John Ortberg and the Pitfalls of Pastoral Discernment
Written by The Ministry of Jesus Christ on August 9, 2020
John Ortberg’s resignation statement as senior pastor of Menlo Church, given all that transpired, provoked more sadness than surprise. I never knew Ortberg personally. Professionally, I appreciated his contributions as a writer and thinker and ministry leader. Many pastors aspire to the kind of reach Ortberg enjoyed, though few of us ever achieve it. This is perhaps its own blessing.
The cause behind Ortberg’s resignation was disconcertingly public. Ortberg allowed his son, who admitted being attracted to children, to serve as a volunteer with children. Social media furiously fluttered, drew hard lines, and lobbed rocks. Some cited 1 Timothy 3 expectations for leaders. The story has it all—family conflict, high profile missteps and miscalculation, obfuscation, and blind loyalties. As Menlo’s motto on its homepage reads, “Nobody’s perfect. Anything’s possible.”
The fierce reactions found fuel from the combustibility of call-out and cancel culture. It’s been painful to read. As a pastor for 35 years with my own laundry list of mistakes, I recall Jesus’ words. “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone” (John 8:7). Nevertheless, actions have consequences. Pastors are sinners to be sure, but when we consent to our calling we assent to a high standard—public obedience atop pedestals and in fishbowls—on display not for show (Matt. 6:1), but as examples to imitate, like it or not (1 Cor. 4:16, 2 Thess. 3:9, Heb. 13:7). High, public standards mean certain failure, an opportunity in itself to exhibit the high calling of humble repentance and recommitment. We do not lower standards for the sake of preserving and performing a fake righteousness. As sinners, we embrace grace as pardon and as incentive. To recall Jesus’ words against stone-throwing, one must likewise recall his words to the sinner caught but no longer condemned: “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11, KJV). In doing so, we aspire to “the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).
The path to such fullness depends on honest self-suspicion and truth both spoken in love and heeded. Christianity teaches that even our best motives come tinged with self-interest (Jer. 17:9; Rom. 7:15). Called to be shepherds, we choose to lead by going first and somehow showing the path as possible, in both its hardships and joys.
Ortberg acknowledged, “I want to express again my regret for not having served our church with better judgement.” In his final sermon on Sunday, Ortberg confessed his was a “broken story.” It was hard for him and hard to watch but also hard not to imagine church lawyers had a hand in it. In his statement, he wrote, “… I did not balance my responsibilities as a father with my responsibilities as a leader.” I wondered whether the concern should have been more about boundaries than balance. As shepherds of congregations, pastors’ primary responsibility is care for their flock, watching over, serving with love, being an example (1 Pet. 5:2–3). A congregation’s safety and well-being is paramount. Whenever the real strain of ministry on families emerges, it must be focused on and addressed rather than balanced, which sometimes may mean handing over responsibility and leadership to trusted others for a season. This models faithfulness and love.
Given his high profile and ministerial accomplishments, perhaps Ortberg felt he knew best at the time. We do not know of anyone who suffered abuse, but if there are victims, then our compassion should be firstly for them. Perhaps Ortberg sought counsel, but if he did, the counsel was misguided or went unheeded. If the counsel came primarily from loving friends, did their love discount the severity of the danger? Friendly counsel often supplies more support and even rationalization than the confrontation and rebuke that may be required. This is why I think it’s always good to check in with a few detractors. They care less about your feelings and tend to shell out truth with no sugar (another reason to love your enemies—Luke 6:27).
Thinking back on my own spectacular sins, my church leadership would intervene to surround me with loving truth-tellers who shined necessary light onto my oblivious blind spots. We pastors tend to polish our personas to a sparkling sheen and then grow bedazzled with our own reflections. Thinking back to Paul before he was Paul on that road to Damascus (Acts 9:2–8), Jesus’ indictment against him was not against his wickedness as a reverend as much as against his goodness. Self-made and assured, Paul (as Saul) had been a first-rate Pharisee, successful and strong, in need of nobody’s grace. On his way to take down a few heretics, “a light from heaven” stopped Saul in his tracks. This was no spotlight from God for being so faithful, but the blinding, hot light of Jesus on account of Saul’s arrogance. Prestige had been his poison. Success can be prelude to failure. Confidence can sour into arrogance. Jesus exposed Paul’s spiritual deficiency as a spiritual necessity. The grace that saves us first shows us our need for salvation.
Out of this brokenness, finally filled with the Spirit, Paul found his true purpose and power. The Lord always prefers broken pots to porcelain perfection (2 Cor. 4:7). “We always carry in our body the death of Jesus,” Paul learned and applied, “so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Cor. 4:10; Rom. 6:10-11). And this too for people to see, “to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Cor. 4:7).
Even in pieces, we are not cursed or unlovable or worthless. On the contrary, in Christ, to be broken is to be ripe for redemption by a crucified Savior whose body was broken for us. Ortberg said he doesn’t know what happens next or yet what he’s learned—except that his story is broken. The late Catholic mystic Henri Nouwen went so far as to equate being broken with being blessed. “In a strange way,” he wrote, “the spiritual life isn’t ‘useful’ or ‘successful.’ But it is meant to be fruitful. And fruitfulness comes out of brokenness.”
Daniel Harrell is Christianity Today’s editor in chief.