When Pastors Become Kings
Last week, the scandal-ridden Baptist bishop Eddie Long received a brief moment of good news when a visiting “rabbi” declared Long a Jewish king before the congregation at his Atlanta-area megachurch. A YouTube video of the proceedings quickly went viral, and critics registered disbelief as yet another bizarre chapter was added to the Bishop Long saga.
Long has since apologized for the fiasco, but the sad strangeness of the event lingers.
In the video from the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church service, a previously unidentified Rabbi Ralph Messer outlines the history of what he claims is a Holocaust-era scroll said to be rescued from the Auschwitz and Birkenau extermination camps. “These are only given to cities that need to be released into a new anointing.”
Citing dual citizenship in Israel and presumably the United States, the man “on behalf of the Jewish people, the land of Israel, and the God of Israel” presents Long with the scroll, declaring, “He is a king, God’s blessed him. He’s a humble man but in him is kingship, in him is royalty, in him was the land of Israel.”
A moment later, Bishop Long is raised up in a chair and carried around the pulpit, as Rabbi Messer proclaims:
He now is raised up from a commoner to a kingship. … He ‘s no longer a commoner. He’s not under Earth; he’s raised from Earth into a heavenly realm. He’s raised in a prophetic position. He’s released by God. He’s breaking pagan tradition, breaking areas of God. He’s releasing Atlanta, Georgia. It’s not him, it’s the king in him.
Jewish religious leaders immediately called the display offensive. It “in no way represents any Jewish ritual that I’m familiar with,” Bill Nigut of the Anti-Defamation League told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We do not proclaim individuals to be kings.”
In his apology, Long said it was not “my intent, to participate in any ritual that is offensive in any manner to the Jewish community, or any group.” But he left unanswered questions of how the dubious rabbi wound up at his church in the first place.
While Bishop Long’s situation is extreme, one could argue that grandiose presentations of religious ritual take place every week in many black churches, as all-powerful preachers are afforded the star treatment from their parishioners. However, it is this type of ceremonious display of adoration of pastors and other spiritual leaders that makes it difficult for some to remember that they too are human and subject to the same weaknesses that, without proper accountability and support, can ultimately lead to scandal.
A Long Story
For more than a year, with his wife most recently filing divorce papers, Long found himself at the center of such a scandal where he faced accusations of sexual coercion by four young men. Long settled out of court in May 2011 with a reported $15 million payment to his accusers. Trouble from the case continued throughout the year with lost income to the church, the closing of the church’s private school New Birth Academy, and a lawsuit alleging financial misdealing in investments for a handful of church members.
Known for an extravagant display of wealth, Long was said to have been a purveyor of the oft-criticized “prosperity gospel,” which not only pushed the idea that God’s blessings appeared in the form of expensive cars, clothing, and accessories but also showcased a leader similarly clad and almost worshiped by his or her congregants. National Public Radio reported in 2010 that Long drove a $350,000 Bentley and had purchased a $1.1 million home.
It’s hard to say whether the glitz and the religious superstardom led to Long’s woes. But for one Church of God in Christ pastor, Bishop Roger Jones Sr., that along with unresolved personal issues is exactly what led to his downfall.
Jones, now pastor of Greater Holy Temple Ministries in Flint, Michigan, wrote about his experiences with adultery, drug use, isolation, and deceit in his book, When Life Hurts, Dreams Fade, Hope Again. In it, he notes that the clearly immoral behavior he engaged in started with the isolation and built up pride he gained for being highly regarded by those around him.
“The fall I experienced has to do with much of the pomp and splendor and promotions that go along with the politics of power — the franchise, the perks, the accommodations, the limousines, the suites at hotels, the seats you sit in,” he said.
Called to preach at age 18, Jones was a high achiever in ministry and quickly took on the invincibility perpetuated through increasing popularity, continual success, and constant praise. Jones wrote that ministerial success brought financial perks as well.
“I’m wondering how much that affected me, given my humble background as a person who didn’t have much, who then came into a lot of money and power and position and prestige — maybe I allowed all that to push me over the edge. Maybe I was trying to fulfill a sense of insecurity with other things.”
The Pastor’s Split Persona
Dr. Patrick Moon, a psychologist at Cornerstone Counseling Center in Chicago, says that insecurity is likely evident in everyone and that pastors and spiritual leaders are not exempt. According to Moon, who specializes in pastoral counseling and spiritual support, pastors aren’t immune from emulating the group patterns from their families of origin and are often drawn to church organizations that complement those learned behaviors of interaction.
Dysfunctional familial patterns that may have started in a minister’s childhood that haven’t been addressed play a major role in coping with the general isolation and ongoing demands of pastoring.
