6 Warning Signs You’re Risking a Moral Failure – and How to Avoid a Fall

I have a light on my dashboard right now that says “Maintenance Required.” It’s been there for a week and I’ve done nothing about it. I know I need to take it into the shop and find out what’s wrong, get it fixed, and get back on the road, but it’s just a “Maintenance Required” light. I am confident that I can keep driving for a while before it becomes a real problem. Unfortunately, by the time I take it to the shop to get it fixed, it might be too late. There could be something seriously wrong that might cost me a lot more time and money simply because I didn’t heed the warning signs.

As search consultants, we are often brought in to help replace a leader who has been fired or asked to resign due to a moral or ethical failure. These situations are always heartbreaking, and the ripple effects of these failures often continue for years. While healing and restoration are possible through the grace of God, the cost of failure is high for everyone – the fallen leader, their family, and their ministry.

When I talk to leaders who have experienced something like this, they usually say, “I can’t believe that I did what I did. I didn’t even realize I was capable of this. I wish I could go back and stop myself before all this happened.” In most cases, there were likely warning signs on the dashboard of their lives that would have indicated they were heading down a dangerous path. If these warnings signs were heeded, they might have saved themselves, their families, and their communities a world of hurt. Here are six warning signs that may indicate you are at risk for a fall and should be proactive about overcoming them.

1. Boredom 

When King David decided to stay home instead of going into battle, he found himself having nothing to do but watch Bathsheba bathing on a nearby rooftop. We all know what happened next. Ministry is full of routine. Sunday comes every week. Christmas and Easter come every year. Board meetings happen every month. Programs launch every fall. While much of ministry is challenging and seeing lives change never gets old, the routine of ministry can wear some leaders down, especially those who are entrepreneurial and wired for change and growth. Bored leaders are those who are at risk that will end up making bad decisions just to do something new in order to feel the rush of a new challenge, even if it’s a destructive one.

2. Exhaustion 

The demands on a senior leader are relentless. In addition to the weekly demands of message preparation, board meetings, counseling appointments, strategic planning sessions, staff issues, late night and early morning meetings, they also usually have a family they are trying to support – games they want to attend, parent conferences and all the rest. This pressure and relentless pace can drain even the most energetic pastor. The work is never “done” in a church and it can be difficult, yet important to slow down enough for renewal and rejuvenation.


3. Entitlement 

Churches are notorious for underpaying their staff. Money is usually tight and payroll is often limited. In most cases, the senior leader is paid significantly more than the rest of the staff, but significantly less than most of the senior lay leaders in the church. Because congregations know this, they will often provide the pastor with certain extra “perks” – access to a vacation home, club memberships, discounts for some household items, a car discounted by a local dealership whose owner attends your church, and so on. At first, these perks are gratefully received, but over time, they can become expected or unconsciously assumed as part of yearly compensation. When that happens, a sense of entitlement starts to grow. What was once a gift becomes an expectation. When that happens, poor decisions are sure to follow. 

4. Isolation

Show me a leader who had moral failure and I will show you a leader who increasingly isolated himself from people who had permission to speak into their life. They lived their lives behind closed doors. They stopped attending their small group or accountability group. When they did attend, they sat quietly and talked only about “acceptable” sins or mistakes. They spent more time with their office doors closed. They took trips alone. They didn’t speak up during staff meetings. While times of solitude and reflection are critical for emotional and spiritual health, a lifestyle of being disengaged from other people is a sign that you are headed for a potential fall.


5. Unhealthy Distractions 

Leaders who are dealing with significant cognitive dissonance in their personal lives will look for ways to distract themselves from dealing with the pain of that dissonance. Some might disappear for hours into video games; others might get lost in movies or TV shows. In more extreme cases, a leader getting ready to tip over the edge will distract themselves with pornography and more. If you find yourself looking for ways to distract yourself from the work you are doing or the life you are living, it’s time to sit up and take action.

6. Little Lies Soon Become Big Lies 

Leaders don’t fall overnight. It’s often a long and slow journey. Leaders who fall tend to start with little lies – lies to cover up pain in their lives, lies to protect people from the truth, and lies that make life just a little bit easier to cope with. Most leaders would secretly scream like Jack Nicholson in a A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth!” So we lie – a little bit at a time. It becomes easier and easier, until we find ourselves with a secret that we can’t dare tell to anyone.   

When you see these warning signs, what do you do? Do you wait until your life completely breaks down and hope you can rebuild it? Or should you take action to address those warning signs when you first see them on the dashboard of your life?

Don’t wait! Take action. Here are three solutions to the warning signs you may face:

1. Find a Healthy, Safe Place Where You Can Get Real with Someone  

When my car breaks down, I don’t try to fix it myself. I know nothing about cars. If I opened the hood and the engine was gone, I might have a clue what was wrong, but otherwise, I need to get some professional help. Pastors and church leaders are some of the loneliest people I know. They rarely have anyone they can talk to about the real pains and challenges in their lives. They can’t talk to the staff or their supervisors because those people either are dependent on the leader for their jobs or have a responsibility to protect the larger organization. Every senior leader in a church or ministry needs to have someone they can talk to about ANYTHING. Someone they can say anything to – no matter how crazy – and know for a fact that it won’t go any further or change their relationship. It would be great if that person were a friend without any official role in your organization, but if that’s not possible, find a professional, faith-based counselor with whom you can be totally transparent.  

2. Be Relentless in Seeking Accountability

When a leader goes off the rails, it’s likely that they didn’t actively seek personal accountability, or if they did, they found ways to shade the truth about their lives. It’s not hard to hide in plain sight. Choose to give trusted accountability partners access to your personal world – your calendar, digital checkbook, instant message streams, browser history, etc. It’s likely that you might not see the warning lights flashing on the dashboard of your life, so let these friends ask you how you are doing in each of these areas on a regular basis and commit to answering them honestly. Loving and gracious accountability can be your greatest ally in the fight to remain upright and steadfast.

3. Be Proactive in Scheduling Times of Rest and Renewal  

Most people will wait too long before they take a break from the pressures of work and ministry. They wait until the car is about to break down before getting it off the road. Ideally, the pastor who will be successful and happy for the long haul will plan regular, short breaks for rest and relaxation. They will set aside times for reflection both alone and with a few other people throughout the year, even during times of intense activity and pressure.  

What warning signs are lighting up the dashboard of your life? What steps do you need to take to confront and solve them?