My Take: Why religious leaders are so scandal prone
November 2nd, 2010
07:00 AM ET

My Take: Why religious leaders are so scandal prone

Editor's Note: Mark Barger Elliott is Senior Pastor of Mayflower Congregational Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan and author of Creative Styles of Preaching. His blog Faith in the World identifies stories of hope from around the world and places where religion intersects everyday life.

By Mark Barger Elliott, Special to CNN

The clergy have been under the glare of the news media’s klieg lights recently and the sight has been jarring to say the least.

For Americans, the most high-profile example of unwanted media attention is of course Rev. Eddie Long, pastor of a 25,000-member Atlanta church, though he vigorously denies the allegations against him.

Some recently scandalized European religious leaders have gotten less attention in the U.S.

Michael Lewis (author of Moneyball and The Big Short) wrote in Vanity Fair about a trip he took to research the financial collapse of Greece. In his travels he stopped by the famed Vatopaidi Monastery and was amazed to discover the financial slight of hand of Fathers Arsenios and Ephraim, two monks who he says displayed all the cunning of Enron’s Jeff Skilling and Kenneth Lay.

The two apparently duped the Greek Ministry of Finance out of a millions of dollars.

In April, Belgian Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, resigned after admitting to child sex abuse.

As a Christian pastor, I am troubled and embarrassed.

I wonder what opinions those outside my tradition must have of our clergy.

Does an agnostic house painter in New Orleans who was considering returning to the church decide now to stay away because of the accusations against Eddie Long? Does a Hindu cab driver in Athens believe Father Aresenios is the face of the church? Does a Muslim short order cook in Brussels watch the story of Roger Vangheluwe on Al Jazeera and conclude all clergy are pedophiles?

Closer to home, do church members in my congregation wonder what I am hiding?

How can we clergy explain such egregious transgressions?

I have thought of two possible culprits: the work and the person.

As a pastor I identify with the pitfalls of "the work." Fifteen years ago I took vows "to love God, my neighbor, and to serve the people of God with energy, intelligence and imagination."

Today, however, my job description reads like the director of a mid-size non-profit. A million dollar budget needs to be raised and a monthly payroll of 12 employees met. To tread the churning waters of shrinking resources and demands for excellent programs, I take classes on strategic planning as often as classes on the Bible.

I'm not proud of this. But I suspect that many clergy face the same temptation to view the church more as a business than a spiritual community.

What to do?

One option is to intentionally separate the clergy from the church's financial matters. Teaching people about God’s love while shaking a fundraiser’s tin cup seems to ultimately undermine one’s credibility. People suspect a bait and switch.

On the other hand, as Harvard professor Robert Coles wrote in a famous essay addressing a crisis in the field of psychiatry, "I think our most pressing concern is less the matter of our work than the manner of ourselves."

This is where the second possible culprit, the person, comes in.

Yes, the work of ministry pulls clergy in a million directions but cooking the balance sheet and sexual crimes point to a disease of the spirit and soul.

This is "the manner of ourselves."

How do we explain the moral transgressions of a profession charged to teach morality?

In my years as a pastor I have witnessed marriage vows made and betrayed. I have visited those in prison and those trapped in a prison they have made for themselves. I’ve prayed with the lost and the found, watched fortunes flow and ebb.

"Broken" is a word that describes many of the people I have been privileged to walk alongside as a pastor.

I have also spent a great deal of time with other clergy; from preaching stars who soak up acclaim for their oratory gifts to pastors in inner-city churches barely making ends meet.

Here's my observation. Clergy typically fall into one of two camps.

Those who, in the face of the brokenness that surrounds them, come to identify their own brokenness and in humility choose to "live with the questions," to borrow the poet Rilke's phrase. This person is reluctant to offer quick answers to the hard questions of life.

The other camp is clergy who choose instead to offer confident solutions to life’s struggles. The clergy I have watched transgress their ordination vows typically fall into the second camp. The temptation is to shift from speaking about God to speaking for God. When that line blurs in a pastor’s mind, all bets are off.

What can Christian clergy offer to the agnostic house painter in New Orleans, the Hindu cab driver, the Muslim short order cook?

The Jewish prophet Micah once wrote how people of faith are to "act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God." That is as succinct a definition I know of what it means to call oneself a Christian.