“A pastor comes from a family system and learns from that family system how to behave,” Moon says. “Sometimes the dysfunction of that family system bleeds over to the church. Unresolved emotions of those family systems transfer to the church.”
It’s for that reason that “pastors and clergy in seminary are recommended to seek their own psychotherapists at times when they’re having trouble.”
When a scandal happens, it’s more than the oft-assumed thought that he or she lacks a moral compass or simply doesn’t believe in the God he or she preaches. There’s definitely more to the story, Moon says.
“A pastor has to create a persona that has to be integrated into the church’s expectations,” and it’s in that integration that the person who emerges publicly may not be who the pastor is. That dichotomy doesn’t necessarily equate to holy vs. spiritual. It could be a matter of mood, Moon says.
“Maybe he wants to have a nice vacation, to go and have a good time, but there’s this wedding on that Saturday, and ‘I have to put up the appearance that I have the energy to do this.’” And unfortunately, “Meeting expectations of the congregation is very difficult, and that leads to isolation.”
It’s in isolation that most people — not just pastors — seek out destructive behaviors. The difference is that the destructive behavior of spiritual leaders can perpetuate the dysfunction and can become detrimental to whole churches and their individual members.
The Pastoral Pedestal
Perhaps what might have started with the biblical standards listed in I Timothy 3 of how a pastor or elder should live — “well thought of, committed to his wife, cool and collected, accessible and hospitable … must handle his own affairs well” (The Message translation) — has become an additional burden of exhibiting perfection. Not only do members expect it, the pastor often believes it, despite the contradiction within his or her own humanity.
Regardless of its origins, being a pastor in most people’s minds means being the holiest person in the room at all times. Already set apart upon installation as pastor, he or she inevitably maintains that social distance throughout his or her pastorate.
And it doesn’t help that, historically, spiritual leaders were advised to avoid close friendships with parishioners to avoid the appearance of favoring some and marginalizing others. A major motivating factor for self-inflicted isolation may be an unwillingness to trust congregants — particularly those who make a point of getting too close too quickly.
This continues the persona of the pastor as king or queen, the person everyone wants to be or be around.
“We grew up in an era with the understanding that the pastor is infallible,” Moon says. “The perception of the pastor is elevated in such a way, he adds, that “a fall may be inevitable.”
Yet despite the responsibility that the congregation may bear in turning their leader into a celebrity, the onus is on the pastor not to believe the hype. Jones said it this way: “If we’re not careful, we become our own little gods — without a capital G — and we expect people to treat us this way.”
But if you’re being hoisted up on a throne Eddie Long-style and literally praised as royalty, how can you not buy in to the idea of being worshiped? How do you go from a sincere desire to serve God and His people to living to serve yourself?
“I think we by and large know what the Christian responsibility is, but it’s the lack of intentionality” that leads to disgrace at the highest level of a church, says the Rev. Kenneth Cole, a minister, theology instructor, and administrator at Washington Bible College in Lanham, Maryland.
Like Moon, Cole acknowledges that pastoring is a difficult job that never stops. And as much as it can build a congregation, it can weaken the minister. “Ministry takes on this burden,” Cole says, “and when you’re a weak man, you’re vulnerable more than ever to temptation.”
But that susceptibility might mask itself in a minister’s successes. Cole calls it flawed thinking to assume invincibility to sin based on ministerial authority. As proof, he cites the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness following God’s approval of His baptism. “After a spiritual high, Christ gives us an example that even when you preach and teach and God uses you in a special way, you are that much more vulnerable.”
Cole observes: “Some of the areas of the temptation lie in the individual areas of vulnerability.”
For example, an individual prone to overeating as a coping mechanism for stress might binge on every food available as a spiritual leader under the weight of several hundred people in a congregation. Of course, it’s usually much more serious than food.
“Demands and stresses would pile up,” Moon says, “and who knows if he uses his spiritual grounding at that moment?”
This time, it could be an extra dessert. Next time, maybe it’s infidelity.
For Jones, it was an affair with a married woman that led to his experimentation with powder cocaine and eventually crack. He writes in his book, “When I began experimenting with drugs in 1987, it was a time in my life when everything seemed to plunge into a downward spiral — an abyss of sin and shame. … I believe I had so many unresolved issues within my personal life that I grew tired of masking them behind a clergyman’s collar and title.”
In recognizing the multiple factors at play at the origin of spiritual scandal, we must also weigh what’s considered “good” even among people striving to live holy but subject to the sin of humanity, says Alison Gise Johnson, a Christian ethicist who formerly served at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University.
