Megachurch leaders have made headlines recently with news of high-profile divorces, allegations of sexual misconduct and claims of financial wrongdoings, leading some to question the ethics or moral conduct of pastors tasked with overseeing such large congregations.
Filmmaker and media consultant Phil Cooke, who has helped some of the largest ministries nationwide better engage today’s culture, told The Christian Post that it is important not to “paint all megachurch pastors with the same brush.”
“For every pastor of a large congregation that’s controversial or embarrassing, there are plenty of others who are doing incredible work,” said Cooke. “I would be willing to bet that most megachurch pastors who fail, it’s not just the megachurch that caused it.”
According to Cooke, it is a matter of personal integrity not ethics, because all churches should be ethical.
Scott Thumma, co-author of Beyond Megachurch Myths, pointed out that all clergy are faced with the challenge of not succumbing to the feeling that “[they] have some sort of special dispensation from God – that [they] are somehow entitled to something more than mere mortal in a sense.”
“I don’t think that the frequency of this happening to megachurch pastors is any greater than other clergy,” Thumma told CP. “They’ve become larger than life targets when you have something like this. It is much more newsworthy.”
He explained that a reason for this stray from God’s word is due to a lack of accountability. Adding, that there is a distance, a sense of set-apartness with a large congregation.
“Their [megachurch pastors] time is in such demand in so many different areas, that there are barriers between them and the ordinary congregational members,” Thumma stated. “Because of this there are fewer checks and balances that happen naturally.”
Cooke shared similar sentiments, but pointed out that the forces that drive people to change the world can be the same “ambitions and desires that they become slaves to.”
“In other words, confidence, ambition, drive, and passion are all good things when channeled for the gospel, but when pushed too far, they can destroy your life,” he explained. “We’re all fallen, imperfect human beings, and one of the greatest challenges in life is to find the right balance.”
However, there are different qualities of megachurches and pastors. According to Thumma, in a quality megachurch leadership arrangement the accountability structures that one might find naturally occurring in a small church have to intentionally be put in place in a larger church.
Cooke shared that these challenges are created anytime an organization – whether it be a church, ministry, nonprofit, etc. – becomes too large. According to Cooke, the priority of an organization can shift from “ministry to maintenance” when it reaches a certain size.
“In many cases, the focus changes from raising money for worthy ministry projects, to trying to figure out what type of ministry project will raise the most money,” he stated. “That’s when priorities start getting screwed up.”
The question arises of whether there is an unrealistic expectation of megachurch pastors. No man or woman is perfect, but is there a standard church leaders should be held to?
Thumma pointed out that with some of the human failures of megachurch pastors – allegations of drug use, adultery, and homosexuality – it is not unreasonable to expect that some leaders in the church might succumb to such sinful behavior.
“There’s a pretty clear Christian moral code that clergy should follow and all (people) whether we happen to be professors or lay attendees at a church or senior leadership, we should all be held to the same moral code and standards,” he stated.
However, Cooke countered that one of the main reasons megachurch pastors fail “isn’t because of them, it’s because of us.” There are many examples of men who have “evolved from pastors to celebrities and that happens because ‘we’ the congregation take our eyes off Jesus and put them on a leader,” he shared.
He added, “We’ll get better pastors when we start acting on New Testament principles and holding them to a higher standard.”
According to Cooke, there is one question he asks any growing congregation – “Are you growing because people are drawn to the actual gospel message, or are you growing because you’re making them feel good?”
The hollywood filmmaker and media consultant told CP that the Christian faith is not about feeling good, fulfilling your dreams, or becoming successful.
“Certainly God is sovereign and He rewards our faithfulness,” Cooke stated. “But getting an easy ride isn’t the essence of the gospel. Jesus calls us to take His message to difficult places, and the churches that will be remembered in eternity will be the churches that accept that call."
According to Cooke, the most important thing to remember is why a pastor exists in the first place.