It’s also reminder of the standard we clergy must claim and cling to if we are to restore trust and once again bring honor to our sacred calling.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mark Barger Elliott.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Leaders • Opinion

soundoff (65 Responses)
  1. Aditya

    The present generation is the future of tomorrow. Here is an article about the things that students should do in college to be successful and become the leaders of tomorrow.


    December 25, 2010 at 5:51 pm |
  2. Scott

    Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. As the pastors become more powerful they tend to become more corrupt. And god never thumps them on the head and says “bad boy. Don’t do that”. It’s very hard to believe in an omnipotent, omnisent and (espesialy) omnibenevolent god when cretin pastors aren’t incinerated by bolts of lightening. If there was any kind of god would he put up with the crap these pastors pull?

    December 9, 2010 at 9:02 pm |
  3. Scott

    It’s very hard to believe in an omnipotent god (or any god at all) when cretin pastors aren’t incinerated by bolts of lightening

    December 9, 2010 at 7:44 pm |
  4. Darwin Raj

    I refer to Matthew 13: 36-43 Jesus explained about tares of the field. He who sow the good seed is the Son of God. But the tares are the sons of the wicked one (devil). (26-30) When grain has sprouted from the good seed, then the tares also appeared in the same ground the earth. Jesus advised the disciples not to try to remove tares before time because by trying to do that Jesus cautioned you will by mistake destroy the good ones also. He commanded them to wait till the harvest (judgement) The angels will reap the tares and put it into fire and gather the grains to barns. This the end time the we will see many false preachers among the good one. Be strong in the faith and contend for faith and be firm in the salvation received by faith from the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. All the tares will try to discourage the world of faith. Just ignore the tares sowed by devil and keep waiting for the Lord's return and judgement on the wicked.

    November 14, 2010 at 3:57 pm |
  5. Lee Ramsey

    Sam, thanks for this helpful and insightful post. Clergy are forever confusing the role (ordained leader of the congregation/church) with their own personhood (child of God). This is similar to what you are saying with slightly different language and theological terms. My recommendation to many clergy (including myself) who become trapped in the role of ministry rather than in fulfilling the vocation of ministry, and hence on their way to any number of destructive mistakes), is to walk away for awhile. Take a sabbatical (weekly is best, but longer every few years). Negotiate a renewal leave with the congregation. Or simply, do something else to earn a living while trying to rediscover ones call. The question that needs to be asked is the one that the late Carlyle Marney once asked of a medical doctor who was his friend, but who was terribly and destructively trapped inside of his professional role. "Doctor, who are you when you are not Doctor?"

    November 5, 2010 at 5:27 pm |
  6. michael

    Romans 1:19 – 22 describes the attributes of an atheist or agnostic. It also testifies that at least in the "beginning" there are no atheists. God says choose life or choose death. Every person's paradiam of thinking must change... what is life? Is this breathing, thinking, surviving... LIFE? There is somewhere deep in every person a KNOWN fact. A fact that has no real substantial "proof". There is a God, I am not Him and I do not know Him... this existence I have is not all there is to be.
    Now; as vs 21 states "the continued disregard or even dening of this engrained truth" will cause a person's perception or even acknowledgement of the existence of this truth to wain. Their mind is "darkened" to this possibility. Therefore their path of denial will lead them eventually to God's discription of them... people declaring themselves to be wise... actually they become FOOLS. (vs 22) References Psalms 14:1 & 53:1

    Father; in the name of Your son Jesus... for all those whose minds have become darkened... who do and have denied You...
    I ask for mercy. Give them a reprieve Lord. Let them at least give You the real opportunity to, as they say; "Prove God". If they so truly believe You do not exist or that You do not care... let them at least acknowledge that it is not I or any other believer in You, Jesus and the Holy Spirit who are in a position to PROVE who You are... if there is no God then it will do no harm to ask Him to reveal Himself to that person... and if there is a God and I out of pride and or ignorance did not give Him a true opportunity to meet me... then that would turn out to be the real highth of foolishness. I plead on their behalf Lord that You would reawaken that spark... that thought of what if... what if i am wrong? What will really happen when my breathing stops? If these crazy people are right... how long is eternity? Is what I am doing right now really that important? Have I ever been wrong before? Jesus, You gave Yourself up for these people... in Your name I claim them as brothers and sisters just as they are... save them from hell Lord. Meet them even in their dreams... show Yourself to them Lord. There is nothing impossible with You Lord. All honor, glory and grace to the Lord Jesus Christ forever and forever. Amen