“All of creation has been designed with potential and promise,” says Gise Johnson, “and that potential is only fulfilled in the context of healthy interdependent relationships. That, therefore, is our plumb line for ‘good.’”
Gise Johnson suggests that the isolation experienced by pastors whose parishioners view them as either “super holy” or “superstars” can work against the good intentions they initially bring to their ministries. Jones, Cole and Moon all acknowledge isolation as a key factor in what leads to a religious leader’s downfall.
“Ministers, like everyone of us,” Gise Johnson says, “will suffer emotional scars that when not addressed pervert one’s potential, causes wounds in others, and compromises the power and peace of being on one accord, whole and holy.”
Lusts of the Flesh
And we’ve seen the perverted potential of religious leaders manifest itself in multiple ways: child molestation, financial fraud, theft, and even tax evasion.
It seems, though, that more often than not, scandals among pastors tend to involve sex. Moon ties this to pastoral isolation, not only with church members but often within the families of pastors and other religious leaders. “First, everyone is a sexual being,” he says. “[Sexual misconduct] is an outward expression of a need and desire to connect.”
Moon says that if a spiritual leader is still working out sexual identity in his or her own mind, those issues are likely to creep up somewhere in that person’s life. Unfortunately, it often comes out in a very public way.
Cole, however, says sexual indiscretion among ministers is sometimes less of a backslide and more of a backflip. “There is a whole lot of immorality in certain circles,” Cole says. “They live a life like it’s okay.”
He says it’s common for younger ministers to see their pastoral idols participate in blatantly sinful activity without consequence. That leads to an idea that similar activities are acceptable. “What’s happened is that they know better, but they’re imitating what they see.”
No one wants to admit that they’re struggling to do right because it feeds the idea of spiritual weakness that contradicts the super-holy image.
According to Bishop Jones, the tragedy is that “there seems to be no place, group, or board that one can go to and be completely honest or transparent; not for leaders in a church.”
Instead, said Jones, the church “often adds to or reiterates the guilt of the problem rather than taking on enough compassion to understand how to provide the comfort and support that is desperately needed.”
Beyond the Super-Pastor
As a society, we’re quick to cast blame, but ultimately who is responsible for pastoring the pastor?
Cole says that despite the culture of some churches, where the pastor is treated as king, spiritual leaders have to be committed to holy living. “We need to be intentional about being pure. We need to get back to church discipline, cleansing, restoration, and repentance.
“I just think by and large that pastors should recognize the roles they play; they’re not superheroes,” Cole says. “All that kind of attention draws people to us and not to Christ.” That realization lies in one’s intention and accountability, he says.
But Gise Johnson says that being accountable on a spiritual leader’s part requires something from the congregation, too. “Often, it is the loss of compassion that makes honesty about one’s struggles difficult,” she says. “Faith communities have to fight unrelentingly to maintain a spirit of compassion and be committed to ‘good.’”
For Moon, it goes beyond simply being good and lies more in being authentic in who they are, in their struggles and in coping with the stress of spiritual leadership. Fortunately, that is already beginning to take place, he says. “From the idea of a ‘super-pastor,’ I think the shift has occurred, particularly with younger clergy, that pastors are trying to be more real.”
Moon says there is hope in pastoral authenticity but that the greater redemption lies in the fabric of all churches. “The church itself has always had the resources within itself to restore people,” he says, noting that handling actual scandal would be best done through a denominational process rather than from within an individual congregation.
What a congregation can do, Gise Johnson says, is forgive. “Without apology and without hesitation, forgiveness has to be offered.”
But Gise Johnson is quick to add that this kind of forgiveness does have conditions.
“It’s the kind of forgiveness that demands that congregations then reorganize themselves to give the offender space away from the responsibilities of leading, so that everyone can begin healing.”
Road to Restoration
With news of his wife’s divorce filing in December, Eddie Long announced that he would take a break from his church to focus on his family, which includes three children. He returned to New Birth a few weeks later and preached the New Year’s Eve service. Now, in the tumultuous wake of his short-lived coronation, it’s unclear whether he’s at the end of troubles or the start of new ones.
Like Gise Johnson, Cole lauds a congregation’s ability to forgive in these kinds of situations. However, he says it can also serve as an Achilles’ heel, allowing spiritual leaders to return with the same structure and attitude that led to immorality in the first place.
While Cole advises a sabbatical from leadership responsibilities to help a pastor and his or her church heal, he’s reluctant to say that’s all that’s necessary. “It may it look like [scandalous behavior] is cool as long as you take a break.”
“We need to see more restoration,” he says, “but I don’t see it happening the way God intended.”