The Dangers of ‘Faking It’ in Ministry

When Tim and I first went into the ministry, a wise person said something shocking to us about the dangers we would be facing: “Being in ministry will either make you a much better Christian, or a much worse Christian.” I could easily understand how it could make you a better Christian—think of all the Bible study and prayer we would be doing, and all the Christian books we would be reading. Surely discussing and using the means of grace every day would only help us to become wise, mature, and godly!

Since this was a person we respected, I felt compelled to consider the possibility he might know something I didn’t about how ministering to others could make you a worse Christian. In the nearly 40 years since hearing those words, I’ve come to believe very strongly that the pull to becoming a worse Christian—cold, distant from God, hypocritical, and even involved in burn-down-your-life scandals—is far stronger when you’re ministering to others than are the benefits that may accrue by daily association with spiritual things.

One explanation that’s almost always suggested is that the Devil takes a greater interest in attacking those who speak for Christ (and I’m including both lay men and women as well as those in “professional ministry”) so as to derail their influence for the gospel. However, what’s done to us by the forces of darkness is nothing compared to what we do to ourselves.

The day will come when you have to deliver a sermon, or counsel someone in need, or listen to a heartsick soul, and you will be in no fit condition to do it. Your prayer life may be lagging, or you have an unreconciled relationship that needs attention, or any number of things may have interrupted your communion with God and your rejoicing in the gospel. (I knew a woman who claimed she’d taken “maternity leave” from her relationship with God!) When that day arrives, you must sit down, at whatever expense of time and ruination to your schedule, and get right with God. Then, and only then, should you attempt to minister in his name.

Don’t Have the Time?

But what you will be tempted to do, and what most of us do actually do, is to say, “I don’t have the time to get back into fellowship with God before this sermon/lesson/counseling session/pastoral appointment. But I know what needs to be said or done, so I’ll just do it (even though my heart is cold) and then straighten things out with God afterward.” And, if you’re unlucky, you’ll get away with it. The talk gets delivered and is even praised. The person you meet with professes gratitude and seems to be helped. The meeting runs smoothly. So you do it again. And again. And again.

And after a while you hardly even admit to yourself you’re faking interest in the other person, faking enthusiasm for Christ and his gospel, faking your entire Christian life, because you don’t even recall what it was like to have a vibrant relationship to God. You have become hollow. You may still look and sound good on the outside, but inside the reality of God’s presence is gone.

Sometimes this hollowness is uncovered when an apparently strong and vibrant Christian is found to be living a double life—addicted to porn or drugs or alcohol, or having an affair, or involved in some other splashy scandal. If you’re spared this public humiliation (which is by no means the worst thing that can happen; it at least wakes you up to your spiritual condition), the emptiness of your heart may reach such a level it can no longer be ignored. Perhaps your faith wavers, or you become cynical about the possibility of genuine connection to God, assuming that those who claim it are deluded.

Or perhaps depression sets in and, with it, a desire to leave ministry altogether. Worst of all, perhaps you merely continue on, mouthing the words, smiling the smile, praying with needy people, and going through all the motions, all the while internally wishing you or they were far, far away. You may be clever enough to hide the hollowness in your heart from those who look to you for spiritual nurture, but those who know you better are aware of the disconnect between your outward persona and your loveless heart. Many adult children raised in the church have bitter memories standing between them and a faith of their own, due to parents who were one thing on the outside and another on the inside.

What is the answer? To run to Christ in repentance, no matter at what level or for how long the disconnect has been operating, and throw yourself on his mercy. He forgives freely. The only ones who find no forgiveness are those who refuse to ask for it.

Further, find a safe spiritual friend or group to whom you can confess what has happened and be accountable for making whatever changes in your life are necessary to return to your first love. The danger is real, and really, really dangerous. Your life may blow up, or it may slowly implode. But “faking it” in order to get through your ministry is like sailing onto the rocks. You make shipwreck of your faith and take a lot of other people down with you.

This article originally appeared in Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s monthly Redeemer Report.

  • Jeremy

    Thank you, Kathy! This is so unbelievably important to remember!

  • Daphne

    As I read through this, I sadly recognized a former pastor whose ministry was shipwrecked in personal scandal. Continuing to read, your words were a great cautionary warning, even though my husband and I are not in a ministry vocation: “Many adult children raised in the church have bitter memories standing between them and a faith of their own, due to parents who were one thing on the outside and another on the inside.” Thank you!

  • Susanna

    When I first got into ministry I thought it was going to be wonderful and easy, what I didn’t realize was just how many of my own faults were going to surface because of it! I’ve discovered it has become increasingly easy for me to think of myself as better than others. After all, I work in ministry, I spend my whole day doing for God. Before ministry I never would have thought of myseeas a pridedul person, it has been quite humbling to discover otherwise.

  • Zachary

    Wow, crazy article. Crazy in a personal sense. It is obvious God is chasing me down, and this is one of His many obvious attempts. First year in ministry and half way through, I am burnt out, wavering in my faith, entertaining thoughts of leaving ministry for good, thoughts of a carnal lifestyle, and worse I want to hide all of this from my close relationships. Scary. Thank you for the article.