    November 5, 2010 at 12:11 am |
  7. michael

    There are many things about God that I can and may be wrong about. There is only 1 that is infallable and I ain't Him. However there are a few things that I do know about Him that I am not wrong about and no one can ever change my mind about... does that make me arrogant about them? I guess as B. Clinton said "that determines on how you define...". Listen, I KNOW that there is a God. I KNOW that He loves me and you. I KNOW that His son Jesus made a way for each of us to have a relationship with Him (God). Where does the arrogance come in??? Well... (as R. Reagen said) from your viewpoint... (and this I assume from experience) if you do not KNOW these things as well... then you ARE wrong. I do not say this to ruffle your feathers or hurt any feelings... it is a fact. Each person has a set amount of time (their "life') to choose these truths and others... these are foundational. If not, then when they enter the next perceivable "evolution" (word chosen on purpose) of their life; their understanding and position with the truth will be known. Alas the time of opportunity for choice is now past and they must for eternity live with the decision they made in those few short years of temporal living. How can I be so arrogant you ask... it is very simple... I am arrogant about the knowledge that without any protective aids; if I stick my hand into an open fire, I AM going to get burned. I was told this in advance by my parents. I disregarded this warning and experienced HOT for myself and I am now arrogant in my knowledge that it produces pain. Without any shadow of doubt I can and will say to you and every person that reads this... THUS SAITH THE LORD ALMIGHTY; "Hell is hot, don't go there". I wrote those words. But please believe them as if you actually heard God say them to you. I for one am not going to thrust my entire body into hellfire and brimstone just to experience the pain and to gain the arrogance of the knowledge that it hurts. It is a hurt that will never end. You say that a JUST and LOVING God would not require such a consequence... I say NO the real miracle is that a JUST and LOVING God provided a way of escaping this outcome. You have to open your mind and imagination up to the awesome perfection of who God really is and what His character is like. He is truly foreign to us in that He has NO darkness or iniquity of any kind in Himself. It is a wonderful thing that He could design a way to reconcile a fallen nature as ourselves to Himself. Integrate imperfection without causing that perfection to become inperfect. That way is amazingly simple yet profound and requires total trust... belief that He is... thru death you become alive... absolute contradiction but absolute truth. The concepts of life and death are not (only) what we have come to believe as human beings. The very first step... decide. This is the sum total of your "work" in receiving that relationship... decide to believe Him, not me. If there were ANY way for you work or be good enough to deserve a good relationship with the true God... then there would have been no reason for Jesus' death and resurrection. God is real and thru Jesus' actions He has proven that He is not "mad" at you... A good book to read is found in the bible... actually there are 66 good books to read there. However the one I have in mind is Romans. If you are truthful with yourself and want to settle this "thing" about God... read Romans and then I would suggest the Gospel of John... I can truthfully say (and I once thought as you and many others who post on these "religious" blogs)... I am so believing in this Jesus dude that I really can not imagine living my life without Him. As with the "fire" example; you really can't have that arrogant knowledge that we believers in Him have unless you stick your hand in the fire so to speak. There is a verse in the bible that says "taste the Lord and know that He is Good". Let go and let God.

    November 4, 2010 at 11:45 pm |
  8. michael

    Well said Etaban.

    November 4, 2010 at 11:41 pm |
  9. Wisdom for life

    Let's be clear: Religion is not even close to being the primary cause for evil and violence in our world. See: http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2007/02/26/blaming-religion-for-violence-in-world/

    As to leadership, being a pastor is one of the surest ways to be reminded that He put His “treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (II Corinthians 4:7). The challenge to embrace comes in recognizing that the rhythm of personal transformation and pastoral ministry is death and renewal: “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you” (II Corinthains 4:10-12).

    This is why we must practice the rhythm of spiritual activity our Lord followed. Trace his steps and you’ll find a pattern of engagement and withdrawal; of crowds and solitude. We need time to get perspective in the audience of One. “Come away” Jesus said, “to a secluded place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31).

    Psalm 62:8 has been my lifeline in ministry: “Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.”

