heart, a passion for what they do and who they serve. We, as those they lead, often fail them by building them vast, glittery, unstable pedestals and then expecting them to be our Jesus-substitute. Leaders, don't let us make you our Messiah. Don't let the adulation and neediness of your people go to your head. Candace Payne, who achieved mind-bending fame over a 48-hour period last week due to her antics in a Chewbacca mask, said this to an audience of 16-year-old wannabe artists: "Don't try to make a name for yourself. God's name will always overshadow yours."

Look after yourself

When you are busy whizzing around trying to do God's job for him, the chances are you are neglecting basics such as sleep, good food, exercise, and recreation. When you are heading for burnout, you are far more susceptible to temptation. CS Lewis' book The Screwtape Letters comprises the letters of a senior devil to his nephew about the best way to attack a new Christian. In one of them, Screwtape talks about the advantages fatigue can give them: "Exaggerate the weariness by making him think it will soon be over...let his inner resolution be not to bear whatever comes to him, but to bear it 'for a reasonable period' – and let the reasonable period be shorter than the trial is likely to last. It need not be much shorter; in attacks on patience, chastity and fortitude, the fun is to make the man yield just when (had he but known it) relief was almost in sight."

Look after your relationships

By this I mean primarily your marriage. We all know marriages take work, time, a decision to love in action even when feelings absent themselves, a determination to stay the course. But how often do we know these things and still not do what it takes to keep our marriages in good health? As well as looking after your marriage, you also need friends who really, properly know you and will call you on bad behaviour, worrying patterns, sliding principles or integrity. Make sure you stay well in touch with a handful of faithful friends.

Flee temptation

One of the most shocking things Jesus said was that we should gouge out our own eyes if they cause us to sin; we should hack off a hand or a foot if they make us stumble (Mark 9: 43-47). It isn't one of those bits of the Bible anyone suggests we should take literally. However, the point is clear. Do what it takes to avoid sinning. Drive home at 1 am rather than stay in the hotel where no one's watching. Turn down that speaking gig that will take you out of town together. Work from home on the days you know you'll be the only ones in the office. Change jobs if you have to. See the temptation coming and run for your life in the opposite direction.

No one is immune from making terrible mistakes, and of course there is grace, redemption and new life for anyone who repents. But you can't argue with the fact that it is better for everyone not to make these terrible mistakes in the first place. The last word goes to the apostle Peter:

"...with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do" (1 Peter 1: 13-15).