By Jeff Kunerth, Orlando Sentinel
5:34 p.m. EDT, May 7, 2013
It happened again. Another Orlando-area megachurch pastor is stepping down after admitting to having an affair. Discovery Church Pastor David Loveless' resignation last weekend makes him the third in six months to step down after stepping over the line of adultery — following Summit Church's Isaac Hunter and The Gathering Place's Sam Hinn.
It has nothing to do with anything in the water and all to do with the pressures, adorations and temptations that come from being a high-profile pastor in a large church, say experts and fellow pastors.
"You're a brilliant preacher, you are a wonderful pastoral person in times of crisis, you can raise money, you can administer a staff, you have a vast array of gifts," said David Swanson, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Orlando. "That's a lot for one person to carry."
First Presbyterian Church of Orlando
That high position of respect and responsibility can elevate a pastor to the point of isolation, Swanson said. Without trusted confidants who can listen to the pastor's own doubts and burdens — and steer him back in line when he wavers — the megachurch pastor can be susceptible to his own impulses.
"Every pastor needs a group of male friends he trusts, who will ask him what is going on in your life, are you walking the talk?" Swanson said.
Sheila Strobel Smith, who has done extensive research on megachurch pastors, said failure often follows the pastor who becomes overwhelmed by the job's demands. In any size church, pastors deal with a multitude of responsibilities and expectations — and that's where the trouble starts.
"The common thread is when a pastor is in a personal vulnerable spot, these things happen. You are reaching out for something, and you make bad decisions," she said.
Those who successfully handle the demands and resist the temptations are deliberate in their spiritual, physical and mental health, Strobel Smith said. They don't neglect their family for their congregation, they cultivate people they can trust and confide in, they follow the "Billy Graham Rule" — never be alone with a woman who is not your wife.
But constructing a life that is healthy, balanced and normal is difficult for ministers whose jobs are by nature taxing, erratic and unpredictable, said James Coffin, executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.
They feel the success or failure of the church rides on them. Members of the congregation depend on them for advice, guidance, consolation and encouragement at all times — not just Sundays.
"Ministers live this very disjointed style of life," Coffin said.
Coffin said with the pulpit comes power and with power comes ego. Elevated by the congregation as a beloved and admired spiritual leader, the pastor is susceptible to an inflated sense of self.
"It's a self-perpetuating spiral — the more they look at you that way, the more you feel that way. You have that pedestal syndrome," said Coffin, a former Seventh-day Adventist pastor.
So gradually, the man of God falls prey to the mortal flesh — one small temptation at a time.
"I'm sure David Loveless and Isaac Hunter didn't wake up and decide they were going to have affairs today," Swanson said. "It was a thousand little decisions they made that opened that door a little wider each time."
Swanson says he has built safeguards around himself because the cost of betraying the principles of the faith is the loss of trust. Pastors who sin cause harm not only to themselves, their families and their congregations, but to the perception of clergy as hypocritical, he said.
Because of what has happened to Loveless, Hunter and Hinn, Swanson said he is writing a piece for the next edition of his church newsletter to reassure his congregation that this won't happen to him.
"I have been careful to lead in a particular way," Swanson said, "because those who lead are held to a higher standard."
Rick Warren, pastor of the megachurch Saddleback Church in California, has addressed the cost of ministerial misbehavior and offered strategies for other clergy.
At the top of his list is, "Never consider yourself above temptation." Also high on the list is "Remind yourself regularly of the damaging consequences of moral failure."
"Sit down and watch the confession of Jimmy Swaggart," he writes. "It's high drama, probably the most dramatic church service you'll see. You see how sin destroyed a congregation."
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