    November 4, 2010 at 8:19 pm |
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    November 4, 2010 at 2:03 pm |
  11. Andy

    I think that your website is a frod. How do we know you are not lieing to us? My dad thinks that you are saying what you want us to know, not the truth!

    November 3, 2010 at 8:26 pm |
    • Andrew

      I think this is a good reason to not learn the things of European religious because we the Americans believe in one GOD!!!! We don't need to know Earopean religious beliefs. If you are an American citizen don't learn other beliefs because you are disbeleive God the amite Father

      November 3, 2010 at 9:17 pm |
  12. CW

    @ All who desecrate the the word of God...AND DON'T BELIEVE.

    Please as Jesus said...."forgive them...they know not what they do". Believe me when I say this this whole nation can foresake THE BIBLE and the LORD but ONE DAY EVERY KNEE WILL BOW AND ALL WILL DECLARE THAT GOD IS HOLY AND ALMIGHTY. For those of you that don't have a personal relationship I pray for you. Believe me...you'll get your chance to explain your beliefs....just hope that along with that explaination you are able to say that you were Blind but were able to see before you leave this world.

    On another note...any one of us that holds anyone as someone who isn't able to make mistakes....shame on you. No one is perfect...Not one Pastor, not the Pope, nor anyone can say that they don't sin daily. All of us are Sinners saved by the GRACE OF GOD...THRU JESUS CHRIST'S SACRIFICE.

    November 3, 2010 at 2:42 pm |
    • michael


      November 3, 2010 at 3:09 pm |
    • MadPanda

      If your compassionate god comes and forces be to bow down on one knee or throw me in fire, I will point out to him that it is ridiculous to think anyone would believe in him. After all, this is a compassionate, forgiving enti-ty that is giving me an ultimatum. Either hell, or knee. Doesn’t sound very compassionate to me. Considering he is all knowing, he would completely understand how and why i rationalized him away.

      So appropriate is this quote:
      "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use."

      You have a personal relationship with him? Is that was rev. long tells you that you are doing? ZING!

      November 3, 2010 at 4:34 pm |
    • Esteban

      MadPanda –

      Assuming for a minute that there is a God, it seems logical that He would define Himself and the rules of engagement with His creation – versus being defined BY His creation – doesn't it? If we pick up a paintbrush and easel, the paint can't determine what the picture will look like, can it? Only the painter can do that.

      To define compassionate as "not giving me an ultimatum" or "understanding why I rationalized away His existence" seems to assume a human right/capability to define what God is or isn't and what He can, cannot, should or should not do. That wouldn't make Him much of a God, would it?

      So, by comparison, the compassion demonstrated by the God of the Bible comes in giving us – the animated, self-aware, soulful jewel of His creation – a CHOICE. We can admit to His sovereignty over us, admit our self-centered tendency to ignore Him and His will for our lives, and respond to His love and forgiveness, or we can reject his deity and sovereignty and live life and eternity on our own terms. He even outlines the consequences of both choices upfront so there's no confusion. Seems pretty compassionate to me.

      And finally, Galileo's quote. I love this quote as well, but I'm confused by how you're using it. Would a God who endows us with sense, reason and intellect cease to exist (ie. "...he would completely understand how and why I rationalized him away") if we used them? Doesn't seem likely...

      For your consideration.

      November 4, 2010 at 12:33 am |
  13. Esteban

    This may sound too simple, but the reason religious leaders are so scandal prone is that they are – human. Are they really more scandal prone than politicians, athletes, movie stars, or any other visible segment of our society? Or invisible segment, for that matter. Hard to argue that they are. It just offends us more because they claim – and we expect – a higher standard.

    "Religion" can – and consistently does – get wrapped around the axle by imperfect human leaders, followers and apologists. But Elliott's quote from Micah ("What does the Lord require of you, oh man, but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.") along with a few others (loose translations below) are not about the power and practice of "religion" but about faith in a just, loving and sovereign God and how it should inform and enrich our lives. Big, big difference.

    "I desire mercy, not sacrifice, says the Lord." – In other words, it's about your heart.

    "The greatest commandment is this: love the Lord your God with all your heart...and love your neighbor as yourself." – True love seeks to honor the object of that affection, not to dishonor it with greed or any other kind of selfish behavior.

    Truly, God loves us – HIs creation – even as human leaders fall to human temptations.

    For your consideration.

    November 2, 2010 at 11:07 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.