The “Guarded Wolf”: Why Black Churches Follow Bad Pastors

This editorial was written by Mika Edmondson, doctoral student at Calvin Theological Seminary. See full bio below.

Don\’t get me wrong. I love good pastors and there are many out there. We should do more to support and honor them. (see 1 Timothy 5:17) But you know the scenario. A local pastor is caught in some scandalous behavior (stealing money, committing adultery, or worse), the word spreads, a few fed-up members (including the whistleblower/s) leave, the “incident” is downplayed or swept under the rug, and eventually the congregation moves on as if nothing ever happened. Let\’s face it. Black churches are notorious for their unwillingness to shake bad leaders. Even in the face of undeniable evidence of gross sin, some congregations maintain their commitments to shady characters with an almost addictive-like quality. As a tradition, they might be our “favorite mistake.”

Harvard Public Leadership Professor Barbara Kellerman suggests that individuals generally follow bad leaders because they often satisfy basic human needs like safety, simplicity, and certainty. Groups tend to keep them because they provide benefits like cohesion, identity, order, and collective work. When this tendency spills over into the local church, it spells disaster for its mission, its people, and its leadership. Here are three common reasons why church folks tend to avoid disciplining corrupt pastors.

1. The “Guarded Wolf” phenomenon: Some churchgoers believe pastors (even bad ones) are virtually untouchable. Because of their position and function within the local church, they are seen as being above any charge of indiscretion. People who hold this view will even guard a corrupt pastor (a “guarded wolf”) by immediately denying and dismissing any allegation of misconduct before careful consideration. People who guard wolves often blame innocent victims (the Lord\’s sheep) for their own victimization. For instance, many women find themselves blamed by their own brothers and sisters in Christ for having been sexually harassed (or worse) by a corrupt pastor. Should they find the courage to speak out, they are often branded as “trouble makers” and/or demonized as a part of the devil\’s scheme to bring down the ministry. It\’s not uncommon to hear wolf guarders say things like “you know how some women are. They always throw themselves at pastors.” Or “When I hear things about our pastor I simply ignore it because they are always under spiritual attack by the enemy.

Without a doubt, pastors often find themselves the subject of spiritual attacks. However bad pastors are themselves a kind of predator that the Lord\’s people need protecting against. This is why the Bible repeatedly warns us about them (see Matthew 7:15, Acts 20:28-31, Jude 3-16). Can you imagine the carnage that would ensue if a group of sheep huddled around a wolf to protect it from being discovered and caught? Wolf guarding doesn\’t help congregations or honor Christ.

2. The “Don\’t Ask, Don\’t Tell” behavior policy: Some people adopt a “don\’t ask don\’t tell” behavior policy with their pastor because they feel their pastor\’s personal conduct is more or less none of the church\’s business. As long as he/she shows up on Sunday and performs all the public duties of a pastor, their private life should be virtually off limits. Usually, this attitude really masks a more sinister motive. Many people figure “If I don\’t ask the pastor about his sin, he won\’t tell me to stop committing mine.” Other people gravitate to corrupt pastors because they already mirror some personal sin. Bad leaders are often supported by bad followers who feel more comfortable and justified around them. For instance, adulterers may feel especially comfortable supporting an adulterous pastor because there is little danger of their “pet sin” being preached against in the church.

Some people tolerate pastoral misconduct because it gives them political leverage over a compromised pastor or secures their position within the church. They keep pastoral indiscretions a secret in exchange for certain favors from their leader or out of fear that if he should lose his power, so would they.

3. The Pastor as “Mini-monarch”: Many congregations (particularly autonomous ones like the Baptist) are not set up for genuine pastoral accountability. In some settings, the pastor is basically a solitary autocrat, with no real checks on his decisions or behavior. This makes it very difficult for a congregation to properly deal with pastoral abuses. Some pastors even promote this way of thinking, sometimes suggesting that they are not accountable to anybody but God. Others will systematically dismantle even legitimate restrictions on their power. In these situations, it\’s not uncommon to hear people say “if a pastor sins you should just pray about it and move on.” This is often an admission that a congregation has left itself vulnerable to abuse by its leadership. There isn\’t anyone within the congregation itself truly equipped or authorized to confront pastoral misconduct. Some pastors in these settings may demonstrate enough maturity to do the right thing should they “get caught up,” however these congregations are not structurally equipped to protect themselves against a corrupt pastor who won\’t. Sometimes deacon boards or boards of directors serve as a kind of power balance. However, few deacons or lay-members are properly equipped to correct a wayward pastor.

For the record, the Bible does offer human protections for congregations in the form of multiple pastors for each local body. Among its many benefits, this model protects congregations from the excesses of one personality by balancing it out with a group. It also promotes real pastoral accountability from a group of people who know the day-to-day ins and outs of that particular congregation and who are qualified to recognize and call out pastoral misconduct. I know this is a HUGE paradigm shift those of us in the Black church tradition and space doesn\’t allow me to fully explain it here. But before you prejudge it, check out these biblical references to see if they support a single or a multiple pastor model for local churches. (see Acts 11:30, 14:23, 20:17, Philippians 1:1, Titus 1:5, 1 Timothy 5:17,  James 5:14)

So What Does The Bible Say We Should Do About Bad Pastors?

Make no mistake about it. The Bible never calls Christians to remain loyal to corrupt leaders. In fact, the Bible clearly forbids churches from clinging to such pastors. 1 Timothy 5:20 says “As for those [pastors] who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.” There are precious few congregations willing to obey this biblical command. Can you imagine a local Black church publically reprimanding a corrupt pastor by bringing him before the congregation, calling out his sin, and “sitting him down?” Probably not. However in many cases, this is exactly what God\’s word calls us to do. For you haters out there, our passage is not endorsing a “witch hunt”. (There are some bitter people who would like nothing more than to see a pastor fall.) Biblically speaking, churches may not act on accusations against its leaders except on the testimony of multiple witnesses (see 1 Timothy 5:19). Neither can churches afford simply to look the other way.

Scripture recognizes our sinful tendency to let bad leaders off the hook. Therefore, 1 Timothy 5:21 insists that even pastors should receive no special favors or leniency when it comes to sin.  It says “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality.”Even pastors aren\’t above God\’s law– Churches dishonor the Lord himself by acting as if they are. In the case of suspected gross pastoral sin, the Bible insists on 1. An unbiased investigation and evaluation of the facts and 2. Public rebuke (a serious reprimand which may include removal from office or even disfellowship) if they are found to be guilty. I know this sounds unreasonably harsh to some. But apparently the Lord takes pastoral integrity very seriously (see1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:6-9). So should we. Pastors have a unique potential both to promote spiritual benefit and harm among God\’s people. How much physical, psychological, and spiritual devastation might have been avoided had local congregations simply obeyed the Bible\’s clear direction in this area?  

Can you relate to what the author is saying in this article? How should churches handle “bad leaders”?

Mika Edmondson is an ordained Baptist minister. He holds a Master’s of Divinity from Vanderbilt Divinity School (Nashville, TN) and is currently working toward a doctorate in Systematic Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary (Grand Rapids, MI). He may be reached at