In 2007, Tim Keller preached a sermon in London, England. He said something in the sermon that stopped me in my tracks.
“My dear friends, most churches make the mistake of selecting as leaders the confident, the competent, and the successful. But what you most need in a leader is someone who has been broken by the knowledge of his or her sin, and even greater knowledge of Jesus’ costly grace. The number one leaders in every church ought to be the people who repent the most fully without excuses, because you don’t need any now; the most easily without bitterness; the most publicly and the most joyfully. They know their standing isn’t based on their performance.”
“Really?” I wondered. I was nine years into pastoring a church, and it sure didn’t seem that people were looking for a repentant leader who was broken by sin and amazed by Jesus’ grace. People seem to want the confident, competent, and successful. I looked around and saw many examples of successful pastors who projected the right image and found ministry success.
Fourteen years later, many of them have fallen and left a trail of wreckage behind them.
Of course, we shouldn’t pit confident, competent, successful leaders against godly ones. It’s possible to be both. Keller was making a more important point: we tend to overvalue outward success and minimize godly character. If you have to choose, always prioritize godly character over worldly success.
How the Mighty Have Fallen
In 2012, Paul Tripp wrote a book called Dangerous Calling. “This book is written to confront the issue of the often unhealthy shape of pastoral culture and to put on the table the temptations that are either unique to or intensified by pastoral ministry.,” he wrote. “This is a book of warning that calls you to humble self-reflection and change.” Of the five people who wrote endorsements for the back cover, three have fallen. One has announced that he no longer considers himself a Christian.
In 2020, he wrote another book for pastors called Lead. “We have all been witnesses to the fall of well-known pastors with a huge amount of influence and notoriety, but for every public falling, there are hundreds of unknown pastors who have lapsed, have left both their leadership and their church in crisis, or are spiritual shells of the pastors they once were.”
The fall of these prominent leaders, and others like them, continues to reverberate within the church and beyond. Looking back, the warning signs seem clear. How is it that many ignored the warnings and gave these leaders a pass? They fit the profile of a charismatic, successful leader, and they got results. Because of that we tended to ignore what Keller said mattered most: brokenness over sin, public repentance, and a prioritization of godliness over performance.
We’ve followed the world’s standards for leadership, and we’ve paid the price as a result.
Faithful and Not Famous
But I’ve also watched a second group of leaders. Some of them are famous, but not because they want to be. They don’t play that game.
They embody what Keller described. They know the depth of their own sin. They know the joy of rediscovering, on a daily basis, the reality of God’s grace. They’ve made choices that prioritize character over anything else. They act the same way out of the spotlight as they do when they’re in the spotlight. They’re quietly faithful.
Most of them will never be known outside their immediate ministry context. Some of them aren’t even appreciated there. But they’re my heroes.
It turns out that Keller was right. The ideal pastor is not one who’s confident, competent, and successful. The ideal pastor is someone who’s been broken by the knowledge of his sin, and even greater knowledge of Jesus’ costly grace, and who leads everyone else in repenting and rejoicing in God’s amazing grace.