With the fall of celebrity pastors becoming a normal part of life, many of us are wondering what’s happening. Why is it that these men can build something so significant for the kingdom of God, yet fall into adultery, alcoholism, or narcissism? Their falls come at no small cost. As Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel have written,

“We live in the era of celebrity pastors whose platforms of influence stretch far beyond the walls of their local congregation, and who shake the earth when they fall off their pedestals.”

In the wake of these collapses, we sound the alarm for more accountability and stronger community, and rightly so. None of these efforts appear to be working, though, as we see pastors and church leaders making the same mistakes time and time again. These events should drive us to reflect deeply on what is happening, and about how we find leaders in the church.

What if we’re missing what’s really going on? What if we’re asking the wrong questions? And what if the fall of our pastors has at least as much to do with us as it does with them? 

Goggin and Strobel suggest that’s exactly what’s happening. They go further to say that we as the Church need to take the log out of our own eye and start to see what’s really going on. So what is going on?

An inverted power structure

Here again, Goggin and Strobel are provocative and insightful when they suggest,

“[T]he church has embraced a form of power that is antithetical to the way of Jesus, and her pastors stand on the front line of this destructive reality.”

They go on to explain that the Church and her people have believed the same lie as Adam and Eve in the garden, that “dependence upon God is a place of scarcity and hindrance, while autonomy is a place of flourishing and fulfillment.” Our culture and our church-culture in America lift up self-reliance and autonomy as cardinal virtues. These are prime examples of what it means to be successful, driven, and American.

Therefore, when pastors and leaders display these characteristics their vision and mission go forward unquestioned. The bolder, more powerful they seem, the more impervious to spiritual failure they seem, and the more they’re praised. When their leadership results in “success,” they’re exalted for these character traits. But when they fall we scorn them for those very same traits.

As Goggin and Strobel write, it’s time for the Church to see that,

“[T]he very narcissism, lust, and greed that has caused church leaders to fall is the same narcissism, lust, and greed that drove their ministries to ‘succeed.”

They’re talking about the fruit of the flesh here (Gal. 5:19-21). What they don’t say is that these pastors simultaneously display many of the gifts of the Spirit. How can they display the gifts of the Spirit and the fruit of the flesh at the same time?

Confusing spiritual gifts with spiritual fruit

I recently took a seminary class with Nik and Ruth Ripken where we talked mostly about the persecuted church, and their research findings (read this if you’re unfamiliar with their story). As Nik started unpacking their findings related to leader selection in the church, he noted that some of those being persecuted experience the same problems with pastors that fall, either away from the faith or into moral failure.

But not all those in persecution experience this, and those that don’t select their leaders very differently than we do in America. Then he said something I’ll never forget:

“The Devil can imitate all the gifts of the Spirit, but none of the fruit of the Spirit.”

Satan, in all his schemes, elevates people to certain positions by making them appear to have the spiritual gift of leadership or teaching or strategic thinking. They may even have that gift, and it might even be spiritual in nature, but it could be corrupted and distorted by sin. The danger in apparent giftedness is that it can fool us to what’s really going on in someone’s heart.

Of course, if we were paying attention to the fruit of the Spirit in our leaders lives then we wouldn’t be fooled. If we were looking closely, we would see that while some of our small group leaders or pastors appear to have the gift of leadership or teaching, they’re also marked by lust, greed, narcissism, or arrogance. But in many cases we just don’t see it. Why?

We confuse the gifts of the Spirit with the fruit of the Spirit. We assume that giftedness follows godliness. We assume their eloquence is preceded by gentleness, so we miss that they’re abrasive in meetings. We assume their passion is preceded by joy, so we miss their inability to care what others have to say.

This blindness is misguided, though. Spiritual gifts don’t qualify you for ministry, they simply tell you what to do. Spiritual fruit qualifies you for ministry. And the lack of that fruit disqualifies you.

A better way to find leaders in the Church

There is a better, more biblical way to find leaders. A way that doesn’t leave us stunned when our pastors fall because we were unable or unwilling to see what was really going on. Leaders found this way won’t be without sin, and surely some of them will fall (even Jesus had Judas), but there will be less of them that pull the rug out from under the church and damage her witness. So how do we do it?

When looking for leaders, we should realize that it is a person’s relationship with God that determines their Kingdom-effectiveness. We must prioritize the fruit of the Spirit over the gifts of the Spirit. We should look for those who are marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And if we don’t see real evidence of the Spirit in their lives, we shouldn’t let them near a leadership role, particularly a pastoral one.

Jesus kept his twelve disciples close for three years as he observed the fruit of their lives and ministry. Only at the end did he finally cut them loose, saying, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn. 15:15). Paul did the same with Timothy. Barnabas did the same with Paul.

Leaders in the Bible were commissioned after they had been tested and proven to display the fruit of the Spirit as they applied the gifts of the Spirit. They were surely gifted, but those gifts were preceded by their fruit. Once their lives gave sufficient evidence of the work of the Spirit, then they were ready to enter into leadership.

This is why 1 Timothy and Titus list qualities like being “sober-minded” and “self-controlled.” The only thing listed in 1 Timothy 3:2-7 considered a gift or skill is being “able to teach.” The rest are character traits that flow out of a life marked by fruit of the Spirit.

A better way to find leaders in the Church is to look for leaders whose gifts are nested in their fruit. Leaders who display the fruit of the Spirit as they exercise the gifts of the Spirit. But to do it, we’ll have to crucify our desire to build our kingdom, and instead focus on building His.


Grayson Pope is a husband to Maggie, father to three kids ages five, three, and one. He serves as the Pastor of Community at Mecklenburg Community Church. He’s also a student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he’s pursuing a MACS.