The Occupational Hazards of Ministry


The Bible holds the office of elder in high esteem. Whoever desires to be a pastor has set his heart on a noble task because it involves the oversight of God’s people through ruling and teaching. To do the job requires not only knowledge and wisdom, but also a well-guarded heart, for danger lurks in the elevated pedestal of recognition. It is here that sexual sin is most subtle and appears eminently reasonable.

Pastor Tom is a typical example. He was a pastor for more than 25 years when he began an affair with his secretary. He told me in counseling that while sexually involved with another woman he could still preach against adultery, counsel others to stop an affair, and then tell himself that God didn’t care if he was unfaithful to his wife because the church was growing. Such thinking is unreasonable, arrogant, and just plain foolish. Yet this story points to an occupational hazard for everyone who holds the office of pastor.

Why is such a high office so prone to sexual sin and therefore so dangerous?

It is true that sexual sin is pandemic in the culture, but the greatest danger of entering into temptation is within the four walls of the church building. With more than 50% of the congregation struggling with cybersex and new studies indicating that it is increasingly a female problem, the danger is real. On any given Sunday, how many sitting in the pew are truly spiritually and sexually mature? How many men and women routinely engage in heart adultery towards the opposite sex; even towards the man in the pulpit?

Some years ago a woman came to Colorado to see me for counseling. She shared her little secret about how she enjoyed visiting with her pastor because he always gave her a hug. She went on to explain that she went home and sexually fantasized about him and comforted herself. As I ended a rather painful counseling session, she asked me for a hug. If I had been ignorant of her sinful pattern I might have thought it was merely a caring gesture. I gently explained why a hug would never be a part of our counseling. Pastors need to think of Christian fellowship as an unseen danger. In looking with lustful intent, some have already committed adultery with the pastor during the worship service.

So we must take careful heed, for the pulpit offers neither shield nor immunity from any form of sexual sin. In fact, I think that most preachers are more vulnerable than their parishioners. Pastors are constantly bombarded with sexual temptations, yet we prefer to ignore the danger signs.

Ralph was a young pastor, preaching three services each Sunday morning in a church that had grown from a dozen to thousands. In his overwork he justified

neglecting his wife for the work of God, and continuing his life-long struggle with pornography. It started at age 11, looking at his Dad’s secret stash of porn magazines. Now it regularly involved looking at sexual images on his laptop and iPhone. Eventually this lead to sexual chats and then a sexual liaison with a woman across town. Today, fewer affairs start in the counseling office.

Rather, they begin online, where physical and emotional relationships easily develop. The tragedy is that such dalliances are avoidable.

In decades of counseling hundreds of pastors dealing with the fallout of unfaithfulness, I have learned a lot about sexual sin, but one thing stands out in my mind: In ministry, unfaithfulness is an occupational hazard. If a pastor understands this hazard he will be better prepared to avoid disaster.

First, each man called to ministry must fully understand the occupational hazards related to internal corruption. The root problem is not your family of origin, but original sin. Spiritual and sexual maturity requires that we “put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5, italics added). Internet filters, avoiding counseling a woman alone, and taking your wife on trips out of town are helpful but they don’t address the reality of sin. If we only set boundaries we are only looking at the problem through the eyes of reason. Sexual temptation always makes one’s thinking unpredictable, uncontrollable and irrational because it comes out of the heart, not just from the object of lust. If the life of God indwelling you does not rule the heart, the sin within will kill the life of God in you, while maintaining a public image of spiritual maturity. While it is the pastor’s duty to help others mortify the power of indwelling sin, it is the failure to do so in one’s own heart that creates the greatest danger to the servant of God. Lose this battle, and you could lose the war within.

Second, each man called to ministry must fully understand the occupational hazard as it relates to the pedestal. The more public your ministry and the more esteemed your preaching, the more dangerous and effective the schemes of our enemy. There are two natural elements that are accentuated in public ministry. First is arrogance in finding satisfaction in self rather than the glory of God. This is a deadly poison. It will ultimately kill your ministry and your life. Right along with arrogance comes natural abilities, gifts and accomplishments that we allow to feed the soul more than the Word of God. Both of these elements are a setup to engage in risky thoughts and behaviors, believing all the time that you can get away with it. How in the world did Ted Haggard think he could conceal his identity from a male prostitute?

Third, each man called to ministry must fully understand the occupational hazard as it relates to relationships. The pulpit is a lonely place. Pastoring is more than a full-time job and the pastor’s wife and family are easily neglected. Ask yourself, “How do I handle the compliments from women?” A woman with a compliment and a need for attention is a force that doubles the temptation. Know this fact, that such an object immediately excites lust lying dormant in the heart. Don’t go near this door of opportunity; let your wife’s evaluation of you as a man be the only one that counts.

Given these hazards in ministry, we need to become actively aware of the issues, challenges, and have an effective prevention strategy to avoid being caught in this web of consuming desire and destruction. I strongly believe that to be sexually mature you must be spiritually mature, and to be spiritually mature you must be sexually mature. In other words, don’t separate your sexuality from your spirituality, nor your spirituality from your sexuality. Prevention is possible when we recognize that everything we do in ministry relationally and sexually must point to one purpose, the glory of God. Our entire motivation is to be set on fire for life by the driving desire for the glory of God. If ministry and relationships have that one purpose, then our masculine sexuality will serve that one purpose with all women, including our wives. It is not about me! It is about God! When we truly grasp that reality, ministry, relationships, and sex are in the service of God, for the glory of God. When pastors hear that calling, and maintain it, their lives can become imbued with a vision that guides them personally and in ministry.