Finding faithful pastors is essential—and possible. But fostering trust isn’t blind faith. Trust is earned. Get to know the pastors before you join a church. Follow pastors who follow Jesus in ways that are apparent to all.
“How can we trust anyone—especially pastors?”
A tenderhearted sister asked this question during a recent study in 2 Timothy. We had just discussed the danger of false teachers and the apostasy of pastors like Phygelus, Hermogenes, and Demas. She struggled with how to respond.
In the wake of the recent admissions of reports of abuse, corruption, and cover-up in the Southern Baptist Convention, her question resonates with many others.
When men who are supposed to represent Jesus hurt people under their care, it’s atrocious and disorienting. Whether you’ve been wounded directly or indirectly by such hypocrites, we all need a path forward that avoids forsaking either faith in God or trust in his church.
9 Warning Signs
While we must avoid harboring a spirit of suspicion toward all leadership, we are called to be discerning, sober-minded, and on guard (1 Pet. 5:8; 1 John 4:1). Not all pastors who exhibit the following traits are abusive wolves. Undershepherds are also struggling sheep. But if these sins characterize your pastor, serious concern and severe action are necessary.
Shepherds should be known by their sheep. Appearing in the pulpit is only a small part of a pastor’s responsibility. If church members lack any visibility into their pastors’ lives, they are unable to “consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7).
Dangerous pastors insulate themselves to avoid detection, and sin flourishes in isolation. A pastor’s life must be open to observation.
To be clear, pastors must be able to have private time with God, family, and close friends. And not every member of the church is going to have a close, personal friendship with every pastor. However, it should be clear and observable that a pastor is living in godly, mature, Christian community. Pastors who avoid intimate relationships with anyone are highly suspicious.
Trustworthy pastors plead for accountability. Any pastor unwilling to be held accountable by godly gospel partners is vulnerable to all sorts of evils.
A pastor who leads alone is a pastor empowered to oppress. Whenever possible, then, a plurality of qualified elders should be established. Obviously, there will be seasons and locations where co-laborers may be few, but my point here is more about disposition than demography. Even when there are few pastoral hands on the plow, a shepherd can exhibit a desire for accountability from friends and other leaders.
God designed the church to have this built-in accountability structure for many reasons, including to protect pastors from sin. So these pastors or friends shouldn’t be “yes men,” unwilling to offer critique. Instead, they must courageously love the lead shepherd by holding him to God’s standard (1 Tim. 3:1–7). We all need men around us to support and encourage us, but we must we wary if the lingua franca shifts from biblical love to biased loyalty.
Continuing this theme, godly pastors will encourage members to give feedback, share concerns, and help them grow in faithfulness. Beware of pastors who cannot receive critique or who become defensive whenever questions arise. A church where criticism is treated as high treason is not a spiritually safe environment for the pastor or those under his care.
For example, I’m convinced that some sort of a formal review of a pastor’s pulpit ministry—for encouragement and for constructive feedback—is both a proof of humility and an antidote to defensiveness. This might take place at a staff meeting or an elders’ meeting or a time set aside for a “service review.” Regardless of context, it should be clear that a pastor is himself open to correction, committed to continued growth, and desirous of learning from others around him.
Instead of seeing service to Jesus as a high honor, some pastors think they’re indispensable to God’s work. They feel entitled to special treatment.
I know of a church where people were hesitant to push back on the pastor since he had done so much for them. Sadly, he was cultivating a secret life of indulgence that took advantage of enamored sheep. He had a huge impact on lives for good—and ill.