    • mark troughton

      hi Zachary,

      Are you getting any sustained help from anyone you can trust?
      Feel for you,
      Pastor Mark Troughton
      York, UK

    • Angie

      I was ministering well until I was humiliated publicly while serving others, criticized by those I was serving with,was often ignored and misunderstood. The hurt I took as coming from God to burn out the dross of self in me. It’s been 10 months since my ego took the first blow. I believe love will eventually conquer all, but right now, I hate those who did these things to me, I never want to see any of them again. I no longer care about the ministry I was so heavily involved in. I still attend church occasionally just for show, but I dread it. I fight hatred daily. I do still try to forgive, and find comfort in what you all have written here. I wish I could speak with Pastor Mark Troughton, but I am 10,000 miles away. Pray for me. I’ve lost my First Love.

      • J

        He has not lost you.

  • Mark Troughton

    Truly the most helpful article I’ve read in a long time on this subject thank you Mrs Keller . Is it possible to make the TGC app font enlargeable as I could barely read it with my glasses on! Forgive me for asking.
    Pastor Mark Troughton
    York (the old one)

    • David

      Hi Mark,

      Get a ‘Reader’ extension for your browser. It will hav customizable settings to read pages like this in a large news column format.

  • Susan

    And then there are the self-decieved and the pretenders who do not have God’s indwelling Spirit. Over time their true character and spiritual state will become more evident. I believe we possibly witnessed this in our lifetime church that we finally left.

  • Brian Morton

    An excellent, timely and challenging article. My one concern though would be this. Why do writers always go for the ‘big sins’ such as pornography and affairs? Should not every one of us who minister not also be very wary of, to borrow a term ‘the respectable sins’. However, I would not want to take anything away from this article by my comment. It is just that there are many times when we fall into the trap of searching our hearts on a horizontal plane rather than a vertical and then justify the very ‘sins’ that may make us a worse Christian.

  • Sandra

    There are the genuine cases of spiritual opposition too. The book of Job wouldn’t be in the bible if we didn’t need the forewarning. So one thing to honestly and carefully test is where is your heart? It would be tragic to blame a passionate believer for his/her circumstances or trials or temptations when it’s actually one of those cases where Satan wants to take them down, and equally tragic to spiritualise sin and therefore leave it uncorrected, unforgiven and un-healed. Psalm 139- end with “Search me, oh God, and know my heart, test me and know my anxious thoughts, see if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.” Got to be one of my favourite prayers.

    Also another caution- how often do people try to fight out a testing or temptation on their own because they are afraid of being condemned for being tempted when they are honestly trying to resist? As Christians we can be scarily unforgiving sometimes, especially towards leaders. Not good!

    • Angie

      Spot on.
      You nailed me.
      2 wise cautions here. I will take heed. Thank you for sharing. I didn’t know anyone else could understand the complexity of my issues, but you state it clearly. I’m right there.

      • Sandra

        Hang in there, Angie. And J’s right- God holds on to us tighter than we’re able to hold onto him. Hurt only leads to evil outcomes if we don’t take it back to God and let him use what was meant to harm for good (as with Joseph).

  • Eric Shin

    Thank you Ms. Kathy. Thank you for this sobering reminder.

  • Barbara Winkler

    My husband and I are enjoying reading their book on marriage as we serve in Asia (Singapore).

  • Pingback: This Week’s Good Reads | Pastor Dave Online()

  • J

    My wife faked it for 5 years. Numerous affairs while we headed to the mission field and after we came home. Would have preferred never getting ‘into’ ministry. Little lies beget larger ones. And having the ‘gospel right’ is a false goal or place of rest.

  • Shaqdrew24

    So what to do when on the verge of burnout?

    • Gaye Clark

      Shaqdrew24, I would commend to you Paul Tripp’s helpful and convicting boo, Dangerous Calling. It not only has an accurate assessment of burnout, but a recommended path forward to restoring your inward personal worship time with God, the source of strength we all must serve from.
      It’s speaking to pastors, but as I read it, most of what he writes is a warning to any Christian.

  • Jimmy

    what a timely article! Thankyou!!

  • Andrew Shaver

    Thanks Kathy for your insight. I have experienced some of the consequences of this myself. It is indeed a dreadful thing to be speaking to someone and have the deep inward realization that you are not sincere. I’m thankful for warnings like this, and for the reminder that the answer is not to bury this under another layer of hardened heart, but to run to Christ for forgiveness and restoration of relationship.

  • Pingback: Observing the Interweb: Wrestling With an Angel, Ministry Fakers, Ministry Beards, First World Problems, and The Gospel in 1 – 2 – & – 5 minutes | Unoriginal Observations()

  • Pingback: Weekly Commentary (February 22, 2013) : A Modern Exile()

  • Pingback: The Dangers of ‘Faking It’ in Ministry: Kathy Keller | Bishopdown Baptist Church()

  • Pingback: Monthly Digital Resources - Discovery Christian Church | Discovery Christian Church()